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First Oz drive: 7 Series makes quantum leap

Driving into the future: The new 7 Series is the latest word in mobile technology and luxury.

BMW reveals its vision splendid with techno titan, the new 7 Series

6 Feb 2002

THE replacement for BMW's ageing E38 7 Series model has finally arrived in Australia and carries with it the German marque's vision for a brave new motoring world.

Heralded by BMW as the world's most advanced production car, the radical all-new E65 7 Series is said to have pushed the technology envelope further than any other model in the company's history.

The new 7 Series range is on sale now and is available initially as part of a two-model standard wheelbase line-up - the 735i and 745i - with the extended wheelbase (Li) variants scheduled to arrive around mid-year.

BMW refers to the 735i and 745i as standard wheelbase models, rather than using the short wheelbase tag that has sufficed in the past, for the simple fact is there is nothing short about the car.

The 735i introduces the fourth generation range at $174,500 while the 745i will temporarily sit at the top of the range, priced at $207,600.

BMW has given the 7 Series its first Valvetronic-equipped V8 engines - a 200kW 3.6-litre unit in the 735i and a 245kW 4.4-litre powerplant in the 745i - as well as the world's first six-speed Tiptronic-style automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted shift buttons.

The extended wheelbase Li models will be powered by the same range of V8 engines, as well as featuring an additional 140mm of rear seat legroom.

The local 7 Series line-up will be topped off by a new V12 flagship model in early 2003, equipped with another all-new Valvetronic powerplant producing in excess of 300kW and around 600Nm of torque.

The new car is longer, wider, taller, with a longer wheelbase and larger luggage capacity than its predecessor, but the controversial styling does a good job of masking the increases and allowing the vehicle to retain well balanced overall dimensions.

BMW's latest premium model introduces a raft of technology never before seen in a production model, such as the company's futuristic iDrive concept, which organises the operation of major controls through a single central controller.

There is also an Intelligent Safety Information System (ISIS), which activates safety systems in a staged fashion as required, as well as night-time illumination of the door handles and the area around the car.

All in all, there are more than 75 new technical features introduced on this version of the 7 Series.

The acronym list for the 7 Series range is typically extensive, encompassing ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), ASC + T (Automatic Stability Control and Traction), DSC III (Dynamic Stability Control), DBC (Dynamic Brake Control), EDC-C (Electronic Damper Control) and PDC (Park Distance Control).

Add to that such techno wizardry as Dynamic Drive active suspension, satellite navigation, voice activation of major controls and active front seats with ventilation, and you have a car with more computer power than the Apollo spacecraft - just to monitor and control all the functions.

Almost scarily, BMW says the 7 is a car that never sleeps. For example, the windscreen wiper rest position is reversed every four days to prevent uneven wiper rubber wear - it alternates between stopping the wipers in the rest position on the upward stroke or the downward stroke.

Standard equipment on even the entry level 735i is comprehensive, including Nasca leather upholstery, electric seats with adjustable lumbar support and driver memory, rain sensing windscreen wipers, Bi-Xenon headlights with washers, satellite navigation with monitor incorporating a television, a car phone with cordless receiver and 18-inch alloy wheels.

The 745i adds to that list features such as Electronic Damper Control (EDC-C), 19-inch alloy wheels, an electric glass sunroof, Comfort front seats with active head restraints and clear indicator lenses from the BMW Individual range.

Despite the standard equipment on offer, there is still the usual BMW options list, which can add up to $35,000 to the price of the 735i and $20,000 to the 745i.

BMW has forecast sales in excess of 500 units per year for the 7 Series, which should see a return to competitiveness for the Bavarian flagship after being comprehensively outsold by its main rival, the Mercedes-Benz S-class, over the past few years.

In the early '90s, the S-Class ruled the super luxury category, outselling the E32 7 Series. BMW claimed leadership in the category between 1995-1998, after the E38 7 Series was introduced, until the W220 S-class arrived in early 1999.

A total of 6100 7 Series models have been sold in Australia since its introduction.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

DESPITE the debate that has raged over the styling of the new 7 Series, in the metal it is actually not overly confronting or offensive.

It is by no means pretty mind you, but it does have the aggressive visual presence that BMW was hoping for and there is not much chance of mistaking it for anything else on the road.

But it is best viewed in profile, so you can see the coupe-like rear styling treatment and the full effect of the massive 19-inch wheels (on the 745i).

The philosophy behind the new interior architecture works fine in theory, but in practice it is not as simple as BMW makes out.

Grouping the main vehicle controls in three zones around the driver is a clever concept, with the steering wheel zone functioning smoothly after a period of familiarisation to adapt to the stalk gear lever and button starter and handbrake.

The dash/console phase for heating and ventilation and the seating controls are also user-friendly, but it is with the third, supposedly least used, console phase that things begin to get tricky.

That's the iDrive control system which, while designed to be intuitive in the first degree, is quite complicated in its entirety.

When all you want to do is push a button to select your favourite radio station, having to navigate your way through a series of menus quickly becomes frustrating.

Both V8 engines are typically sweet-revving Teutonic units, although the smaller 3.6-litre powerplant does at times require some gearbox cog swapping to haul the vehicle's weight efficiently.

The 4.4-litre engine is more befitting the 7 Series, giving it the effortless surge of power you associate with a luxury limousine.

The six-speed automatic transmission is a class act, offering smooth, seamless shifts as well as the option of normal, sport and manual modes.

The evaluation cars used on the 7 Series-launch drive program were all fitted with the Dynamic Drive active suspension, which is normally a $5900 option on both models in the line-up.

Through hydraulic adjustment of the anti-roll bars, the system reduces or suppresses body roll when cornering up to a given lateral acceleration figure.

In practice, the system endows the big, heavy 7 Series with a flat, neutral stance that allows you to carry more speed through corners than would otherwise feel safe.

It is just the thing to stave off any nausea if your limo driver is a Michael Schumacher wannabee.

There is no doubt BMW's quantum leap forward with the revolutionary 7 Series has the potential to redefine the nature of motoring for the future.

But the question remains whether we will look back on it as being innovative and a new beginning or simply unconventional.

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