by Gunnar Heinrich ::: img via eBay ::: 2010 Rolls-Royce Ghost
JUDGING from a brief tour behind the helm of one Ghost back in 2010, I found myself to be a fan. It’s a posh, plush, thoroughly modern chariot. That having been said, I’m not sure that I’m thrice the fan of the Ghost than I am the F01 generation BMW 750Li. But a lot can change in a year. Namely the price…
by Gunnar Heinrich ::: img BMW
THE world is full of compromise – even for those who claim to be uncompromising.
In this market where every consumer wants his cake and the capacity to – yes – eat it, too, car makers are feeling compelled to produce more models that claim to be all things to all people.
Inevitably, if the world’s great marques were ever to actually fulfill this goal they’d only succeed in ensuring that their cars would be all things no one in particular.
Sensibly, what car makers seek outside their marketed maxims is a balance that encapsulates their “brand”. At the lofty end of the car market, that typically means finding a happy ratio between sport and luxury – though – “green” factors such as gas mileage and alternative fuel technology are playing an ever increasing role.
We’ll leave the latter aside for this discussion.
The trend over two decades seems anything but balanced as the scales have tilted towards luxury. And not luxury in a classic sense, but technological advancements that further separate the driver from the road and micromanage our experience behind the wheel and in the passenger seat.
Consider the BMW 7-Series.
The E32 7er (1988-1994) was a sublime executive performance sedan. Those large sharks were still fairly lean, athletic, nimble machines with cockpits that lavished attention on the driver and cradled their passengers, locking them in for what was sure to be a thrilling ride.
The old 7 was a driver’s car first. Sublime luxury car second.
The E65 7er (2002-2009) pulled the equivalent of an e-brake turn into the opposite lane of comfy cruisin’.
BMW had decided that since their flagship was competing against the Lexus LS and Mercedes S-Class, their best needed to be larger, cushier, and purpose built for comfortable highway travel while being just taut enough to handle the occasional switchback.
The ratio in the span of less than ten model years went from 60/40 – sport/luxury to 40/60. In the new F01 7er, that balance tipped only slightly back towards sport in a ratio somewhere near 42/58 thanks to enough outcry from traditionalists.
For a car company that markets itself as the “Ultimate Driving Machine” this softening along with headlong advances into the crossover segment is discouraging.
Jaguar, Lexus, and Mercedes have tried executing the opposite maneuver; marketing themselves as performance oriented, athletic answers to the mundane commuter car. They’ve only succeeded in making the same quasi-bland car for each segment that’s distinguishable only by degree.
Here’s the nugget: the only road to maintaining brand identity and a loyal customer base is by being true to the original premise. In Lexus’ case, the perfect luxury people carrier. In Jag’s case – space, grace, and pace.
For BMW, that means living up to the ultimate driving machine maxim by ensuring every car that they build transmits, not insulates, the thrill of the drive.
I have a confession to make:
While BMW’s latest flagship, the as tested one hundred thousand three hundred twenty dollar 2009 750Li is an object of technical brilliance, it fails to move me.
Oh, it propels like a rocket.
The Twin-turbo V8 with 400 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque, the bulk of which is readily available from 1800-4500 rpm thanks to those terrific turbos, makes this 7-Series faster than any of its swift predecessors.
Zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds. Mid-range acceleration bests the old school M5.
And, God, does it coddle and cosset. The new 7 is the quintessence of German comfort: effortless, adjustable in countless ways (except for the fixed rear seats in this model), heated, cooled, and supple but made as solidly as if from the bark of some titanium tree. What’s more, the interior’s supremely insulated and S-Class roomy.
And as a generational contrast to highlight just how far the Bavarians have come, you could drive all day in this 750Li and still feel reasonably rested with your blood circulated, your back ‘n bottom in good shape, and your mind relatively alert whereas you could drive all day in a 1983 733i and feel like you’ve run three miles in steel-toed work boots.
But like the old 7, in the new 7 -a sedan that’s an amalgamation of the old three box formula and the wedge theory- has a hood that extends out far in front of the driver’s view. In most Bimmers, the sightline ends at the dash which keeps things feeling tight ‘n right.
But where the lines of the old shark’s bonnet look angular and sharply defined, this 7’s flowing curves which pinch at either end in two sweeping arcs (like the 3er) would make a terrific stunt double for a 1999 Buick LeSabre.
And in titanium silver metallic, you’re almost convinced that this is grand pa’s car. Only much cooler.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME?
The 7er’s external form is one of our hero’s tragic flaws. There’s nothing wrong with the interior; with Oyster Nappa hides matched with what BMW’s calling “High Gloss Fine Line Wood”, it’s a cool, Germanic environ.
The sedan’s dash is back to being driver centered along with the dash mounted joystick shifter, as the Gods of Valhalla intended.
But the exterior is an aesthetic mess.
Perhaps, my own taste is a generational thing.
In fact I think it is, because the E38 7-Series in jet black on black never, ever fails to stop me dead in my tracks. When I drove past a 2000/2001 740iL one evening in the 750Li, I almost rolled down my window to ask if the other driver wanted to swap cars.
Similarly handsome was the signature cashmere E32. A 1988 735i and a 1992 740i are two sedans that will live inside my heart forever.
And therein lays my own personal conflict.
Such is my ardor for the 7-Series line, second only to the S-Class, that throughout my days with the 750Li, I continually asked myself how I could objectively (as is humanly possible) cover this new car. Were I judge in a court case, I’d have to recuse myself.
But we’re not in a court of law (knock on wood). And the fact is I do know a thing or two about where BMW’s been and I’m not liking the avenue this new 7’s taken by virtue of its styling, size, and Lexus-like softness. It’s trying to be too many things to too many people. The focus, the precise essence is noticeably absent.
