June 03 2009   Story: Story: Stu Fowle | Pics: Author

While the MWerks office is obviously bristling with excitement any time a new 7 Series debuts, we've got to be honest; that initial exuberance is generally followed immediately by a sigh. That's because while each new 7 promises to be more incredible than the last, it's also bound to come with so much new technology that we'd probably have an easier job running a NASA fan site. Well, we've done our first drive of the 2009 750i, we've written our impressions for you, and now we've had a chance to spend a week with a second example. We think we're now qualified to give you the rundown of all the car's new tech features, how they work, and how useful we think they are, on a scale where "5" represents the most useable technologies. So, in no particular order, here we go.

I Can See You. . . and You. . . and You
The E65/66 7 Series forwent a backup camera and instead relied on proximity sensors that displayed a oozing blob of green, yellow, and red around an on-screen, overhead view of the car to aid drivers in parking lots. In an effort to catch up to and pass the competition (that's what this segment is all about, after all) BMW has seen it fit to give the new F01 car not one, not two, but three cameras. There's the usual one in back, mounted above the license plate, giving a clear view of the back of one's garage or the bumper of another parked car, but the new 7 has two additional cameras up front, one at each corner. All the cameras are part of one single "camera package" that costs a modest $750.

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The two front cameras can be used for parking, but that isn't their primary job. Instead, they provide a wide-angled view out to each side. At a tight intersection where buildings or other vehicles might be blocking the driver's view, these cameras move the driver's eyes from their inconvenient spot aft of the long hood to a position right up on the bumper. The two screens, activated by a button near the shifter, are displayed side-by-side at slight angles denoting each side of the car. Additionally, a yellow line at the bottom of each screen denotes the plane created by the car's front end.

This is one of those technologies that, like hill decent control or active cruise control, you just don't quite feel ready to trust. You want to believe that behind the plumber's van waiting to turn left, there truly isn't any traffic coming, but it seems to ridiculous to trust the camera and jump out without a getting a clear view for yourself. Still, it works as it should and is definitely nice for edging out of alleys and making sure some biker isn't going to whack your shiny paint. And we always appreciate a nice backup camera, especially when it uses the new 7's huge navigation screen.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 4.5

BMW Lazy Assist (BLA)
No, that subtitle isn't a real thing, but the 750i's $1350 Driver Assistance Package is basically just that. It's comprised of high beam assist (to avoid the painful task of moving one hand,) active blind spot detection (no more exhaustive eye and neck movements,) and, in case that lack of activity makes the driver sleepy, lane departure warning.

High Beam Assist is a pretty straightforward system; it uses a sensor on the windshield (hidden behind the rearview mirror) to determine the amount of ambient light, using that information to automatically activate or deactivate the high beams. Our busy, streetlight-illuminated routes through Chicagoland didn't allow us to test the 750i's version of the system, but we've used similar devices before. They work well but, like push-button starts, are the solution to a problem no one really knew was there.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 3.0

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The 750i's Active Blindspot Detection, a brand new technology to the whole BMW brand, is a bit more useful. The system uses sensors at the rear of the car to monitor 200 feet of adjacent lane traffic. A small warning triangle lights up when a car is within a predetermined danger area then flashes if the driver activates the turn signal. It also works in tandem with Lane Departure Warning, vibrating the steering wheel as an added warning to avoid a lane change. We're pretty good about setting our mirrors to eliminate blind spots, but with a car as large as the 750i, it's nice to have the extra warning system for some situations and times, like in the morning while our cup of joe is still cooling down to drinking temperature.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 4.5

We're not quite as sold on the Lane Departure Warning. Unlike some other companies that use chimes, BMW's system sends a rumble through the steering wheel like a PlayStation 3 controller. The vibrations are activated by a camera that detects road lines and senses when one is being crossed without a turn signal being activated. An orange display between the speedometer and tachometer uses arrows to indicate whether lines are detected on either or both sides, and a kill switch to the left of the wheel deactivates the system.

To us, the system seems to cut in early, before a line is fully crossed. And dear car, please don't tell us we're doing something wrong when we're really just giving a bicyclist a little breathing room. Furthermore, we really don't think the slight vibration is enough to shock us back into reality on a sleepy night behind the wheel. There is one advantage, though — the system will give a subtle reminder to every jerk who changes lanes without signaling.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 1.5

Night Moves
With the new 750i, BMW's current night vision system — already an industry standard due to its use of heat-sensing infrared technology — gets even smarter than before. A new pedestrian detection system senses not just whether pedestrians are present, but also which direction they're moving. If the system senses movement parallel to the road, an icon pops up indicated a pedestrian. But if they're moving in a path across the road ahead, a warning is flashed on the screen. The system studies the road as far as 1600 feet ahead over a 24-degree range from side to side.

This is easily the 750i's standout technology if your mission is to impress your passengers. To them, it'll be like taking a car ride right into the future. The part about BMW's system that makes it both more useful and more entertaining that other systems is the fact that it displays heat. As such, you can tell which wintertime pedestrians are bundled up best, see who on the road is using their brakes the most, or bust your kid when he claims he didn't sneak in late through the window. "Is that so, son? How about we let the 750 decide whether you just got home."

