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.
MP3 player editor Jasmine France tries to figure out iDrive.
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.
The telephone screen doesn't have a virtual keypad, so you can't dial a number directly using iDrive.
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 3D view on the map looks great because of the high resolution.
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.
This little keypad pops out of the dashboard and is well placed for the driver to dial numbers.
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.
Buttons set into the front of the wheel downshift, while buttons behind the wheel upshift.
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.