BMW 745Li (2003)

"If it weren't for the nightmare of the iDrive, this would be a very nice car."
Good: superior handling, rich interior, many extras
Bad: iDrive, iDrive, iDrive

There is one reason why you should not buy this car. It's called iDrive. In an attempt to convince luxury car buyers that they are getting the latest and greatest electronic gizmos for their 77K, some knucklehead at BMW crammed all of the car's electronic controls together and gave them all one switch. Smart? Duh.

Of course, this is a wonderful car to drive, or be driven in. It's got all of the BMW's best attributes. It's sporty and luxurious at the same time. It handles like a sports sedan. It's solid as a rock, and has an engine that's incredibly smooth and powerful. But there's no way you should ever buy it.

The 7 Series was redesigned this year, with mixed results. We drove the eight cylinder 745Li, which will set you back no less than $77,121. That's the target price, but if you have to ask...well, maybe this isn't the car for you. The 745Li will be followed soon by a 12 cylinder 760Li, more expensive, and unfortunately, also with iDrive.

Once you accept the fact that it's a big car, you have to admit that the driving experience of the 745Li is quite wonderful. Although the car is on the heavy side at 4,464 pounds, it's quick and pretty agile. Like most BMWs it surges ahead powerfully when you step on the gas at any speed, and stays wonderfully flat when you're going around a corner. And it does all this while you sit in comfortable silence (silence because the car stereo is run through iDrive and you haven't been able to figure out how to turn on the radio yet). As far as the driving dynamics of the car are concerned, this is a wonderfully engineered car.


The 745Li has a new engine for BMW. More specifically, BMW has taken their existing 4.4 liter engine and completely reworked it. The modifications include something called "Valvetronic," which eliminates the traditional throttle mechanism. Instead, the speed of the engine is controlled by varying the engine's valve height. BMW claims that this change, along with assorted other engine tweaks like variable intake and exhaust valve timing, and variable intake manifold length, have increased fuel economy by 14% and added 42 horsepower to the engine. How reliable is all this? Beats us, but it certainly adds to the complexity -- which means more expensive repairs and servicing.

The 7 series automatic six speed electronic transmission is smooth enough so you don't notice the shifts. For some strange reason, it also has a semi-manual mode that allows you only to downshift via buttons on the steering wheel. This was confounding to us (I know, we're easily confounded, but YOU figure out why BMW decided they couldn't trust us to upshift by ourselves). Apparently it was confounding enough to other people that BMW reportedly plans to fix it and allow a real manual mode where you can shift up and down.

A word of caution. The 745Li is rear wheel drive. Meaning, it won't have such great handling in snowy conditions. It does come equipped with traction control, which should provide some assistance. But, if you have to bust through snowbanks on a regular routine, this isn't the car for you.

The interior is a like a rich den, with dark wood and leather, ample butt room, shoulder room and foot room. More than ample in the back, by the way, for those of you planning to BE driven. There are pieces of brushed aluminum accenting the wood and leather. Everything is high quality. Everything says "big bucks." This is a "multinational corporate officer" question about it.

The 745Li has a very cool cell phone feature. Even though we're philosophically against cell phoning while driving, we have to admit it's a great design. Just push what looks like a large button onthe dashboard, and the curved, phone keypad gently glides out. It's a rather artistic touch that, to be perfectly blunt, had our senior web lackey, Doug Mayer breathing hard.

The 745Li also has a distance warning feature, most useful in parking. Gentle beeps emanate from the speakers at whatever corner of the vehicle is getting close to something. If you hear beeping from the right rear, that means your right rear bumper is getting close to a solid object. As you get closer, the distance warning system beeps faster and faster. Unfortunately, here again is an odd technological oversight. When you're done parking, and put the car in Park, you'd think the parking warning device would shut off, right? After all, it's now done its job. You're in Park, and -- most people would have to concede -- in very little danger of driving into anything. But annoyingly, the warning beeps don't go off -- and keep beeping at you until you either shut off the warning system, or shut off the engine. For all the sophisticated electronics in this car, you'd think BMW could have had included a switch that deactivated the distance alarm when you put the car in park. Maybe that'll be in version 2.0.

