BMW's new luxury cruiser gets social media updates from your smartphone, accesses Google through its own data connection, and even shows you the weather.
The 2013 BMW 750Li may seem like the perfect luxury car, but it did not organize my financial portfolio for me. Nor did it shine my shoes. It did not even bother to buy me a winning lottery ticket. But those are about the only services it failed to perform.
The 750Li overwhelmed me with everything it did offer, from driving modes to connected features. It delivered on BMW's reputation for excellent handling and served as a superbly comfortable freeway cruiser. It abounds with tech from stem to stern, improving its fuel economy and entertaining the driver's every whim.
Among its few faults, the combination of the turbocharged, direct-injected 4.4-liter V-8 and the eight-speed automatic transmission could not deliver linear acceleration. The idle-stop feature, which shuts down the engine during traffic stops, might annoy a few, but it is easily switched off and makes for an essential part of BMW's fuel efficiency strategy.
As for connected features, they live under three distinct interface areas, making it feel like BMW directed multiple groups to work on this technology and employed all their efforts. The 750Li included the smartphone-based ConnectedDrive app integration, which I was able to run from my iPhone 5. Sorry, Android users, no ConnectedDrive app for you.
With my phone plugged into the car's USB port, the only way ConnectedDrive works, I could view Twitter and Facebook updates on the 750Li's screen, and have them read out to me. I also posted canned tweets, such as "It's 46 degrees out but I'm keeping warm in my BMW." My photographer was particularly entranced by the Web radio feature, which let me tune in a station from Mali, where he served some time in the Peace Corps.
The ConnectedDrive app also offers a News feature, but so does the BMW Online service. BMW Online relies on a data connection directly to the car, and previously only offered a few features, including Google local search, weather, and news. A new section appeared on the 750Li's menu called Applications, which let me add new apps, such as Fuel Prices and Yelp, from an app store.
Looking for a lunch place while driving down the freeway, I tried Google rather than the navigation system's own points-of-interest database. The interface's entry fields were not very intuitive to use, but I eventually entered the name of a sandwich chain, found one in my direction of travel, and sent its address to navigation.
However, the Fuel Prices and Yelp apps did not seem to be functional. Yelp showed a sample list of restaurants when I chose that category, but they were not real places in my vicinity, while the Fuel Prices app said no data was available. It seemed that BMW had not actually activated it in this 750Li, although it looks as though it will be very promising when it does go live. Better yet, it should replace the need for the ConnectedDrive app, so Android users would not be locked out.
But wait, there's more. The 750Li came with another new feature called Widgets, which rely on a data connection. The Widgets show only in the main LCD's split-window view. The car let me choose weather, time, or Panoramio, which displayed photos representing areas through which I drove.
This smorgasbord of data features make the 750Li the most connected car I've driven, but BMW needs to streamline its strategy, and get all this functionality under one roof.
Chauffeur wanted, inquire within
The driver of the 750Li may not be able to take advantage of all this digital goodness while concentrating on the road, but that "L" in the model name refers to the extended wheelbase, extra length devoted to the rear-seat passenger's comfort. Each rear-seat passenger was afforded a monitor, and iDrive controls on the rear console gave access to all the infotainment features.
The Luxury Rear Seating package included in our car gave these seats power adjustment and memory settings. Rear and side sunshades shielded rear passengers from bright light and provided a bit of privacy, as well. Those rear seats made me very disappointed that I did not have a driver for the week.
In front, the dashboard contained BMW's standard, top-end array of cabin technology. The wide, 10.2-inch LCD in the center of the dashboard showed imagery with excellent resolution, and let me choose between the aforementioned split view or full-screen. Familiarity with the iDrive controls on the console made it so I did not have to look to see which buttons gave quick access to the stereo or navigation.
There are a lot of menu items on the home screen, but the system reacts very quickly, loading each one with tablet speed. A lot of other manufacturers struggle to make their infotainment systems respond so promptly. Some of the input screens use unnecessarily confusing paradigms. I usually listen to music from my iPhone or a USB drive, and I have never liked BMW's music library screen. After selecting an album, artist, or genre, I then had to select Play from the top-level menu. Why not begin playback when I first select the album?
iDrive includes a fairly comprehensive voice command system, but it was not very easy to use. I tried saying "Play Lana Del Rey" as I drove along, and the screen brought up the owner's manual. Asking the system for help, it explained that I needed to burrow down through a voice tree to find my play commands. BMW's voice command generally works on the principle that you can speak commands based on the current screen showing on the LCD.
Once I had the system figured out, I was impressed how easily I could, for example, enter a street address into navigation. I spoke the entire address string, with street, city, and state, for CNET's garage entrance, and the system got it right in one. I found that impressive because the street name, Tehama, often proves difficult for voice command.
Detailed maps and traffic
The 750Li kept all the good things I like about BMW navigation. It offered many different map views, and rendered city buildings in detailed 3D. Using traffic data, it proactively rerouted me when there was a traffic jam up ahead. I was pleased to see the little rerouting message pop up a few times while I had the car; anything that can keep me out of stopped traffic deserves the highest praise.
