BMW's 7 Series loses its edge

It was a textbook display of understatement: at the launch of the new 7 Series, BMW's sales and marketing head Ian Robertson conceded that the styling of the previous version of the company's flagship luxury sedan was not without controversy.

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DRESDEN, Germany – It was a textbook display of understatement: at the launch of the new 7 Series, BMW’s sales and marketing head Ian Robertson conceded that the styling of the previous version of the company’s flagship luxury sedan was “not without controversy.”

No kidding.

No other car designer has arguably taken as much flak as Chris Bangle, BMW’s head of design, has since his redesigned 7 Series was first rolled out at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2001.

Thousands of BMW fashionistas and aesthetes wanted to ship Bangle back to design school. Or worse. Some started online petitions calling for his firing. Some sent death threats. One even created an “I Hate Chris Bangle!” website.

Their main gripe was the 7 Series’ raised rear trunk lid, which became known as the “Bangle Butt.”

Its creator says he didn’t put it there to upset traditionalists, but to give luxury car buyers the cargo room they needed.

The irony, of course, is that Bangle’s rear protrusion has popped up not only on other automakers’ luxury sedans (Lexus LS, Mercedes-Benz S Class), but down-market models (Toyota Camry, Hyundai Genesis) as well.

Plus, BMW didn’t seem to have any trouble moving the 2001-08 7 Series out of showrooms. To date, it’s ended up being the best-selling 7 Series ever, with more than 344,000 copies sold worldwide.

But take a glance at the new, fifth-generation 2009 BMW 7 Series, which comes to Canada next spring in 750i and 750iL trims. At first blush, its exterior seems less adventurous and more, well, conservative.

Mind you, you won’t get any of BMW’s design staff – from Bangle on down – saying the “C” word when describing the new car’s exterior. Or admit the response to the last 7’s styling scared them into creating a less bold design.

The person who designed the new 7’s exterior, Montreal-born BMW designer Karim Habib, who answers to Bangle, said he didn’t take the last model’s looks into consideration.

“My main motivation was to make the new 7 more beautiful, play with light and shadow, and show off what we can do in the process of manufacturing metal.”

Given today’s headlines of global financial Armageddon, how much success can any automaker have shilling $100,000-plus luxury sedans? Is such a profligate set of wheels still relevant?

Whatever you think of the emperor’s new clothes, a day driving BMW’s new long-wheelbase 750Li on winding two lanes and unfettered autobahn unearthed a car that’s rich in both new ideas and driving capabilities.

For 2009, the former 760Li V12 and sporty Alpina B7 models have been shelved. Now, both 7s get a new 4.4-litre V8 with two turbochargers pumping out 407 hp and 442 lb.-ft. of torque, more powerful that the previous incarnation.

BMW has always marketed the rear-wheel-drive 7 as the limo for performance drivers. And this new model doesn’t disappoint.

According to the German automaker, the long wheelbase 750Li is only a tenth of a second behind the regular length 750i from 0-to-100 km/h: 5.2 versus 5.3.

That’s 0.7 quicker than the ’08s, and swifter than the two sizes down BMW 335i sedan. The German automaker officially lists the 750Li’s top speed at 240 km/h. But with little effort, we saw an indicated 260 km/h during an open stretch on the autobahn south of Dresden.

While fuel consumption is down 3 per cent on the EU cycle, for a combined 11.1 L/100 km rating, that’s still nothing to brag about.

The V8’s very well and good. But if I were the King of BMW for a day, I’d bring the new European-market diesel-powered 730d to Canada, lickety split.

Granted, you give up the straight-line performance of the V8 (0-to-100 km/h is a more sedate 7.2 seconds.) But using a diesel similar to the one found in the 335d coming to our market in December, the 730d sips at a rate of 7.2 L/100 km. Even the rich like to save money

Whichever engine is under its front hood, the chassis of BMW’s new flagship is impressive. For such a large mass, the new 7 has some sweet moves – like former NFLer Warren Sapp prancing around on TV’s Dancing with the Stars.

Most of the applause (for the Bimmer, not Sapp) can go to a new suspension and what BMW calls Integral Active Steering.

The only difference between the standard and long-wheelbase sedans is a rear air-suspension system for the limo for even more comfort. For the first time in a BMW passenger car, though, up front is a multilink double-wishbone setup, plus the rear has been revised with a new, V-shaped link system for increased comfort.

The Integral Active Steering, a new option, adds rear-wheel steering to the previously available variable-ratio front steering.

The sum of these new parts forms an impressively direct communication between the driver and what’s going on at road level – especially important for a car that weighs 2,105 kg.

Of course, the 7 has always been about introducing new high-tech to the BMW range. BMW’s iDrive central controller, which debuted in the previous 7, has been updated with redundant buttons and switches on the dash and console for easier access to simple actions like changing radio stations. It’s now viewed through a 260 mm wide in-dash screen with a 1,280 X 480-pixel resolution. Your TV at home should look this sharp.

Better still is the replacement of the old 7’s steering column gear shift wand with the new larger E-Shift on the centre console. It’s definitely more intuitive. And in manual mode, each of its six gears can be sequentially slapped for up- or downshifts with an open palm.

Other new high-tech-kit includes: 3D thermal night-vision system; head-up display; active blind-spot detection system; lane departure warning; high-beam assist (previously available on some other BMW models); rear twin-seat mounted DVD screens; and a side-view camera system that lets the driver view oncoming traffic when entering a street from an alleyway or other tight spot.

Maybe the most impressive part of the latest 7 is its higher level of craftsmanship compared to the last model and the use of materials in its cabin. It’s the most luxurious-feeling interior from BMW yet.

A small example: Slide your hand inside the door pull and you’re greeted with a soft rubberized finish. Nice. And for the first time, in addition of the traditional wood or brushed aluminum, BMW is offering ceramic finishes.

Despite all of these upgrades over the last model, BMW says it doesn’t expect a big increase in its price over the current model’s $108,500 to $115,100 range.

As the freshest entry in the full-size luxury sedan wars, though, you would expect the new 7 to excel compared to its competition. In fact, the chassis upgrades and newfound performance elevate it as the driver’s choice over the more relaxed Mercedes-Benz S Class and Lexus LS. And the BMW’s cabin now equals or betters the previous best-in-class Audi A8.

The 7’s main disadvantage is a lack of all-wheel-traction, something all its rivals offer.

Oh, and it seems to have misplaced its Bangle Butt.

Travel was provided to freelance writer John LeBlanc by the automaker.

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