Here's the car's fatal flaw: BMW's "iDrive" system. The intention of iDrive was to combine -- and therefore simplify -- all the controls, including climate, entertainment, navigation, car information and other systems. The iDrive uses a centrally located, spinning, mouse-like knob to change settings, and a centrally located computer screen in the center of the dashboard to help you navigate through iDrive's various menus.



Unfortunately, iDrive is a complete disaster. It's a lot of technology -- and yet you gain nothing. We were continually frustrated by the iDrive. It took us 15 minutes just to change the radio station (I know, I was US, you're saying. But even our more talented lackeys found it confoundingly non-intuitive and frustrating).

And let's even give BMW the benefit of the doubt. Let's say you eventually master this system and know how to get to various menus and functions. Here's the fundamental flaw: you absolutely have to take your eyes off the road to change settings, because the only way to know where you are in the iDrive system is to look at the screen.

Our guess is that someone at BMW thought this would a selling point. That it would be a gee-whiz feature that would differentiate it from the other luxury cars. And remember, this car was probably being designed at the peak of the tech bubble (remember those days of peace, prosperity, and $150 a share iToothpick prices?) Unfortunately, the iDrive is a step backwards from intuitive, simple and well-placed knobs that can be operated almost instinctively.

Now, the question becomes, does BMW dig its heels in and say "you VILL learn to luff it!" and make minor changes, or does it fess up and say "Oy, did we screw up!" and get rid of it? We can only hope someone out there in Bavaria walks into the ergonomics department and fires a bunch of people before they move this disaster into other, heretofore untainted BMW models.


The only good news here is that you don't have to mess with the iDrive all the time. There are volume controls for the radio on the steering wheel, and a couple of basic climate control knobs are on the dashboard. That's about the only thing that saved us from driving around in silence in 80 degree heat.


By the way, the iDrive isn't the only ergonomic problem with the 745Li. Adjusting the seat is harder than it should be. For that matter, starting the car seems needlessly complicated. BMW uses a slightly gimmicky start and stop button with a slide-in key/card to control the ignition. Again, our guess is that the gizmo folks trumped the car folks. Too bad.

There's a new designer at BMW, who apparently thinks that BMWs need to look more like Pontiacs. As you might imagine, this has resulted in a lot of talk about the looks of the 7 Series. But the looks didn't bother us. Granted, it's got a trunk that looks like it was borrowed from the Chrysler Cirrus. It's so out of character, in fact, that BMW is apparently is planning to change it much sooner than scheduled. We thought the rest of the car was very nice, muscular and sharp looking. Overall it's a nice looking car, and a real presence.


If you think you're going any place other than the dealer to get this car serviced, we've got news for you -- forget it. The 745 is complex, with lots of proprietary systems known only to the BMW cognoscenti. Your local mechanic around the corner will throw up his arms in disgust, if you take it to him for servicing.

As for repair costs, consider the $77,000 you'll pay for the 745 to be a downpayment, because servicing this car is going to be extremely expensive.

By the way, we've already heard of a few mechanical quirks that give us some concern about the new 745Li. The car mysteriously failed to start for us once in the morning. It cranked and cranked, but didn't turn over. We tried it again, with the same results. The car started on the third try. We've also heard some other anecdotal reports of mechanical problems in early versions of the 745Li. It's something we'll want to keep an eye on

There are a few people who must have the most current gizmos, whether it's a stereo, a television or car. The 745Li was designed with this buyer in mind. Unfortunately, what car does that leave for those of us who just like to drive BMWs? The 745Li is certainly very comfortable, plenty powerful and sufficiently luxurious. Of course, for 77 grand, it ought to be. If it weren't for the nightmare of the iDrive, this would be a very nice car. But how ticked off are you going to be if you spend 77 big ones on a car, and then crash it while you're trying to figure out how to change the radio station?

Somebody had a good time making a toy out of this car, installing every high-tech gadget they could imagine. Unfortunately, all they ended up doing was distracting from what would probably be a very nice-driving car. We object. Until BMW ditches the iDrive, this is a car we'd stay far away from -- especially if you see one coming at you, with the driver looking down at his computer screen.


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