Driving Impressions

By April 22, 2010

Despite some overly complicated interior features, there's little to complain about when it comes to driving the BMW 7 Series. About 90 percent of the time, any 2010 7 Series model is a truly satisfying machine to operate: both amazingly comfortable and quiet, and impressively quick and agile for a sedan of its size and weight.

That last ten percent is a gray area, to be sure, and in that zone the driving can get a little annoying. Perhaps BMW, with the 7 Series, suffers from a problem of ambition. It's as if the engineers and designers have attempted to raise the bar in virtually every respect, and in doing so have made simple things, like the gimmicky gear selector and even the electronic turn signals, way more cumbersome or complicated than they need to be.

The V8 engine in the 750i and 750Li models is brilliant, even incredible. It's all turbocharged horsepower, torque and smoothness, and it delivers decent mileage, in our opinion. We can't say enough good things about the 4.4-liter V8. Not just the 400 horsepower, but the 450 pound-feet of torque at a very low 1800 rpm. It is flawless. BMW claims that the 750i will shoot from zero to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds, on par with sports cars like the standard Porsche 911, and we don't doubt it for a second.

The V12-powered 760Li, new for 2010, raises the acceleration bar even further. It's powered by a 6.0-liter turbocharged V12 that's turbine smooth, and it bumps output to 535 horsepower and 550 lb-ft at just 1500 rpm. BMW reports a zero-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds.

The 7 Series suspension is nearly as flawless as its engines, whether cruising in a straight line on a rough road, or tossing the big Beemer through curves. The 7 has the first double-wishbone front suspension ever in a BMW passenger car, believe it or not, and the package delivers what might be the best blend of ride comfort and handling response available in a large luxury sedan.

The optional M Sport Package offers four suspension modes: Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. The only problem is all those decisions. Using the Driving Dynamics Control selector (located near the iDrive controller and E-shift lever), the car will change its performance characteristics, in the areas of shock absorber firmness, throttle response, transmission shift characteristics, power steering assist level, and Dynamic Stability control points (how much the stability control will allow the car to slide before it engages). The Sport Package also adds 19-inch alloy wheels to the 750i and 750Li, with extra-sticky performance tires.

The 750i and 750Li xDrive, also new for 2010, are the first 7 Series cars with all-wheel drive. While the AWD is similar to that used in vehicles like BMW's X5 SUV, it's tuned more to enhance performance than to optimize traction on low-friction surfaces (though it can do that, too). The 7 Series xDrive more thoroughly integrates all-wheel-drive management with other electronic systems, like stability control and the 7's Active Roll Stabilization anti-sway bars.

Like other all-wheel-drive BMWs, the 750i and 750Li start at a 40 front/60 rear default power split. But when its driver applies gas more aggressively, especially through bends, the xDrive 7 adjusts torque distribution to maintain the sporting handling dynamics of rear-wheel drive. Through a hard bend, its control system seeks a steady power split of 20/80 to optimize handling.

On dry roads, regardless of drive type, the 7 Series is remarkably balanced for a car of its heft. Standard, xDrive, it's almost a toss up. With xDrive, the steering feels heavier than that in rear-drive cars with BMW's active front/rear steering system, and we like that. But once the driver gets used to its lighter steering touch, the rear-drive 7 Series is livelier. It almost feels like a smaller car.

Distinctions are easier to find on a closed course, or in sloppy road conditions. Even with the anti-skid electronics switched off, the 750i xDrive does a lot more of the car-control work for the driver than the rear-drive 750i, balancing itself more readily with less need to be really delicate or active with the gas pedal. The rear-drive 7 Series requires a lot more work, and it asks more of its driver. While that may be exactly what enthusiast drivers want for track day, it's probably not the preferred set-up in a blizzard. We wouldn't guess many 7 Series owners take their car to track day, anyway.

The gray area of 7 Series satisfaction and performance sits largely in the transmission. The six-speed automatic in the 750 models seems over-engineered, or at least over-programmed. It insists on doing too many things for the driver, in Normal mode. We're not talking about our usual frequent complaint, that the manual mode isn't very manual; we're talking about a relentless number of automatic downshifts.

Basically, the transmission won't let the car glide. Around town, it almost feels like the emergency brake is on. Back off the throttle, and some program says: The driver wants to slow down. Let's help him! You're going 20 mph and ease off the gas for a red light, intending to coast there, and it downshifts so eagerly that you have to get back on the gas to get to the light. It's like the 7 Series is a pickup truck with its transmission in perpetual tow/haul mode.

We had to accelerate to go down our steep hill, because the transmission held the car back so much. Going up a less-steep hill, one-half mile at 25 mph, it downshifted three times and up-shifted twice. All in the name of keeping the car in the optimum gear. It's like the transmission is compelled to use all six of its gears as often as possible. With all that engine torque, it makes no sense. What's more, the kick-down shifts are often not smooth. Lurch is the word that popped up in our tape recorder, three times.

Out on the highway, this annoyance goes totally away. It's only poking around town that the 7 Series can be unwilling to glide smoothly. It seemed better with Driving Dynamics Control in Comfort mode, so we suggest staying there, and avoiding Normal altogether. Normal seems like an inappropriate word to apply to this very special car anyhow.

The 7 Series' xenon headlights may be the best in the world, greatly enhancing safety during nighttime driving.

While every 7 Series model carries a gas guzzler tax, ranging from $1,000 to $2,100, we averaged at least 19 mpg with a mix of city and highway driving during a couple of test stints in the 750Li. That, in our view, is at least acceptable for a car of the 7's size and performance. BMW is nonetheless aware of perceptions about efficiency, and to that end it has added something called Brake Energy Regeneration to all 2010 7 Series models.

Brake Energy Regeneration captures some of the energy lost as a car slows to a halt, much as the typical hybrid vehicle does. In the case of the 7 Series, that energy is used to turn the alternator, which charges the battery and supplies electrical power. In most gasoline-engine cars, the alternator operates when the car is under power, taking energy that could otherwise be used to move the car along.

In the 7 Series, the alternator only turns when the car is slowing, and the engine is essentially idling. When the 7 is accelerating or cruising, the alternator freewheels, so it draws no power from the engine.