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.
Route guidance worked well, though, with plenty of warning for upcoming turns. We even got a surprise when we headed back into the office after a drive, as the route guidance took us on a better route--skirting the heavy traffic of downtown--than most systems we've used. Besides the slow rendering off the DVD, our main problem with this navigation system is that BMW doesn't use standard terminology for features such as points of interest or choosing to start route guidance. If BMW used plain English in the menus and a hard drive, this system would be much better.
The stereo is an interesting mix, with audio quality so good that we just wanted to stay in the car and listen to music, and a center disc player that can't read MP3 CDs. For music sources, the car gets a single disc player on the stack, Sirius satellite radio, HD radio, and an auxiliary jack in the console. Our car also came with a six-disc changer mounted in the dashboard, just above the glove box. Even though the main disc player couldn't read MP3 CDs, the changer could. However, the changer uses disc cartridges, an old CD player technology that we would really like to see go away. Navigating MP3 CDs and satellite radio showed the same difficulties as we had with address entry. We were also disappointed that there was no default audio screen that showed what track was playing. After digging around, we found the screen for satellite radio, but subsequently we could not find it again. The audio interface was similarly difficult for HD radio. We liked the audio quality of the HD stations we tuned into, but HD stations have multiple channels, and the BMW radio neither gives a means to tune in those extra channels, nor does it show the rich information that the HD stations provide with the music.
As for audio, the BMW 750i uses a Harmon/Kardon Logic7 system, which rates as close to the best we've heard. It produces a well-amplified sound that comes through well in every frequency. The system is too refined for car-shaking bass, but the lows are palpable--we could feel the lows in our chests, while the crystal clear sound of the highs sang in our heads. It reproduces the sounds of individual instruments very clearly, working well with all genres of music. Beyond the typical audio settings, there is also a graphic equalizer in the Logic7 menu.
Another major function of the system, Bluetooth cell phone integration, also works very well. After we paired a phone to the system, it downloaded our phone book, making all our contacts easily available through the iDrive system. There is also a keypad, which pops out of the dashboard. While we like this keypad, it would have been easier, and more integrated, if BMW just included a virtual keypad with the iDrive system. We also frequently used voice command to make calls, if we happened to know the actual number we wanted to dial. The system recognized our vocal commands most of the time. You can also add voice tags for all of your address book entries, but that is a tedious task.
Another feature of the voice command system is a notepad, which lets you record brief notes to yourself and save them in the car. Overall, we were impressed with how well the voice-command system recognized our commands. But we could tell it wasn't developed in conjunction with the iDrive system, as the commands didn't match up to what we saw onscreen.
A nice interior feature is the park distance sensor, which shows up onscreen as a diagram of the car, with sensor areas in front and back. Those areas show obstacles as green, yellow, or red, depending on how close they are to the car. On the more outlandish side, our car also came equipped with BMW's night-vision system, similar to what we had on the Mercedes-Benz S63. With the BMW, the image is displayed on the center LCD, making it more difficult to use while driving.
Under the hood
While every other day a news item comes out about BMW handing over a Hydrogen7 to a celebrity, the 2008 BMW 750i runs on gasoline, that widely available and increasingly expensive liquid made from oil. The 750i model name is also a slight exaggeration, as the car's engine is actually a 4.8-liter V-8, just short of the 5 liters promised in the name. This engine uses BMW's Valvetronic technology, which controls power through valve lift rather than with a throttle, and produces 360 horsepower at 6,300rpm and 360 foot-pounds of torque at 3,400rpm. BMW says the 750i will hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, and it's a number we have no reason to doubt as the 750i bolts forward with a good push on the gas pedal.
In fact, besides the lousy gas mileage, we enjoyed driving the 750i all over. It is a very comfortable car on the freeway, maneuverable in the city, and capable over winding mountain roads. The handling is very good, although the steering response could be better--it feels like it was detuned a bit for a wider range of drivers. The car's active stabilization feature limits body roll--as we pushed it through the twisties, the car stayed nice and flat, letting us add speed with each subsequent corner as we found out what the car could handle.
While testing out its handling, we found that the six-speed automatic transmission was slightly better than adequate. Its shifts are nice and smooth, and it includes a Sport mode and a manual gear selection mode. Sport mode downshifted as we took our foot off the gas on the approach to a turn, but not very aggressively. Even on very tight turns, the transmission was more likely to only shift down to third gear, rather than second gear, which we would have chosen. A stock on the steering column, similar to that used by Mercedes-Benz, controls the transmission, with buttons on the front and back of the steering wheel for manual shifting. That's right, buttons instead of paddles. The placement of the buttons makes it difficult to use them for sport driving--we concluded they work best for engine braking. Since there isn't a shifter on the console, the buttons are the only manual option.
While we enjoyed driving the car, watching the average fuel economy on the trip computer made us cringe. We ended up with an average for freeway and city driving of just 15.1 mpg, a number that wanted to drop further every time we drove city streets. The EPA gives it 15 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway--while we can believe the agency's highway number, traffic and stoplights drags down the real average below the EPA city number. The 750i does surprisingly well for emissions, considering its big engine, getting a ULEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board.
Our 2008 BMW 750i started out with a base price of $76,575, which includes the navigation system and Bluetooth cell phone integration. We bumped up the price with a number of options, including the Cold Weather Package ($700), the Premium Sound Package ($1,800), which included the Logic7 audio system, and the Sports Package ($3,200). We also had keyless start ($1,000), Night Vision ($2,200), HD radio ($350), and Sirius satellite radio ($595). The 750i's grand total comes out to $86,420, a hefty price, but not bad compared with the Mercedes-Benz S550.
As a big sport luxury sedan from BMW, we expect a lot, and in general are not let down. Our cabin tech rating is on the high side, despite flaws such as the slow-rendering maps, the confusing iDrive menus, and the last century cartridge disc changer. An excellent sound system and over-the-top features such as night vision make up for a lot. It also earns a respectable score for its performance tech, which made it such an easy and enjoyable car to drive. We have to dock it points for the horrible mileage and the manual shift mode configuration. One thing to look forward to with a future iteration of the BMW 750i is that it's a likely candidate for BMW's promised in-car internet connection.