“We didn’t take no fancy rock-star airplane [to get here]. [Pause.] All right, all right, we did take a fancy rock-star airplane. But we thought about driving. ”
One piece of eggshell can spoil the enjoyment of a whole omelet, and that's how it was with my evaluation of the all-new BMW 750Li. While the car I tested had only 3,000 miles on the odometer, they had been accrued at the hands, and perhaps the leaden pedal feet, of the press corps in the American West. By the time the car had been trucked across the continent for press duty in the Northeast, something was out of kilter in the front end-a gimpy strut, perhaps, or maybe an injured bushing or ball joint. The car felt OK at a good clip on decent roads, but at residential-area speeds it lacked the poise one expects of the "ultimate driving machine" and the flagship of Bavarian luxury.
On the last day of the test, the local BMW dealer let me drive a 750i demonstrator with the same sport package that the test car featured. After its tires had warmed and softened the stiffness of a cool night, the dealer's car felt poised and solid. BMW still builds a good car, the sun will still rise and, as the saying goes, all is well in the land. (Actually, of course, all is far from well in the land, but among car manufacturers BMW is doing less badly than most, thanks to some prudent planning and cutbacks last year.)
With my test-long mutterings about shakes, rattles and slipping standards eliminated, the new 750 turns out to be better than good. When it's in fine fettle, it combines in one package something for every occupant-stupendous brainpower (much of it reminiscent of aerospace technology), horsepower (a twin-turbocharged 407 of them), agility and great comfort. The intelligence of the car is mind-blowing, bristling as it is with sensors to monitor an Al Qaeda-scale array of imminent threats.
Decades ago these sensors would have been called "electric eyes," and the 750Li has at least 15 of them. The big one scanning forward from beneath the bumper gives the active cruise control insight into what lies ahead; once it has been engaged and a cruise speed selected, the system reacts by maintaining whichever of four distance separations the driver selects between the 750Li and the traffic ahead. If the car ahead slows, the 750Li follows suit, even braking to a full stop if necessary, narrowing the separation as speed decays.
Once traffic starts to move again, the 750Li driver simply pushes lightly on the accelerator or taps the resume button on the steering wheel-while keeping his feet flat on the floor for as long as his nerve holds. Mindful of the need to return the car undamaged, I kept my foot hovering over the pedals throughout all this autopiloted motoring. Only once did my courage crack; I stomped on the brake just to be sure the stopped-dead car ahead wouldn't get nudged. It probably wouldn't have happened but powerful instinct is hard to override.
This is a clever system, not easily startled by cars that cut in front: in that case, the BMW reacts with a judicious but minor and temporary easing off of power, recognizing almost immediately that the threat is receding. As the sudden lane intruder continues to pull ahead, the BMW settles back to its selected cruise speed and stays there until it espies something else to watch and react to.
Presumably so the car doesn't screech to a halt at every sizeable solid object, BMW's automatic braking system does not prevent you from running into the back of a parked vehicle. For example: I was following a car up a hill at about 30 mph, with the system keeping me a safe distance behind. The car ahead moved out to the left to steer around a parked U.S. Mail van, and rather than follow the car I stayed on the right, putting the van dead ahead and the fear of God into my four passengers because the BMW made no attempt to stop. I had read about this limitation in the owner's manual and brought down my poised foot on the brake pedal to stop the car myself. Otherwise we would have rear-ended the van at 30 mph.
The other eye in the face feeds an infrared night-vision image to the nav/info screen in the center of the car's fascia and warnings to the head-up display. Pedestrian-recognition technology activates above 25 mph and paints the walker (or bicyclist or stroller-pusher) with a yellow tint if the computer calculates that a collision is imminent. A third eye in the top center of the windscreen monitors the position of lane markings or blacktop seams in the road below and (in the absence of the driver's selecting a turn signal) shakes the steering wheel if the car drifts; the aerospace equivalent would be the "stick shaker" that rattles and finally pushes on the control column as an airplane approaches a perilously high angle of attack and low airspeed. The BMW does not automatically herd the drifting car back into its lane, but it sends a message to the nut behind the wheel.
More eyes in the front and rear bumpers monitor the proximity of objects during parking. Yet more eyes, scanning from the car's rear bumper, monitor for vehicles lurking in the driver's blind spot; as long as the driver selects a turn signal before changing lanes, the system buzzes the steering wheel if a side collision is waiting to happen. Every time a vehicle moves into the blind spot a white warning triangle in the stem of the BMW's side mirror lights up; with application of a turn signal it turns red to accompany the steering-wheel buzzing. And yet more eyes look sideways from the snout for easing into a road at 90 degrees, just as they do in a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
The 750Li has 5.5 inches more length overall than the 750i, and it all goes into rear-seat legroom, which is copious. Rounding off the aerospace gadgetry is the head-up display (reflections of its sunlit framework in the windscreen are a bit distracting) and four-wheel steering (as on the B-52 bomber), the latter a boon for negotiating sharp 90-degree turns or U turns without the K.
The 750Li might well be the "ultimate thinking machine," but how does it drive? With healthy shocks and bushings all round, it drives the way a BMW should, exhibiting sure-footed turn-in, little body roll (even less with the sport package), and good grip and suspension damping, all of which connect the driver to the road surface and the driving experience just dandily. Those are prominent among the BMW traits that enthusiasts love. Uncle Hank, retired from his lucrative consultancy, will be happy to throw his Callaway Big Berthas in the trunk once he's pushed the button that opens the lid, select normal or comfort suspension mode and trundle off to the country club. He probably doesn't care about such youthful pursuits, but he might even draw some contentment from knowing that, if he wanted to, he could trounce the majority of cars when the light turns green.
BMW 750Li Stats
Engine: twin-turbo V8, 4.4 liters, 32 valves
Engine output: 407 hp @ 5500-6400 rpm, 443 lb-ft @ 1750-4500 rpm
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Weight: curb, 4,644 lb
Power loading: 11.4 lb/hp
Drag Cd: 0.31
Top speed (governed): 155 mph
Zero to 60 mph: 5.2 sec
Fuel capacity: 21.6 U.S. gal
City/highway (EPA): 14/22 mpg
Test average: 18.1 mpg
Test tires: Goodyear Excellence, Front: 245/45R19, Rear: 275/40R19
Standard retail price: $84,200
Price as tested: $110,170