Pros: Balance of supple ride and decent handling, Brakes, Safety
Cons: Disappointing engine performance and oomph, Steering too light, Expensive
Normally, I wouldn't be driving around in an $80,000 car like the BMW 740i, but today I had the chance to drive one as part of BMW's "Ultimate Drive for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation" program (also drove the Z3 Coupe 3.0i; see my other review). I've been a passenger in a 1997 740iL before, but never had the chance to drive one, especially drive it hard and to the limits like I did today.
The 7-series come in following models: 740i (4.4L V8 engine), 740iL (L=longer wheelbase, a 740i with more rear legroom), 750iL (5.4L V12), and the 7-Series Protection Series (armored cars, only about 20 sold in a year). I decided to drive the 740i because I wanted to do a comparison with a 2001 Mercedes-Benz S500 that I drove recently (review coming up soon). Although the Mercedes has a slightly bigger engine than the 740i, they are both V8s with similar power ratings. Plus, I didn't get to drive a S430, which is probably the direct competitor to the 740i due to similar prices.
My 740i came with the Sports Package which includes upgraded wheels and tires (18" wheels, with huge 235/50 ZR18 (front) and 255/45 ZR18 (rear) Michelin Pilot Sport tires) and the 5-speed "Steptronic" "three-mode" pseudo-manual automatic transmission. The 7-series is in its last year (the completely redesigned 2002 models are coming later this year) and the look has aged very well but it is definitely an aging design. With Mercedes-Benz and their beautiful new S-Class to comparison shop, the BMW does look a bit outdated now. Even so, the design integrates the BMW family look very well, with the traditional front kidney grill that is very flat and wide, and a profile that gives the car a wide stance and aggressive look that is different than the "cute" look of the Z3 and the 3-series.
For a luxury car, the design works well: it is conservative enough for its consumer base, yet has a sporty flair and athletic look that makes up the rest of the BMW line. The trunk is big, but I've seen bigger trunks on American luxury cars. Unlike the Mercedes S500, there are no neat gadgets like automatically closing doors or trunk. In fact, Mercedes beats out the BMW in the gadget category with no arguments. I'm sure the 2002 7-series will respond with even more gadgets, as is the case with those two competing German car makers.
The 17-way powered "Contour Sport Seats" are firm and supportive, but a bit too firm for a luxury car. I expected to sink in my seat a little, given the deceptive-looking supple gathered leather on the surface. But once I put my butt down in the car, I knew this was no Cadillac, but a German luxury car. Germans have different definitions of luxury than the Americans do. In more ways than one, as I was about to find out... The adjustment buttons are on the side of the seat (Mercedes has it on the door and in the shape of the seat), and it look me a few seconds to figure out all the buttons. For example, the button for the power up/down headrests is on the same button that controls the tilt of the seat. I thought it adjusted the up/down cushion of the seat, not the headrest. It's not as intuitive as the Mercedes's controls. The steering column is also power adjusted, and because the car has 3 "memory" settings, up to 3 people can have their own seat and steering column (and radio/climate) settings matching their keys.
The car feels roomy inside, yet it doesn't feel like a full-size car that it is supposed to be. The S500 is similar in size inside (minus the back seats), and both feel much smaller than full-sized American cars such as Buick Park Avenue or Ford Crown Victoria. The shifter is in the center console which I don't like much, but it does have a pseudo-manual shift mode (see below) that involves interaction with the shifter, so I can tolerate it being on the center console.
The center dash panel contains a screen that houses all display information about the car, from mileage and temperature to radio information to the GPS system. As a result, there are numerous buttons surrounding the screen and it's a bit daunting trying to figure out which buttons does what. Besides, the buttons are a bit too close together and probably not very easy to use while driving. The screen itself could be a lot brighter: the one on the S500 is much brighter. The GPS system is CD-based (mounted in the trunk) and the interaction with the system happens via those buttons. I think the best GPS system I've seen so far is from Acura, mostly because you can interact with it via a touch-screen, eliminating the need for all those buttons.
The automatic climate controls are mounted too low in the car (it's way on the bottom), making it very hard to reach down there, past the shifter, in order to make adjustments. BMW should have mounted it above the screen, or integrated it into the screen/computer. The power moonroof is fairly easy to operate, with one button doing the tilt and one-touch open/close functions.
Space in the rear seats are what I expected. In the 740iL I rode before, legroom was massive. If you are going to be carrying passengers and clients in the back seat often, I recommend getting the iL versions of the 7-series. The Mercedes S500 rear legroom is comparable to the 7-series iLs (740iL, 750iL): both have incredible amounts of legroom. On the 740i, there is a little sliding cupholder under the middle seat but it's far too small to be useful and I don't think that's the most optimal place for a cupholder.
I know this is a luxury car, and one doesn't write about the performance of a luxury car as they would a sports car/sedan/coupe. But this is a BMW, after all, and so I treated it like one. And the 740i turned out to be a bit of a disappointment in the performance category. Granted, it will outperform any domestic luxury car out there, but it trailed behind the Mercedes S500 and wasn't as "BMW" as I thought it would be...
Under the hood lies a 4.4-liter, 32-valve V-8 engine (with four overhead camshafts, if you're interested in knowing). BMW rates this engine at 282-hp @ 5400rpm with max torque at 324 lb-ft @ 3700rpm. In comparison (although it's not really fair, I know), the MB S500 has a 5.0L V-8 rated at 302-hp @ 5500rpm, 339 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,500 rpm. Similar figures, although the Mercedes engine is 0.6L bigger in displacement. So one would expect both cars to perform similarly. This was not the case:
1. Driving in Automatic Mode ("D")
From a standstill, the 740i takes off with urgency if the accelerator is pressed down to the floor. I even managed to make the rear wheels spin a little, which is always fun. There is enough in-your-butt torque, but I was wishing for a bit more from a V8 engine of this size. I guess I was wrong in expecting a Ford Mustang V8 kind of torque from this car. From a cruising speed of 40-50mph, however, a quick flooring of the gas pedal takes about 0.5 seconds for the engine to respond and propel you forward. At this point, the quiet engine makes itself heard and the car takes off. In comparison, the S500 responds almost instantaneously and with greater force and the engine sound is a bit nicer in the Mercedes. How about that? A Mercedes engine sounds better than a BMW engine! I was surprised myself. I tried this at different speed and with the same results: the 740i takes a half second to respond and the pull is not as strong as in the S500.
