I'm quite certain that somewhere right now, emotionally shattered BMW technicians are gathering in a church basement for a support group, huddled around the cookies and the coffee urn, their hands fairly vibrating with frustration. For as well deserved as is the title Ultimate Driving Machine, BMWs also have earned the reputation as the Ultimate Hangar Queen, taking up residence in dealership service bays.
Yes, BMWs have middling initial quality and distinctly less-than-middling reliability — so sayeth J.D. Power — but people still buy them and adore them, because they are inarguably spectacular cars. Even the BMWs I loathe are great cars. The new 135i is uglier than a Radcliffe glee club, but it's also fierce, fervid, a bottle of Bollinger that's lost its cork.
And then there's this car, the 2009 BMW 750Li, the flagship of BMW's starfleet, which might be the best luxury sedan in the world. As a synthesis of power and grace and ease and prestige, the new 7-Series demands that we raise our ceilings and throw out our measuring sticks. There is now a new standard.
And yet, the 750Li boldly/daringly/foolishly leverages its greatness on the fulcrum of one of the company's perennial weaknesses: electronics. This car comprises a blazing amour fou of control modules, sensors, microcontrollers, solenoids and mechatronic actuators.
Our fully optioned $110,170 test car provides an acute example. Among the systems: high-resolution cameras and night vision display with enhanced pedestrian detection.
Of course, there's an 80-gigabyte, hard-drive-based navigation system, satellite radio and premium audio system; and a completely redesigned version of the iDrive controller.
My favorite? The integral active steering system, or rear-wheel steering. Below 40 mph, the rear wheels can turn as much as 3 degrees opposite the direction of the front wheels, thereby reducing the big car's turning radius. Great for parking and tight city traffic. Above 40 mph, the wheels turn in phase with the front wheels to increase handling responsiveness, cornering and agility.
Does integral active steering perform as advertised? Has Hasselhoff had work? This car carves mountain roads and dices switchbacks as if it were an M3 with a pituitary problem. No big car has ever had so much rail-to-rail slaloming agility. It's uncanny.
And so we arrive at the truest portrait of the 750Li: half machine, half machine code; a kinetic sculpture, partly aluminum and steel. Wonderful, epic, historic.
But can you trust it?
I really don't know.
There are moments on the interstate at night — when the thermal-imaging night-vision display is on, the head-up display is reading out navigation messages, the lane-departure warning system is gently reminding me to use my turn signals — that the 750Li really feels like something that comes after the Automobile.
Still, I'm nagged by doubt. All of these exotic systems, such as the head-up display (Nippon Seiki), lane-change warning (Hella) and night vision (Autoliv) come from suppliers in Japan, Germany and Sweden, respectively. The 750Li is practically the U.N. of Tier 1 suppliers. But can they all get along?
Bear in mind, all of this gear is overlaid on the car's, the brand's already fraught electronics: the e-throttle-equipped 4.4-liter, 400-horsepower, twin-turbocharged V-8 with variable valve timing on intake and exhaust cams; the adaptive six-speed ZF transmission; the adaptive dynamics system, which itself has four distinct modes that ratchet up performance thresholds. The braking module governs antilock, traction and stability control, brake "drying," brake-fade compensation. It just goes on and on.
For the BMW 750Li to work, every system and subsystem has to mind-meld with the others in a cold chatter of instant, endless algorithms, faultlessly, every time, forever and ever, amen. No wonder they go buggy.
So when I say the 750Li is the best luxury sedan in the world, imagine a weather-balloon-size asterisk. I guess, as long as it starts, it is.