Since 1977, the BMW 7-series has represented the thinking man’s luxury car. A vehicle that was, on paper, neither as gargantuan as American competitors like the Lincoln Town Car or Chrysler New Yorker (closer actually in size to the two-door Cordoba), nor as austere as its main Deutschland domestic rival, the Mercedes S-Class, it nevertheless represented the perfect balance of substance and style for the wealthy driver. The latest version was launched in 2001, with BMW facing stiff new competition from the Far East as well as a shift in luxury customer preference to large SUVs. Their response to this threat? Challenge themselves and their customers to rethink the term “luxury.” It worked. Although extremely controversial, the Chris Bangle design has become influential — the “Bangle Butt” can now be found, in some form, on each of the 7-series’ rivals — and successful — the current generation is the best selling ever. With the 2009 BMW 7-Series just over the horizon, we felt it was time to take a look back at this most polarizing of vehicles: the 2008 BMW 750Li.
The challenge that BMW presented to the market came on two fronts: the exterior and the interior. The exterior is to blame for most of the 7-series’ criticism. Here, toned down since 2006, the ultimate production vehicle expression of Bangle’s “Flame Surfacing” design ethos looks much less radical, than it did seven years ago. Always a well-proportioned car, it attacked those basic building blocks with antagonistic, concave lines that upset the eye as it flowed along the car. The result is a both strangely emotive yet cold and precise, perverting the traditional feminine grace associated with car design into something that’s more David Cronenborg than Robert Zemeckis. Today, the 750Li looks utterly distinctive, aloof and elitist; all qualities other designers of expensive cars seek to imitate both in concept and in detail. You don’t look at the car and think “beautiful.” But if you think about it, you think “perversely attractive." Challenge met. The interior also proved controversial, but for one reason alone: iDrive. Possibly the worst executed best idea ever to find its way into a car, the original version of iDrive never worked like it should. Intended to eliminate the huge number of buttons necessitated by the ever-increasing number of in-car gadgets, it sought to provide one easy and intuitive interface for all of the vehicle’s secondary functions. This 750Li features the second, but not latest revision of the system, which is only marginally less frustrating than the original. We’ve experienced that latest system and are please to report that it finally works as promised and is probably our favorite of the current vehicle-bound human machine interfaces. But the 2nd gen in this 750Li lacks the separate Menu button and simplified four-way movement. If you owned the car, you’d figure it out eventually, but you’d never be happy about it. Strangely though, it’s the least of the interior’s problems. After dropping Ben off at his house one night, Wes climbed out of the front, where he’d been riding, and into the back, where he preferred to be chauffeured when Ben wasn’t there to make fun of him. On the plus side, it meant I didn’t have to talk to him, but it did make us look like even bigger idiots when we got stuck half way across the parking lot, blocking traffic. I’d inadvertently triggered the electric parking brake during a three-point turn. But lacking any indication that I’d done so, then immediately frustrated by the counter-intuitive gear lever, I couldn’t figure out how to make the car move forward. Several minutes and at least three windscreen washes later — the lever for that is identical to the gear lever, and is located in an identical place — I managed to figure out the problem and begin the long journey to Wes’s hotel. With a freshly cleaned view of Detroit’s night time roads ahead of me, the 367 HP, 4.8-liter V8 made quick work of the on ramp and cruised effortlessly on the highway, as any big BMW should. Problems arrived on the off-ramp 30 miles later though, the variable ratio steering switching from tight for speed to loose for maneuvering unexpectedly, so turning the feel-free wheel what I guessed was the appropriate amount nearly had us running off the road. Nor did it cope with the corner well, the 5.5” extended wheelbase eliminating the 7-series’ credentials as a driver’s car. That long wheelbase makes for an incredibly spacious back seat, but that back seat is where the 750Li’s ability to cosset its passengers ends. The suspension is still tuned for driving, meaning too many of Michigan’s concrete expansion joints make their way up through the big wheels and into the cabin for Wes to have a truly relaxed experience (yes, he complained about it too). Nor is the driver’s seat a relaxing place to be. iDrive, despite its noble intentions, does very little to eliminate overcomplication from the 7-series’ interior. Not only is it impossible to adjust your seat (there are four buttons arranged in a seat shape on the center console, controlled by a knob that twists, clicks and pushes in multiple directions) but things that you use frequently, liked the indicators, don’t work like they should, if at all. If you drive multiple cars — as we’d assume any 7-series owner would — you’ll find yourself constantly signaling instead of canceling. From the outside, you must look like a drunk driver, swerving all over the road, looking for buttons and levers, indicating merrily all the while in the opposite direction of travel. We eventually arrived back at the hotel tired, frustrated and relieved to be out of the car safely, having managed to avoid hitting anyone, anything, or being taken to the loony bin for erratic driving. If this doesn’t sound like an experience you’d associate with luxury, then you’re not alone. The next day, climbing into my ancient 633CSi, complete with non-functional air conditioning and a broken rear quarter window, I was able to make the long drive home relaxed in the knowledge that my car would do what I told it. I may not have looked aloof or elite, but at least I was comfortable in its manually adjusted seat. BMW designed this 7-series to make us think. And it does — that we want a car capable of both cosseting its passengers and rewarding its drivers rather than punishing both. At this price level, in this class, that car isn’t currently available. Let’s hope that with the 2009 BMW 7-series, it will be. Also See: • 2008 BMW 750Li, Part Two • 2008 BMW 750Li, Part Three