In addition to these excellent navigation features, I was pleased to see the results of something BMW announced last year, better surface street coverage for traffic. The 750Li highlighted the surface streets of downtown San Francisco in green, yellow, or red, the traffic data indicating how fast I could get through.
An oddity that I had not seen in BMWs before was that the navigation system said I had arrived at my destination when I was still a block away. This behavior proved annoying when my destination was on a one-way street, and I wanted the car to actually help me get on to that street, rather than ending route guidance on a cross street.
Following the turn-by-turn guidance was easy with the car's voice prompts, which named the streets on which I needed to turn, and the head-up display, showing upcoming turns and even lane guidance for freeway junctions.
Another quirk of the system was that, once I got to my destination, the head-up display continued to show an arrow pointing in its direction. If I continued past that destination, the arrow remained on the head-up display. Maybe this is BMW's way of making up for the route guidance ending prematurely to arriving at the destination, as I could still drive around city blocks and see the arrow pointing in the right direction.
I found it very easy to get used to the head-up display, and relied on it heavily. Along with turn-by-turn directions, it also showed the car's speed and the road's speed limit. However, the speed limit function was not all that successful.
The car uses a camera to recognize speed limit signs along the side of the road to get its data, but BMW does not seem to realize that roads in the U.S. are poorly marked. Many times while I was driving, the BMW showed the limit from the last sign it had seen, even though I knew the limit on the current road was higher. Speed limit data is available on the digital maps used for navigation, and BMW should simply rely on that, at least in the U.S.
Finely tuned tunes
Another feature in this 750Li I have seen in other BMWs was the Bang & Olufsen audio system. A $3,700 option, its presence was obvious from the acoustic lens that rose up from the center of the dashboard and the metal grilles mounted on the interior panels for the 16 speakers.
I liked the sound from this system. Feeding it a variety of music, mostly from a USB drive plugged into the car's single USB port, I reveled in the superior audio quality. Guitar riffs sent chills down my spine and background vocals, buried by inferior systems, became more present, adding richness to the soundscape. Heavy bass pummeled my body without shaking interior panels and percussion instruments came through with crisp, clear beats. It you really love music, this system proves its worth.
Besides the aforementioned Web radio feature, the 750Li includes a ridiculous number of audio sources. It can play music off its own hard drive or from a Bluetooth device. It works with Pandora and MOG Internet music services. It receives satellite and FM HD Radio broadcasts.
BMW could streamline access to all these audio sources. It splits Radio and Media into two distinct areas. And I had to go into the Media menu, then choose another menu item called External Devices to access anything I plugged into the USB port. Putting all the sources on a top-level audio menu, as Ford does, would be a better solution.
As rich as the electronic features of the 750Li were, the car's driving character vied equally for my attention. As it did with the X6 M, BMW performs a minor miracle in using engineering to conquer physics. The 750Li includes active dampers, and ours also came with BMW's Integral Active Steering, which turns the rear wheels slightly during cornering.
The results of these two technologies are nothing short of amazing. The 750Li does not belie its 4,660-pound weight; it feels like a big, heavy car. But tossing it through my favorite mountain road featuring miles of quick right and left turns, I found it easy to set the car for each, even when they came one right after another. The 750Li did not wallow, and I could feel the extra help from the steering technology as it brought the rear end of the car around in quicker rotation than the 10-and-a-half-foot wheelbase would normally allow.
Of course, it only performed this well while I had it in its Sport plus setting, one of five driving modes. Dialing it down to Sport, the stability control kept the back of the car from sliding out as much, but it still performed admirably, especially on public roads. These Sport settings not only affect the suspension, but make a big difference when it comes to accelerator response.
Dialing it down one step further, to Comfort, it felt like an Airstream trailer suddenly got attached to the car. That setting immediately took much of the life out of the throttle. However, it did not affect the suspension. The Comfort plus setting added more travel, letting the car roll and wallow, but also more smoothly handling bumps and potholes in the road.
The eight-speed automatic transmission included Sport and manual shift modes, although there were no paddles on the steering wheel. In Sport mode, the transmission behaved well, keeping the revs up when I drove hard. But I had to drive very hard, flooring it on the straights, jamming the brakes hard before the turns, then getting back on the gas quick. Anything less, and Sport mode let the higher gears take over and the engine slow down.
Manual mode delivered shifts that felt very solid for an automatic, but the lack of paddles made it difficult to use consistently. Over my mountain course, I found that third gear worked most of the time, with drops down to second for particularly tight turns. Third gear shows off an incredibly wide power band, going from about 20 mph to over 80.
With the revs kept high, I had no problems getting acceleration when I wanted it, but in standard driving conditions the engine's attention seems to wander. The turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 makes 445 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque, which BMW says takes the long 750Li to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds.
