BMW 7 Series: The Flagship Is Even Better

March 19 (Bloomberg) — Am I doing the updated BMW 7 Series a serious disservice by talking first about the seats? After all, the luxury liner is as fun to drive as a much smaller sports car, and it’s big news that the maddening iDrive system is finally as easy to use as an iPod.

And yet, when I’m stuck at an airport lounge or on the subway, I find myself fantasizing about those heavenly front bucket seats. My mind goes to the supportive cradle that’s adjustable 20 ways, the please-touch-me Nappa leather, the squeezable headrest you can fold around your cranium like those on a first-class Cathay Pacific flight. [Read on Bloomberg News#mce_temp_url#]

They’re simply the most comfortable car seats I can remember, period. (The back seats have an available massage system, though that’s another story.)

BMW’s range of sedans is analogous to the business ladder. If the 3 Series is the promising executive upstart and the 5 is the regional manager, then the 7 is the CEO who still has another 20 years in him. BMW markets it as an aspirational vehicle for achievers, not dreamers.

First available as a 1978 model, the fifth generation is on sale this month. While it bristles with enough technology to qualify as a military project, engineers have neither lost sight of comfort nor driving zeal. This thing is fun to drive.

The 750i comes in both standard and long-wheelbase (the Li) versions. It harnesses a new 4.4-liter, twin-turbocharged V-8, with 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, controlled by a six-speed automatic transmission.

Bigger Is Better

The $84,200 Li is pricier by $4,000, yet otherwise the extra 5.5 inches in wheelbase length is a rare case where more actually is more, giving up nothing in driving delight and making it clear why you’ve sprung for the 7 over the 5. The back-of-the-bus experience is a good one, with space to splay out legs and generous views from the side windows and out the front.

Let’s concentrate on the driver’s seat perspective, though, as most purchasers won’t be buying for their chauffeur but themselves.

The model I test is a 750Li inflated to $110,170 with the inclusion of sport, convenience and driver-assistance packages. In fact the add-on list — ceramic control, $650; heads-up display, $1,300; active cruise control, $2,400 — looks like a multipage hospital bill. (Doctor, my heart!)

If I were to choose just one extra, I’d go for the $4,900 sport package, which includes active roll stabilization and a front and rear active-drive system. These both serve to lessen the negative effects of the car’s heft and size. At low speeds, active drive steers the rear wheels in the opposite direction from the front wheels so you can slip into surprisingly tight spaces and make easy U-turns. Meanwhile, at highway speeds, the rear wheels turn with the front ones, increasing handling and stability.

Feels Smaller

On a single day in Southern California, I drive the dickens out of the 750Li on speedy highways, pebbly desert paths and wet and snow-covered mountain lanes, and it feels like a much smaller, lither car. (The time for 0 to 60 mph of 5.2 seconds? Not a typo.)

It has four driving modes, ranging from comfort to a sport plus. That last mode lessens the traction control, so it’s more than a nod to enthusiastic, hang-your-tail-out driving.

The interior has become a warmer place, too. In addition to all the really touchable leather, you’ll find wood trim on the doors, dash and center console. The 10.2-inch information screen is rectangular, like a high-def TV, and is almost as bright and attractive. I could watch movies on this thing.

New IDrive

Best of all, it’s controlled by an absolutely new iDrive system, reworked so completely that they should have renamed it, as the previous versions had more bad press than Dick Cheney.

Now it has separate buttons for phone, radio and navigation, so you don’t have to drill down through endless screens. It also has stand-alone memory buttons, programmable like a car radio. Do a function, such as dialing a specific number on a Bluetooth-connected phone, and then simply hold down a favorite button for a few seconds and it will remember it.

Which brings us to the myriad other systems available, like night vision with pedestrian detection ($2,600) from auto-safety supplier Autoliv Inc. An infrared sensor scans for pedestrians more than twice the distance that headlamps reach, showing figures on the screen. If a wayward pedestrian is moving in the path of the car, the figure lights up yellow and a visual warning is issued. It’s the kind of technology I often dismiss, yet in this case it works really well, with no false alarms.

Big-Boned Sedan

If there’s one quibble, it’s that outwardly the 750Li is still not the most beautiful big-boned sedan in the world. While the strong lines through the side shoulders are bold and the overall look purposeful, somehow the various folds and angles on the hood seem incongruous, and the entire flow is less cogent than it could be.

Hardly a deal killer. BMW sold some 325,000 fourth- generation 7 Series cars worldwide, and though the high-end luxury market is ever tighter, this BMW is better than ever. It’s also worth noting that a mild hybrid version will be coming, too.

The final argument may very well fall back to the seats. If the 750Li can’t actually fly over traffic jams, it will at least make them palatable.

The 2009 BMW 750Li Sedan at a Glance

Engine: Twin-turbocharged V-8 with 400 hp and 450 pound- feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic transmission.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 14 city; 22 highway.

Price as tested: $110,170.

Best features: Tossup between drive and comfort, with extra points for those seats.

Worst feature: Outwardly, it’s still not the most beautiful sedan.

Target buyer: The go-get-’em CEO.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.