Click above for high-res gallery of the BMW 750Li

When the 2009 BMW 7 series was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show last fall, BMW's fifth-generation flagship had an anvil-sized burden to bear. Although the last 7 series was a milestone in the sales department, its design – which foisted Chris Bangle's influence onto an unsuspecting public – was all but universally panned when it was introduced in 2001. And if the exterior wasn't offensive enough (to some), BMW's newly-implemented iDrive system sent many reviewers and owners into unmitigated bouts of rage.

For 2009, BMW has sought to address the fourth generation's foibles while capitalizing on its strengths. And while nothing is more subjective than styling, control interfaces have a huge impact on the overall experience. Find out if BMW has succeeded on both fronts after the break.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Looking over three decades of the 7 series, it's painfully clear that the last generation was an outlier stylistically. The 2009 model appears as if it had directly evolved from the third-generation E38, but it's thoroughly up-to-date and instantly recognizable as a modern BMW. The design team, led by Adrian Van Hooydonk, created a large car that looks deceptively small, so much so that the 750 could almost pass as one of its smaller siblings without another vehicle around to serve as a point of reference.

The combination of the short front overhang, 19-inch wheels and maximized cabin visually shrink the sedan. It has none of the ponderous appendages of the outgoing model thanks to the elimination of the Bangle-butt and the droopy-dog headlamps. The sculpted hood ridges flow cleanly into the A-pillars, while another character line connects the corners of the headlight clusters to the corresponding corners of the tail lamps. It's only when you get close to the 750 that its 205-inch span becomes incredibly apparent.

In this segment, it's what's on the inside that counts. With all modern cars, especially those battling it out in the premium class, the number of onboard gadgets seems to be expanding exponentially. Unfortunately, all of these new features seem to necessitate a multi-function control interface. So with dashboards sprouting a veritable forest of switches, BMW decided to go minimalist and devised the iDrive system for the fourth-gen. 7 series. By adding a singular knob to control all pertinent vehicles functions, BMW sought to make its new luxo-cruiser as easy to operate as a modern PC – for better and for worse.
In practice, the iDrive's hardware worked as advertised from the onset and the concept of a lone controller eventually found its way inside several other automaker's offerings, including Audi and Honda. The real problem was the incredibly obtuse graphical user interface (GUI) that made it almost impossible to find what you were looking for. Tracking down points of interest in the navigation system without wading through the owner's manual or getting a lesson from one of BMW's boffins was a task of Herculean proportions, and BMW sought to rectify the situation when it introduced an all-new interface on the redesigned 3 and 7 series. People familiar with the "blade" interface of the Microsoft Xbox 360 will be immediately at home with the new iDrive. It's easy to find what you're looking for without pulling out your artfully coifed hair, and combined with the the gorgeous 10.2-inch LCD, iDrive is almost a joy to use. But it's still not perfect. Unlike the system Ford introduced in 2008 which allows voice commands that take you anywhere within the framework without requiring the use of your hands, the 750's voice commands – although accurately recognized – only go so far into the menu structure. Pressing the voice button and saying "navigation" takes you to the nav system. However, saying "points of interest" takes you to the appropriate menu, but then stops and tells you to use the iDrive controller to continue. While we became increasingly enamored with the new iDrive and its voice controls during our stint behind the wheel, a word to BMW's engineers: You've done a terrific job with the new interface. Now it's time to finish it.

Other aspects of the interior are – in some respects – a return to BMW's roots. From the '70s through to the '90s, BMW dashboards always had a center stack canted toward the driver, keeping with BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine" theme. This decade, the center stack has flattened out, giving the passenger more access. Thankfully, the new 7 brings the focus back towards the driver, along with the transmission shifter that's migrated from the steering column to its rightful place on the center console. Unfortunately, it's the same electronic shifter fitted to the X5 and X6, with a park button on top and another button on the side that must be pressed in order shift into Drive or Reverse. If you use it long enough, you'll undoubtedly get used to it, but it is still something of a counterintuitive intrusion compared to a traditional "PRND" arrangement.

When the 2009 BMW 7 series goes on sale in North America on March 4th, it will only be available with one powertrain: the 4.4-liter twin turbocharged, direct injected V8 currently employed on the X5 and X6. In the U.S., the 400 horsepower, 450 pound-feet engine is backed by a six-speed automatic transmission, while across the Atlantic, buyers can also choose from a six-cylinder gas or diesel mill – neither of which are currently slated for the States.

But, no worries. The V8 is magnificent piece of kit. Squeezing the throttle delivers an instant wave of torque that propells you effortlessly up to speed and could risk your license just as quickly. The extended wheelbase 750Li that we sampled on Southern California's Imperial beach to Torrey Pines tarmac weighs in at 4,640 pounds, but carries its mass well. With a 51.5/48.5 front/rear weight distribution, the 750 is beautifully balanced. It feels 600-700 pounds less than its curb weight suggests and the 245/45R19 run-flat tires provide ample grip while still maintaining a decent ride.

Update: We've now been informed by BMW that this car did indeed have the sport pack, which means it did have rear wheel steering. For what it's worth, the car didn't do anything spooky like some past 4-wheel steer cars we've driven, it just felt completely stable under all conditions. Our tester didn't have the optional Sport pack, which includes an electronically controlled four-wheel-steer setup, so we can't comment on the system yet. But with only the front wheels providing directional control, the steering feel was excellent, with perfect weighting and a healthy amount of feedback transmitted from the road to the tires to the wheel. When the time comes to reduce speeds, the 750 delivers in spades, with massive 14.7-inch rotors absorbing kinetic energy up front and only slightly smaller 14.5-inch discs doing the work out back.
Since driving aggressively requires focusing on the car rather than wrestling to stay in position, good seats are critical. Here, the 750 succeeds with chairs that were both comfortable on long jaunts and very supportive through the bends. Shutting off the car or opening the door causes the large side bolsters on the front seats to articulate to their outer-most position, easing ingress and egress. Out back, the rear compartment provides plenty of room for those who prefer to be driven in style, with each rear passenger able to select their own temperature thanks to a four-zone climate control system.

Both the 2009 BMW 750i and 750Li are massive improvements over their predecessors, and we look forward to spending more time with the new version when it makes its way into the Autoblog Garage. Our all-too-brief first exposure indicates that BMW has largely succeeded in meeting its goals for the new 7, and when the 2009 model the car goes on sale the first week of March (the 750i starts at $81,125 and the longer 750Li $85,025, including delivery), we think the automaker will be rewarded for its efforts.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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