When I stomped on the accelerator from a stop, the car took a moment to marshal all that power. It began to move forward, then leaped. The 750Li does not simply accelerate, it surges.
In any mode other than Sport or Sport plus, the acceleration felt unpredictable. Driving around town, taking off from a light or trying to make a quick dive into an open spot in traffic, the car hesitated, then shot forward. I had to be ready on the brakes to keep from plowing into the cars ahead.
The uneven acceleration aside, the 750Li showed itself an exceedingly comfortable cruiser, especially on the freeway. At speed, the steering wheel assumed a nice heft, making it easy to keep the car in line over hundreds of miles. Sound insulation kept the cabin nice and quiet, so that I could hear every nuance from the Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Beyond the Sport and Comfort modes, the 750Li includes a mode called EcoPro, which optimizes fuel economy. The accelerator felt slightly more detuned from the Comfort mode, but it still flowed along nicely on the freeway. The EcoPro settings showed a top speed governed at 75 mph, which was adjustable. I noted that EcoPro would not let me accelerate over 75 mph, but it did not keep the car from coasting over that limit.
EcoPro also engaged a coasting mode, which decoupled the engine from the transmission when I took my foot off the gas pedal. This feature let the 750Li roll along, losing speed very slowly on flat roads.
Fuel-saving technologies independent of the EcoPro mode include braking regeneration and idle stop. The former has become a common feature on BMW cars, a trick taken from hybrid vehicles, which captures kinetic energy during braking and stores it as electricity. Braking regeneration makes it so the engine does not have to serve as the sole generator for the car's electricity needs, as in other cars, resulting in better fuel economy.
Idle stop actually shut down the engine when I stopped for traffic lights. I could feel the big V-8 stop and fire up, but the car's big frame damped out most of the harshness. The engine started up pretty fast as soon as I lifted off the brake, but it still takes a beat to get going. I quickly learned to lift off the brake just enough to get the engine going when I expected the light to turn green. If you do not want to deal with priming the engine, BMW includes a convenient switch near the start button to turn off idle stop.
However, knowing that the big car was not consuming any gas when stopped at a light made me feel good. Just 10 years ago, cars this big and powerful generally averaged around 15 mpg. The EPA estimates for the 750Li are 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. Through my course of driving, which included freeways, hard driving in the mountains, and smaller proportion of time in city traffic, the car averaged 20.7 mpg.
Of the driver assistance features available from BMW, the one the 750Li should have had was adaptive cruise control. Given the stature of this car, that technology should come standard. What it did have was blind-spot monitors, surround-view camera system, lane departure warning, and night vision.
The blind-spot system lit up icons in the side mirrors when a car was in the next lane, useful with such a big vehicle. The lane departure system vibrated the steering wheel strongly enough to get a drowsy driver's attention when I let the car slip over a lane line without signaling.
The cameras were also a good option. Nosing out of a garage or blind alley, the front split view camera made it possible to see when it was safe to pull out. The surround view and backup cameras were essential for parking the over 17-foot-long car. The surround view is a bit small, so I had to peer at the screen to see obstacles, but the rear view covered the whole screen, and showed trajectory lines. These lines let me see the path of the 750Li depending on how the wheels were turned.
I did not find night vision particularly useful, although people who live in dark rural areas might like it. The system showed an infrared-enhanced view of the road ahead on the center LCD. The problem with the system is that you need to consistently glance at the LCD while driving, but it does show a good image, with details invisible to the naked eye. I tried the system in heavy fog, but it could penetrate no further than my own sight.
The 2013 BMW 750Li is a true monster of automotive technology. Its handling capabilities make it an excellent choice if Jason Statham happens to be your chauffeur. Its comfort level makes it a prime choice for road trips, although the mid-20s highway fuel economy might cut into the beef jerky budget. Still, considering the size of the car and the power of its engine, BMW managed to wring quite a bit of fuel economy from it.
One of the real delights with the 750Li comes from sitting in the back seat, enjoying the ride and taking advantage of all the available connected features. If airlines offered this degree of entertainment choices, people at airports would be a lot happier. BMW needs to streamline its connected car strategy, but the quantity of features makes it the most connected car I have seen to date.
Despite a few issues with the iDrive interface, the 750Li comes with first-rate electronics for navigation, stereo, and hands-free phone calls. I particularly like the traffic avoidance capabilities of its route guidance, which not only reduce my own stress but probably help fuel economy as well.
The surging acceleration is a noticeable fault, but I adapted to it easily enough. The car has so much power that you cannot expect to floor it in traffic without bad consequences. I never found the acceleration stepping in too slowly for what I wanted.
|Model||2013 BMW 7-series|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 4.4-liter V-8, eight-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/24 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||20.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard hard-drive-based system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based radio, onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iPod, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Bang & Olufsen 16-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Night vision, blind-spot monitor, collision warning, head-up display, surround-view camera, rear-view camera, front-view camera|
|Price as tested||$115,245|