The new austerity means the horsepower wars of the '90s are over. Instead of pumping up displacements, automakers are looking for ways to generate power efficiently. For the 7 series in 2011, BMW took the relatively easy step of installing an engine previously used in the 335i and 535i. Being BMW's flagship sedan, this new model steps up to a 740i nameplate.
As for body, suspension, and cabin tech, the car is nearly identical to its heftier siblings, the 750i and the 760i. The car features the same sophisticated, European design, with a gracefully curved roof and longish nose. Of course, the grille features the traditional BMW design, while the headlight casings integrate LED turn signals.
The cabin of the 2011 BMW 740i, a large sedan, is easy to get into, while the trunk affords plenty of cargo room. Optional multicontour seats offer power-adjustable bolsters, lumbar support, headrests, and just about every other means of shaping the seat to your body. The comfortable rear bench has its own set of dual-zone climate controls. This car represents BMW luxury.
Standard in this $70,000 car is a hard-drive-based navigation system, complete with 3D maps and traffic, and a sophisticated Bluetooth phone system. But that is about as far as BMW is willing to go with freebies--even iPod integration is optional in the 740i.
Particularly amusing was the $650 ceramic button option included in the car delivered to CNET. BMW is apparently willing to let people buy a 7-series with ugly plastic buttons, which could impact people's perception of the brand's luxury and quality.
The navigation system is a treat to use, as it shows rich 3D detail for major urban areas, complete with rendered buildings on a wide, 10.2-inch screen. Using route guidance in a city, the system helpfully makes buildings in front of a turn transparent. In addition to the route outlined on the map, BMW puts turn directions on the instrument cluster, a new black panel that hides all indicator lights until they are in use.
More difficult to use are some of BMW's destination input screens, which rely on setting filters to find results. For example, when browsing the POI database for Chinese restaurants, you first have to enter Restaurants as a category, then Chinese as a subcategory. And the system doesn't make it very clear what you are supposed to do at each step. This interface could definitely be improved.
BMW's traffic reporting is quite good, and the car will dynamically look for routes around particularly bad traffic. On the map, specific incidents are shown as diamond-shaped icons, but the traffic flow is represented as a series of gray arrows. The red, yellow, and green road highlights used by competitors make for a much more intuitive representation.
Also accessible through either the iDrive onscreen interface or voice command is the standard Bluetooth phone system, which helpfully downloads a paired phone's contact list. Drivers can use the voice command system to dial a contact by name, or look one up on the screen. The iDrive knob makes it quick and easy to scroll through a contact list, and the voice command proved very accurate.
The audio quality of phone calls is excellent, aided by the standard 10-speaker stereo system. BMW offers a premium stereo upgrade for the 740i, but the base system does a very nice job of reproducing music. It is very balanced across audio frequencies, delivering highs, mids, and bass in equal detail. When we listened to tracks that emphasized a female vocalist, the system did an excellent job of making the background instrumentation pleasantly audible. Bass is not earthshaking with this system, but is very listenable.
Audio sources in CNET's review car were limited, mostly by BMW's option list. Standard sources are the onboard hard drive, CD player, HD Radio, and a USB port inconveniently placed in the glovebox, far away from the driver. BMW does not do Bluetooth streaming audio yet, and the car we tested lacked the optional iPod integration or satellite radio. CDs rip quickly and easily to the hard drive, and are easy to find in the music library interface. HD Radio is a nice treat, with very clear sound.
BMW offers an impressive set of optional driver assistance features for the 740i, although not all were present on our review car. Night vision turns the main LCD into an enhanced view of the road ahead, letting you see things you would miss with the naked eye. Blind-spot detection warns of cars in the lanes next to the 740i, and the lane departure warning vibrates the wheel slightly if the car drifts across lane lines.