However, the ActiveHybrid 7's transmission plays a big part in the car's fuel economy. It has eight gears, two more than in other 7-series models. The tall gears help the car reach its 26 mpg highway rating, while the greater choice of gears lets the engine run more efficiently through its range of speeds.
To ensure cabin comfort, BMW powered the air conditioner off of the electrical system so that it doesn't stop when the engine shuts down at stop lights. However, the power steering still relies on the engine to pump its hydraulics, resulting in an immovable wheel when the engine is shut down. BMW really should have looked into an electric power steering unit for the ActiveHybrid 7.
Much more technical innovation can be found in the cabin. As in other BMW models, the navigation system uses some of the richest maps in the industry, with lush topographic contours. Zooming out beyond a mile scale, the maps change to satellite imagery.
A weak point in BMW cabin tech has always been the screens for finding points of interest or browsing a music library, and that problem remains in this new hybrid. The screens look like they were designed by a computer programmer rather than an interface expert.
But the ActiveHybrid 7 features a new way to find local addresses: it has a built-in Google search function. Entering the term "diner" in San Francisco brought up a list of local restaurants that either had diner in their names or that fit the description of being a diner. Taking it a step further, a search on the term "hammer" only brought up businesses with hammer in the name, rather than a list of hardware stores, which is more a limitation of Google than BMW.
The Google search box uses an ugly design, making it look shoehorned into the car rather than like a well-integrated feature. But the functionality is good, as clicking any search result lets you send the address directly to the navigation system. The list of results comes back a little slowly, similar to doing a search with any 3G-connected smartphone.
Beyond merely showing the car's speed, the head-up display, which comes standard on the ActiveHybrid 7, shows route guidance. This display shows everything from a simple arrow to a rendering of a multilane freeway complete with lane suggestions.
BMW makes a good number of driver assistance features available for the ActiveHybrid 7. The model delivered to CNET included blind-spot detection, which uses warning lights in the side mirror mounts to indicate a car in the blind spot, and lane departure warning. This latter feature vibrates the steering wheel when the car drifts over a lane line.
The premium audio system is a nice bonus for the ActiveHybrid 7. It brings in 16 speakers and a 600-watt amp, rather than the 10 speakers in the standard 7-series. Although most luxury automakers include a brand-name audio system, the speakers in this car lack any logo, but that doesn't impinge on the quality. This very well-balanced system produces fine sound throughout the frequencies, with satisfying bass, courtesy of two subwoofers, and highs with good detail and no shrillness.
Along with the usual controls for bass and treble levels, surround sound, and balance, BMW includes a seven-band graphic equalizer, letting audiophiles fine-tune the sound output.
Audio sources include standard HD radio, satellite radio, iPod integration, and a full 12GB of onboard storage. The only thing the ActiveHybrid 7 lacks is Bluetooth audio streaming, something BMW has not yet adopted.
Rather than coming across as a well-refined, ready-for-prime-time technology, the hybrid system in the 2011 BMW ActiveHybrid 7 seems almost experimental. The battery box sits uncomfortably in the trunk and the idle stop feature requires more attention than it should. However, there is no denying the extra power and fuel economy delivered by the system. Coupled with BMW's high-tech suspension and eight-speed transmission, this car's performance tech is tops.
But the cabin electronics rate even higher. BMW pushes all the boundaries, integrating Google with the navigation system, creating good phone integration, and designing a high-quality audio system. Add to that the available rear-seat entertainment system and a raft of driver assistance features, and the ActiveHybrid 7 earns an outstanding score.
The main area where BMW stumbles is design. The sedan form is as practical as ever, and certain design cues mark it clearly as a BMW. That said, you wouldn't look twice at the car if you passed by it on the street. The iDrive interface does some things right, such as its easy-access main menu, but digging into deeper screens, the paradigm gets a little strained, with search screens for points of interest and audio sources that are not easy to use while on the road.
|Model||2011 BMW ActiveHybrid 7|
|Power train||Twin turbo direct-injection 4.4-liter V-8, 8-speed automatic transmission, 120-volt lithium ion mild hybrid system|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/26 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||20.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD/DVD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||16-speaker, 600-watt system|
|Driver aids||Night vision, head-up display, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, lane departure warning, surround-view camera, backup camera|
|Price as tested||$106,075|