Too much is often just that.
To be clear, it’s not for the plethora of watch dog technology and on board computers. Though they hog center stage, they’re little short of amazing and are a sophisticated furthering of BMW’s preliminary efforts with trip computers and stability programs all those years ago.
Let’s explore for a sec…
The second generation iDrive is actually user friendly. Below the rotary dial are a set of hot buttons that get you where you need to go on the computer’s many menus faster than if you scrolled. Amen!
But often time I’d have to switch off the wide screen as I found myself spending as much as 20% of my driving time watching static “TV” and not the road.
Thank goodness then, for the collision warning system, a sensor guided alert that flashes a red BMW on the heads up display and the instrument panel warning of an impending collision. This saved my distracted bacon once in slow, stop ‘n go traffic.
That said, some technical feats still need fine tuning.
For example, the active cruise control (ACC) would never work in the fast lane. If the car you’re following is doing 75 mph, the system will slow your progress (by gentle brake application) to 64 mph – or some similarly safe number. This means that traffic behind you will grow to hate you.
Also, the blind spot detection system which lights yellow triangles from the corresponding rear view mirror that the approaching car is traveling on, will likely displease most aggressive Bimmer drivers as it also vibrates the steering wheel in warning when an approaching vehicle is a full car length away.
I could go on. And so I will.
The lane departure system which gauges whether you’re drifting out of your lane also vibrates the steering wheel in conjunction with a visual alert appearing in the HUD. This and the other features are defeatable, but they could prove useful to the late night road warrior.
But back to where it counts.
As I’d mentioned, the V8 is a thrill a mile – or – a relaxed cruiser. It’s an incredibly capable powerplant and it’s the new 7’s crown jewel. The active air suspension, on the other hand, is a little bit of a let down.
There’s an old BMW adage that BMW never built a suspension that couldn’t keep up with the speeds the engine produces. In this case, the V8 is so capable, the luxury tuned bellows are entirely outmatched. Select one of four modes, “Comfort”, “Normal”, “Sport”, and “Sport +” which deactivates the traction control, and the suspension along with the transmission and engine change their tenor.
The difference in ride quality is readily apparent. The 7 practically wafts Rolls style in “Comfort”. And in “Sport”, the car seems ready to spring while registering every bump in the road.
Still, I took the same increasing radius, concrete walled offramp/connector three times in each mode save for Sport + while noting my exit speed.
Driving fast each time, the big 7 leaning hard on the driverside tyres, and returned similar numbers: 57, 54, and 56 mph, respectively.
To give you some idea of where these speed stats fall on the grand scale of my own automotive relativity, the fastest I’ve managed this tightening turn is 60 mph (in a 128i convertible) and the slowest is 45 mph in my li’l Panzer (Benz 300E 4-Matic).
Of course this indicates varying levels of nerve on my part, but it also tells you that my confidence did not grow nor did the 7’s apparent grip increase when switching from Comfort to Normal to Sport modes. I had, in fact, all 245/50 tyres howling.
To be fair, it also demonstrates how well this luxo barge manages a corner despite itself.
But that point segues us nicely to another of this 7’s troubles – size and weight.
At 205.2 inches, it’s as long as a LWB W140 generation Benz S600, with a 126 inch wheelbase that’s three inches longer than the old Benz’s wheelbase. And at 4,640 lbs it’s about as heavy as the old gen. S420.
And while the active steering, brakes, and suspension do a great job of disguising the weight with sporty litheness of feel, the car can only match the inflated expectation to a point.
Coming down hard from easily attainable, super-legal speeds elicits tail wag from the rear. And full out panic stops take a lot longer to execute than the pedal feel would otherwise suggest.
And another BMW test…
Approach a piece of road that drops suddenly away and one of several things can happen.
In a typical car, at lows speeds the front suspension will drop out from beneath the car leading into a nose dive or at higher speeds the car will simply catch air and bottom out on landing.
In any BMW worth its salt, the Bimmer will do neither. An E39 M5, an E32 735i, an E46 328i, whatever, will follow asphalt or catch air and land on its feet – not bottoming out.
Approach this challenge in the 750Li and the front wheels drop away and the car will nose dive. It cushions you from the harsh change, but it just doesn’t respond fast enough to road conditions.
The simple-is-beautiful Macpherson strut setup seems to shine about now…
Like all good 7’s, the 750Li lies about its weight. But if all that’s being too critical (it isn’t, really) let’s remember that the F01/F02 generation 7-Series is a step back from the abyss and step forward in terms of comfort.
And from the rear and the side profiles, surface tension has made a welcome comeback. And thank Heaven, the last car (E65/E66) looked like the genetic cross mutation of a vampire bat and a sea cow.
In short, there are plenty of positives. But none lead me to desire this car in the same way I lusted after its esteemed forebears. It may be more engaging than the current S-Class, but the Benz’s current flagship is truer to the grand Benz ethos than the 7 is to its own creed.
I fear for those who long for performance over luxury in their BMWs, the solution is to hazard a used E38 or E32 7er, enjoy the smaller scaled thrills of a new 1-Series, or pine on the memory of sevens past.
Vacationing in the Italian Alps, a “spy” shot these two mules trekking through the terrain. And like any good “agent,” he brought his trophies home (to Facebook) to share with others interested in his clandestine activities.
These mules appear to be BMW’s next generation F01/F02 7-Series. We can see that, sadly, there’s evolution instead of revolution from Bangle’s flame surfaced E65 (current 7), but we’ll reserve summary judgment until the bandages come off.
Thanks for the tip, Peter. Nice shooting, Alex. Bring one back alive for us next time.
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