When driving a big sporty European sedan, such as the 2008 BMW 750i, we can't help but think we should be chasing James Bond through the Swiss Alps on some winding road while our compatriots lean out the windows and shoot at him. Of course, we know this scenario ends badly for us, with Bond pulling some kind of maneuver that will send us over a cliff with our car bursting into a ball of flame. But we can dream, can't we?
The 750i is a muscular, refined sport luxury car that sucks gas and could probably use an update. We found its tech options a mix of old and new, with very nice map resolution on its GPS, for example, offset by a disc player that can't read MP3 CDs. It does well on the luxury side, offering a very comfortable cabin. On the sport side, it is enjoyable to drive, with plenty of power on tap from its big V-8, but it is more of a cruiser than a canyon carver.
Test the tech: Novice at the wheel
The dashboard of the 2008 BMW 750i looks very clean because BMW keeps buttons to a minimum. The cabin gadgets are controlled through the iDrive system or with voice command. To test the tech, we thought it would be interesting to put a novice behind the wheel and see how she coped with the interface. Our colleague, MP3 editor Jasmine France, was willing to be our guinea pig.
Jasmine got behind the wheel, and we gave her three tasks to complete using the car's gadgets. She could use either voice command or iDrive--or a combination of both--to complete each task.
Her first task was to enter the address of CNET headquarters into the navigation system. Instead of using iDrive, she went straight for the voice-command system. By saying "navigation," she got into the main navigation menu, but she couldn't figure out the appropriate command to enter a destination. Frustrated, she turned to iDrive. She quickly figured out how to use the menu and get into the navigation function, then to get to the destination entry screen. She almost blew this task away by entering CNET as a place name. The listing for CNET was there, but she couldn't figure out how to select it. She went back to the address entry screen and managed to get the street address entered, but ran into more problems figuring out how to actually select and save something she entered. Finally, she figured it out and had the address in the system. Her total time for this task: 3 minutes and 12 seconds.
For the next task, we put an MP3 CD into the car's CD changer, as its main disc player couldn't read MP3 CDs. We asked her to find a song titled "1909" by the band Scrabbel. For this one, Jasmine started with iDrive, and quickly found the entertainment area with the stereo controls. However, she couldn't figure out how to go from FM, the current mode, to the CD changer. She went over to voice command, initially trying to get into the voice stereo controls by saying "entertainment," which matched the onscreen menu. However, the car wouldn't respond. At this point, she discovered the Options voice command, which reads out all available commands. She discovered that by voice command, she would have to know the track number to get it to play. She went back to iDrive, and we coached her a bit on using the main iDrive knob. She got into the MP3 CD menu structure, found the right folder, and then found the song, all in 4 minutes and 5 seconds.
Finally, we asked her to call a phone number using our Bluetooth-connected phone. Jasmine immediately found the onscreen phone menu, which showed the phone's address book. However, she couldn't find a way to directly dial a number. Going over to voice command, she used the Options command to find out how to tell it what number she wanted to dial. She completed this task in 1 minute and 29 seconds. Afterward, we pointed out that there is no way to directly enter a number with iDrive--instead, you can pop a mini-keypad out of the dashboard.
Observing Jasmine work with iDrive, we saw that she could easily figure out how to get into the main function areas. The difficulty came when she had to turn the knob to make selections within a function area. The knob has some resistance that makes you think you've turned it as far as it will go, yet if you turn it just a bit further, you can get into other selection areas on the screen. During our use of iDrive, we have found that how much you need to turn it almost seems random, and we've come to rely on merely spinning the knob as much as possible until it does what we want.
In the cabin
Besides the climate controls, BMW manages to keep the dashboard of the 750i well clear of buttons, switches, and knobs, coming close to the company's ideal that an interface that only needs a single controller. The wide, high-resolution LCD is set deep in the center dash, keeping glare to a minimum. To the left of the main screen is what BMW calls the Assistance screen, a smaller LCD where you can show the map or information from the trip computer. The seat controls are set into the sides of the console with a neat push button and dial arrangement. It doesn't seem more efficient or intuitive, but we liked the tech feeling of it.
As a change from earlier iDrive systems we've seen, the main menu in the 750i not only includes the four main function areas: climate, communication, entertainment, and navigation, but also areas under each corner for help, settings, car data, and BMW Assist. As the iDrive knob doesn't provide any physical guides to control whether you are pushing straight up or the upper left, we missed the menus we were trying to reach at times.
The maps on the navigation screen look excellent, with high resolution and the capability to show plain or 3D views. We did notice that the maps were often slow to display on the screen, most likely because the system is DVD-based. Otherwise, the system was fast--route calculations took virtually no time. We've already pointed out some of the difficulties of entering addresses in our tech test. With iDrive, it's not always clear how to select different parts of the screen. We also tried to enter a destination on the map, which was made difficult by the slow map rendering.