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As a useful safety system, night vision also does its job well. The new pedestrian warning, which targets moving figures like a jet fighter missile lock, is a great addition. Because of it, the driver is able to spend less time glancing down at the screen, taking his eyes off the road. Now, the yellow warning flashing will catch the driver's eye when extra attention should be paid. Still, it isn't exactly cheap at $2600 and we wouldn't be surprised if most buyers grabbed a few other options instead.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 3.0

Adaptive headlights don't seem unique enough to make this list of technologies, but the F01 7 Series has bi-xenon lights standard with a new added feature. The auto-leveling technology used in all HID headlights is now earning its keep with this new car, taking into account hills and ramps to have adaptive functionality both side-to-side and up-and-down. When cresting a hill, the lights automatically tilt down, saving the eyes of oncoming motorists. In addition, as is common with all new BMW models, the "angel eye" rings around the headlights are now used as daytime running lamps.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 4.0

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Digital Dynamism
The last-generation 7 Series had a steering wheel-mounted control to cycle between "comfort," "sport," and "manual" settings for the transmission, but with the F01 car BMW has taken the car's level of adaptability to new heights. A new Driving Dynamics Control (DDC) system alters shock absorber stiffness, throttle response, shift points, power steering assist, and the threshold where stability control cuts the fun. Four different setting groups are preset: Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus. Each is fairly self-explanatory; Comfort works well for hangovers, while Sport Plus keeps the turbos spooled and almost makes the 750i feel like an M car. Switching between settings triggers a graphic on the infotainment screen showing the car's suspension and drivetrain. In the sportier modes, the car's mechanicals glow red.

While these four modes are preset, Sport has the added ability to be edited by the driver. Using the iDrive controller, the driver can fine-tune each of the five components of the system individually. The edits are saved and set as default, though each time the car is restarted, it resets itself to Normal mode.

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In just about any normal driving situation, Sport Plus is simply too angry. We found ourselves using the other settings often, however. For most of us, our commute home involves some sitting on the highway mixed with some back street shortcuts and city driving. Comfort mode was wonderful for soaking up potholes and just sailing along, while Sport gave the added response that came in very handy to make quick business of stop signs and navigating traffic. Normal mode is just fine, too, but we enjoyed switching between the more dedicated settings rather than the compromise. And for more about the suspension geometry itself (the new 7 gets a new double-wishbone front setup) you'll want to go back and read our original first drive story.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 5.0

BMW is offering a few other technologies developed to aid handling, but unfortunately they're only available with the Sport package, which our car didn't have. As such, we weren't able to test the new Integral Active Steering, which includes rear-wheel steering that reduces the car's turning circle by 27.5 inches, or the Active Roll Stability, a carry-over technology that adjusts the car's anti-roll bars to respond to different conditions.

Touch and Go
As with other 2009 BMW models, the new 7 Series gets a new generation of iDrive that's been heavily reworked to be more intuitive. There are more buttons on the console-mounted controller itself, and the different indexes and pages are now easier to navigate. In the 7, everything is displayed on a huge 10.2-inch screen with hugely improved resolution. We're quite happy with the new iDrive, but it's something you'll have to use yourself to pass judgment.

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Looking beyond iDrive, there's a lot to love about the 750i's big infotainment screen. Such as the new navigation system, which is far easier to read than its predecessor and offers both two- and three-dimensional views, the latter displaying topographical changes. We drove in and around Chicago, so our map never had the opportunity to take advantage of this functionality. The navigation information is now stored on a hard drive that also has space allotted for uploaded music. Unfortunately, our car didn't come with BMW's new internet service, so we can't report on that.

Perhaps the coolest new graphic addition to the car's electronics is that the entire owner's manual is now computerized inside the car. Some folks that like to use those books as bathroom reading will be disappointed, but a forest out there is thankful - some of the more recent 7 Series manuals have resembled Encyclopedia Britannica sets. The new digital manual allows one to search an index or browse by certain regions of the car. It's quite fun to play with.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 4.5

Terminator Gauges
The 750i's new gauge cluster is the automotive equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger's T1000 character in Terminator 2. At its surface, the cluster looks like a traditional BMW layout with white letters and needles over a black background. But they aren't the organic, traditional dials you're used to, because on closer look, they're fully entrenched in the digital age. Only the needles, secondary gauges (temp and fuel level,) and two-thirds of the out rings of the primary gauges are solid, unchanging elements. The numbers inside the speedometer and tachometer and everything below them are part of BMW's new "Black Panel" display, which you'll see trickling down the line into other products soon.

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When the ignition button is pressed, digital fuel range and fuel economy gauges illuminate to complete the lower sections of the outer rings of the speedometer and tach and a profile image of the 750i flashes across the center of the screen, along with service information. But that's just the beginning. The high-definition screen that makes up the dark background of the cluster is able to display a whole catalogue of information. Pressing the right buttons brings audio information, navigation information, or Bluetooth phone options to the screen, with the purpose being that displaying this information here allows the driver to look forward at all times. When additional readouts aren't needed and are thus a distraction, they fade to black.

A second black panel should satisfy one complaint many people had with the last 7 Series. It's mounted below the navigation screen and displays climate control information. There's no longer any need to access iDrive to control some climate functions. Halleluiah.
MWerks Usefulness Index: 5.0

Odds and Ends
As is expected, the 750i is littered with a series of smaller technologies that aren't worth an in-depth look but are still appreciated. As with its predecessor, it offers a massaging driver's seat, along with power sunshades for the rear and rear side windows. Dynamic cruise control is now standard, as is a wonderful high-fidelity sound system. The lights at all four corners get more intricate "light tube" shapes and inside, ambient red lighting is included.

As a whole, we'd have to give the new 750i's bevy of tech features pretty high marks for usability. Some options are obviously more useful than others, and it's up to buyers to decide which systems are worth the money. Looking at just the standard features, BMW's latest flagship manages to be both easier to control and more advanced at the same time. We'd define that as the type of progress anyone can love.