There are numerous excellent top-of-the-line luxury sedans on the market, but the BMW 750Li remains the model to beat.
Both of BMW's (BMW:GR) flagship luxury sedans, the 750i and the longer, roomier 750Li, are marvelous vehicles. The advantage of the 750Li is that it's 205.3 in. long, nearly half-a-foot longer than the 750i, with almost all the extra space going to expand rear legroom to 44.3 in. Unless you're taller than Kobe Bryant, that's space to spare.
Belying its size, the 750Li feels almost as nimble as the much smaller BMW 335i, one of the best-handling cars around. And in snow and on ice, BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system—added to the new 7 Series for 2010—makes the car remarkably sure-footed. I test-drove the 750Li xDrive during the huge snowstorm that hit the East Coast in late February, so I should know.
Admittedly, the new BMW 7s aren't cheap. The 750i starts at $83,875 and the 750Li at $87,775 (in both cases including a $1,000 gas-guzzler tax). Add $3,000 to either model for xDrive, plus an additional $300 in gas-guzzler taxes. If you're really into speed, there's also a 760Li with a gigantic 535-horsepower 12-cylinder engine, but that raises the starting sticker to $139,975 (including $2,100 in gas-guzzler taxes).
The main reservation I have about this car is whether to wait for the new 740i and 740Li to come out this spring as 2011 models. They'll be comparable to the 750s except that they'll be powered by a twin-turbocharged, 315-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine and will start at $71,025 and $75,425, respectively. That's a lot less money but it's not clear they'll have the same zing.
To me, the turbocharged 4.4-liter, 400-horsepower V8 that comes standard in the 750i and 750Li seems like the ideal engine for a car this size. Coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission, it generates an incredible 450 lb.-ft. of torque, which is enough low-end power to make even the heavy (4,861 lb.) 750Li xDrive take off like a bat out of hell.
Predictably, fuel economy isn't great. Mileage ratings range from 15 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway (17 on average) for the 750i, to 14/20 (16 on average) for the 750Li with xDrive. That's slightly below Daimler's (DAI) Mercedes-Benz S550 4matic, which averages 17 mpg, as well as Volkswagen's (VOW:GR) Audi A8 L Quattro and Toyota's (TM) all-wheel-drive Lexus 460L, both of which average 18.
However, BMW drivers can probably beat the averages if they try. One of the innovations in the new 7 Series is a regenerative braking system that recovers energy and stores it in the battery, much as a hybrid vehicle does. My test car averaged more than 17 mpg in mixed driving, more than 1 mpg above its rating, probably because I watched the Eco gauge and braked gradually to maximize energy savings.
Sales of the BMW 7 Series seem to be holding up. The total sold during first two months of this year was 2,207, almost exactly the same as in the first two months of 2008, when the market was in much better shape.
Behind the Wheel
I can't say enough good things about the driving characteristics of the 750Li with xDrive, both on dry pavement and in winter weather. Oddly (considering that all-wheel drive adds weight), both the 750i and 750Li are one-tenth of a second faster in accelerating from zero to 60 with xDrive than without it, according to BMW. I clocked my test car at a blazing 5.1 seconds, exactly the time BMW rates it at (and about as fast as the 335i).
Handling is excellent. The latest version of xDrive varies the distribution of power between the front and rear wheels as needed. The system anticipates problems that might cause the wheels to slip and compensates by sending up to 80% of power to the rear wheels, as well as by lightly braking the inside rear wheel while sending extra power to the outside rear wheel. In addition, the suspension has been upgraded with active front- and rear anti-roll bars. All of this keeps the car level in hard cornering and seems to eliminate understeer (slippage of the front tires during cornering).
The xDrive distributes power to keep the tires from spinning in almost any winter-driving situation. My test vehicle did marvelously at everything from powering through 5 in. of new-fallen snow to climbing a steep country road rutted with ice. The only time I came close to getting in trouble was when I headed down into a steep driveway in 5 in. of snow to turn around.
The interior of the new 7 Series is similar to other BMW interiors: crisp, clean, and impeccably made, but a little plain. BMW has eliminated the complexities that once made its iDrive system so annoying; gone are the days when you had to consult a manual to figure out how to tune the radio. Common functions can now be done using old-fashioned knobs, as well as screen commands. Screen commands are more intuitive, too, so you can easily learn to use the navigation system by trial and error.
The numerous high-tech options available on the 7 Series also work intuitively and well. For instance, you can move among the four ride settings (from "Comfort" to "Sport Plus") with the flick of a switch, and there's a noticeable difference between each setting. There's a button to turn on and off the heads-up display, a $1,300 option that's surprisingly useful because it projects navigation system instructions, as well as speedometer readings, out in front of the driver.
I became a big fan of the $2,600 night-vision system, which shows the road as far as 1,000 ft. ahead in gray tones on the navigation screen. BMW bills the system as having a "pedestrian warning" feature, but what it actually does is use an infrared camera to detect anything warm up ahead. Chimneys glow on the screen when a fireplace is in use. So do cars with their engines running (parked cars don't because their engines and exhaust systems are cold).
However, human beings and animals (such as deer) glow much brighter than anything else. Eventually you learn to pick out people and animals as much as 200 or 250 yards ahead, when they appear only as small bright spots. I spied pedestrians stepping into the road to avoid unshoveled sidewalks, as well as a deer in the forest as I went around a curve after dark.
The system is a big help on a two-lane highway when oncoming headlights temporary obscure your vision; you can see on the screen what's ahead in your lane. I also think it would be invaluable in avoiding pets, as well as deer and other wildlife on country roads.
Buy It or Bag It?
My basic advice: Buy it! (Assuming you can afford it.) It's a great sedan. I also advise paying an extra $3,000 for xDrive if you live anywhere near the snowbelt, and an extra four grand for the extra roominess of the 750Li. Check out the techie options, too. Most buyers do, which is why the 750Li with xDrive sells for an average of $95,790, according to the Power Information Network (PIN).
However, it's crazy to pay so much for a car without testing the competition. A logical alternative is Mercedes' S550 4Matic, which sells for 98 grand, on average, according to PIN. It has a less sporty ride and a more luxurious interior than the BMW. If money is no object, consider the new Porsche Panamera 4S, which sells for an average $110,552. It's roomy and very sporty but ungainly looking.
If that's too rich, wait until the new BMW 740Li comes out. Its $75,425 starting price puts it well in the same range as competitors such as the Audi A8 L 4.2 Quattro and the stunning new 2011 Jaguar XJL. The A8 starts at $79,225 and the XJL at just $72,500 (though it doesn't come with AWD).
The best bargain in the segment is the all-wheel-drive Lexus LS 460 L, which starts at $75,325, well-loaded, but seems bland next to its German rivals. Ford's (F) Lincoln Town Car and General Motors' Cadillac DTS sell for under $50,000 but aren't in the same class.
Bottom line: Whether you buy now or wait, the Bimmer is going to be hard to beat.
Click here to see more of the 2010 BMW 750Li sedan with xDrive.