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Powerful, smooth-riding: 2006 BMW 7-Series adds a new level of complexity

Friday, February 24, 2006

Buyers of BMW's flagship sedan, the 7-Series, had better not be technophobes.

This large, luxury sedan fairly bristles with technology, from an adaptive suspension to a drive-by-wire throttle. A driver even has to learn how to shift from "Drive" to "Park," because the car's little electronic gearshifter doesn't work in a straight up-and-down motion like most other shifters.

There's no ignition key, just a squarish fob to slide into a slot on the dashboard, next to the car's "Start" button.

With the uplevel "Comfort" front seats in the 7-Series, controls for such things as height and recline are among the most complicated I've experienced. Indeed, these seats adjust 20 ways.

And while the much-maligned BMW iDrive system -- operated via a big knob on the center console through which a driver dials through the audio system and navigation system controls, among other things -- is simpler now, iDrive remains a bit cumbersome.

But oh, how the big, five-passenger 7-Series drives. The interior is insulated from outside noise. Powerful V-8 and V-12 engines with sophisticated automatic transmissions have good low-end grunt and easy cruising manners.

Steering is precise as well as tidy, and the suspension -- especially the sport suspension -- expertly damps road bumps while keeping the car's body tightly controlled.

No wonder so many high-powered executives and entrepreneurs in America drive or are chauffeured in the 7-Series. The sensation of unfettered driver control, not to mention handsome leather and wood surroundings inside, is bound to be a terrific antidote for a difficult day at the office.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including delivery charge, for a 2006 BMW 750i is $72,495. The longer wheelbase 2006 BMW 750Li, with extra rear-seat room, starts at $76,490, while V-12-powered 7-Series cars start at $112,195.

Competitors include the 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550, which starts at $87,175 for a newly redesigned and re-engineered model, and the 2006 Lexus LS 430, which starts at $57,220.

All are rear-drive, large, four-door sedans that boast some of the best and latest features available for today's cars.

But the 7-Series ranks as the best-selling large luxury sedan from Europe with U.S. sales last year of 18,165, up from 16,155 a year earlier.

This tops the sales of the Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ.

Still, only once this decade -- in 2001 -- has the 7-Series been among the top three "premium luxury cars" in J.D. Power and Associates' annual Initial Quality Study. Lexus, the luxury division of Toyota, has dominated this category year after year.

And Consumer Reports said the 7-Series has had poor reliability.

In recent years, there has been considerable debate among consumers and auto critics about the controversial rear styling of the 7-Series. Coined the "Bangle butt" after BMW's well-known design chief, Chris Bangle, the raised tail has been smoothed out a bit for the 2006 model.

But the rear continues to look less elegant than expected and quite mainstream for an over-$70,000 car.

Thankfully, the 7-Series front end, now with larger kidney-shaped grille, retains the classic BMW style.

Buyers may notice the new name for the V-8 models -- 750i vs. 745i before.

The name change reflects the larger displacement base engine. This 4.8-liter, double overhead cam V-8, that was in the test car, is capable of generating 360 horsepower, up from 325. This is ample power for easy cruising in a car this large and heavy. (Note the 750i weighs as much as some Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks.)

Torque, too, is improved by the new engine, going from 330 foot-pounds at 3,600 rpm, to 360 at a lower, 3,400 rpm.

The result is authentic, responsive power delivery at even a slight press on the accelerator.

There are some special touches in this car. Doors feel heavy and solid. Door windows go up and down silently. Once I got the leather-covered driver seat set correctly for me, it was wonderfully comfortable and felt like a glove.

Safety is nearly palpable as the 7-Series ventilated disc brakes -- the largest found on any production BMW vehicle -- activate at a touch of the brake pedal and quickly bring this car to a stop.

There also are front, side, head and even knee airbags.

And at night as a driver approaches the car, the 7-Series is arguably the best-looking, most welcoming vehicle with its interior and select exterior lights aglow.

It's just too bad that some of the features take a while to get used to. On my first several drives in the 750i, for example, I sat and fussed for more than 10 minutes with the iDrive system.

At least now, in the 2006 model, there's a "menu" button that immediately brings up the introductory screen so a driver no longer has to back out manually, a step, and a screen, at a time.

There haven't been safety recalls of the 7-Series since 2004, when three recalls involving an engine control unit, driver seat occupant sensor and seat heater, respectively, were issued, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


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