2. Driving in Sport Mode ("S")
Move the shifter from "D" to the left and you enter into "S" mode. This, I found, causes the car to shift a bit later than in the "D" position. That is, it lets you go up further on the RPM scale before it upshifts for you. I don't really see a point in this, other than to decrease your gas mileage, but I didn't come up with this idea, so don't ask me. I don't see very many people driving in "S" mode. Also because if you wanted to go into reverse from "S", you have to move the shifter to the right and then up two notches. I accidentally entered Manumatic mode from "S" when I really meant to go into reverse.
3. Driving in Manumatic Mode ("M-- 1 2 3 4 5")
From the "S" position, if you tap the shifter up (away from you) you downshift and if you tap it down (towards you), you upshift. This is the "clutchless" manual, or "manumatic" as some call it, transmission mode. I kept getting the downshifts and upshifts mixed up, since tapping it up cause the car to downshift. And I found my left foot reaching for the non-existent clutch pedal. Needless to say, this is a pretty disorienting exercise for someone used to driving a stick shift. It takes a few moments to get used to shifting without a clutch, but the engine responds in about the same manner. Surprisingly, downshifting causes the computer to open up the throttle before moving down to the next gear, as a human would. However, when coming to a stop, if I downshift to 1st gear while the car is still in motion, the car automatically goes back up to 2nd if I am not stopped. That annoyed me, since I am supposed to be able to control the gears myself, and yet the car/computer is doing it for me! But on the upshifts, you can use the manumatic mode to rev the engine up to the redline before shifting which is a fun thing to do. Seriously, though, I also don't see many people using this every day. It's a novelty item that will wear off quickly since it pretty much takes away the reason why you got an automatic transmission in the first place: to not worry about changing the gears.
In sum, the 740i has disappointing handling characteristics for a BMW, but for a luxury car this size, it's still impressive. If you're serious about the curves and corners, the S500 is the car to get. The ride in the 740i is fairly cushy and pleasant without being too floaty, even with the Sports Package. I think BMW did a nice job here. On the other hand, the Mercedes S500 has a fairly harsh ride and feels more like a sports sedan than a luxury car. There is a bit of tire noise at higher speeds (from those Michelin Pilot Sport performance tires), but wind noise and outside noise is nicely blocked out, as a luxury car should.
On the corners and curvy roads, the 740i handles fairly well, although it's not as fun as, say a Z3 or 3-series, due to its big size. I didn't feel the urge to "toss" it around, nor did I feel like the car was telling me that it wanted to play. No, it drove on the twisties because I told it to, and it did it fairly well. There was a bit of body roll when doing an aggressive brake & turn-in & accelerate-out move through a right-hand corner, but the car regained its composure quickly. I wish the car had a bit more soul, though. Opening the moonroof and the windows to hear the engine sound helped a little, but this was definitely no nimble sports sedan. But in comparison, the Mercedes S500 was a lot more fun (again, quite a surprise for me) and more aching to be thrown around in the corners compared to the 740i.
The brakes are very impressive and will stop the car immediately when slammed. Coming to a stop from 50mph (the ABS kicked in as well) was very quick and the brake pedal felt solid and the brakes did not fade. However, the brake pedal has a little amount of travel before the pads meet the rotors, unlike on the 3-series or in the Z3. Perhaps the pads were worn down in the car that I drove. The car, however, nose-dives quite a bit, but not as much as I've seen in American luxury cars (which doesn't stop as fast as the 740i either). It is a heavy car, after all; 4250 lbs. to be exact.
Also, the steering wheel was very light and boosted, yet surprisingly, it was precise and the car steered wherever I pointed. I didn't expect American luxury car-like steering feel on a German car, but that's what it was! (The S500 has much stiffer steering.)
In the end, most buyers of the S-Class and 7-series will not care about the performance of the cars as much as I would. Most folks wouldn't even think about driving this "spirited" with a full passenger load or with an important client or business associate. After all, they are buying it for the luxury, the gadgets, and the status. But one of the big reasons why I would choose a German luxury car over an American one (and pay 2-3 times the price) is because German luxury cars offer handling and performance characteristics not typical in a car of this size or class. Otherwise, I'd be happy in a Cadillac, Lincoln, or Buick.
The main question here is whether the BMW 740i is worth the premium over less expensive (yet still just as luxurious) American luxury cars. The BMW 740i has a performance advantage over the domestics, but given that there is another German car, the Mercedes S500, with much better performance (and maybe not as much of a luxurious, cushioned ride), the BMW doesn't make much sense. A luxury car, first and foremost, must carry its driver and passengers in comfort, offer a nice supple ride, be relatively quiet, be conservatively styled, and have lots of convenience features. Performance is an added bonus for the driver who may be stuck with a large luxury sedan due to family or business reasons, who wants to take it out for a fun spin on the weekends by him/herself. For that purpose, I say that the Mercedes S500 will do the double duty quite nicely. Sorry, BMW, but you have to give me more compelling reason for me to choose the 740i over the Mercedes S500 if I'm spending that kind of money on a car. Otherwise, I think I'll just stick to my American luxury cars...