A BMW with a Long Seduction Curve

BMW's 7-series is wonderful--once you figure it out

Imagine a car that knows you as well as your spouse does. Insert the ignition key, and the car immediately responds to your personal desires: The seat glides into position, while the back rest wraps snugly around your middle and the cushion beneath you extends to support--and even massage--your thighs. Mention a radio station, and 13 speakers surround you with your favorite tunes.

You can have that kind of relationship with the 2002 BMW 7-series. Just don't expect to fall in love right away. You will have to spend a considerable amount of time getting to know this car first.

Billed by BMW as the most advanced sedan ever, the flagship 7-series, starting at $68,495, is an astonishing vehicle. It is also maddeningly complex. I spent more time studying the owner's manual than I did preparing for my first driving test. Oddly enough, the very controls that confounded me were intended to make the 7-series simpler to operate.

BMW designers recognized that modern luxury cars had so many computerized gadgets that drivers were overwhelmed. Their solution: Take all those controls and merge them into one system called iDrive, operated with a single mouse-like device and a computer screen mounted high on the dashboard.

Sounds simple enough: Just point and click to turn on the radio, the air conditioning, or the heated seats. But first, you must wade through a series of menus by tugging, twisting, and pressing the mouse-like device, which is a knob on the end of the armrest called the iDrive controller. The motion itself comes naturally for anyone who has played a video game or used a desktop computer. What's difficult is sorting through the menus--some 700 options in all. Obviously, none of this is to be done while you're driving.

Fortunately, you can control many common functions, such as radio volume or frequency, by switches on the steering wheel. Or you can use a voice command system. But here again, you need to learn which of the 270 voice commands will bring the desired response. Frustrated by the car's repeated "pardon me?," I found it easier to adjust the radio by turning an old-fashioned black knob under the newfangled screen.

BMW's bold experiment with iDrive has triggered plenty of controversy. Many automotive journalists have criticized the German auto maker for going too far in its quest for technical superiority over rivals such as Mercedes-Benz. They might be right.

Try starting the car. Instead of turning a conventional key, the 7-series is operated by a thick remote-control fob inserted into a slot in the dash. Then, with your foot on the brake, push a red button to start the engine. With an electric rather than conventional hydraulic transmission, shifting the 7-series into gear is also a bit unusual. Instead of a traditional shift lever, you control the car's movement with a flick of a finger on a device attached to the steering column--a stubbier version of a turn-signal lever. Pull it toward you to release the car from park. Tug it up or down to put the car in drive or reverse. Push the button on the end to park. (Remember to explain these functions to valet-parking attendants.)

What gets overlooked in all the tech brouhaha is how wonderful the 7-series is to drive. Once you get under way, the car is a dream. Both the 745i and the longer, more luxurious 745Li come with a new 4.4-liter V-8 that generates 325 horsepower--15% more than the engine it replaces. This fall, the top-of-the-line 760Li will appear with an even-more-powerful V-12 engine. Handling is superb with new rack-and-pinion steering and BMW's "active roll stabilization," which keeps the car incredibly flat even on sharp curves. All told, the 7-series is a car you can fall in love with--if you can survive the long courtship.

By Joann Muller

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