Is This a Car, or a 5,000-Pound Computer?
BMW’s 760Li is a 12-cylinder, 438-horsepower, $122,000 dream machine, but you’ll have to love gadgets to love this machine
By Thomas Ryll

Few of us will own a $100,000-plus car in our lifetimes, and not many more of us will even have the chance to ride in one.

In the past year or two I’ve been spoiled by a couple $130,000 Mercedes-Benz S-Class machines and subjected to a $115,000 Hummer H1, the driving of which is pretty much like living through a mortar barrage.

But for the past few months I’ve been content to roam around town in a $3,000 donkey sled of a minivan, the equivalent of a refrigerator carton with front-wheel-drive.

When the time came for a one-week escape with a $122,000 BMW 760Li, sliding behind the wheel after weeks of deprivation was just shy of breathtaking. Acres of perforated leather cover the seats; suede coats the ceiling. The back seat is more comfortable than the front seats in many cars. And it’s all in a package whose taillights probably cost more than what I paid for the nine- year-old minivan.

With its 12 cylinders and stretched rear legroom, the 760Li, like other mega-dollar sedans, is a car that will be driven by some owners, and ridden in—chauffeur at the wheel—by others.

The work of BMW styling chief Chris Bangle isn’t universally loved, and I have yet to see a Bangle design I like. That aside, while the 760Li won’t be mistaken for anything else, it still allows a sort of big-ticket anonymity. These cars are noticed mostly by the few who already own them, and a few more who covet enough cylinders to motivate three lesser vehicles.

With 435 horses under the hood, this sedan leaves creditors behind in a furious hurry, accelerating from 0 to 60 in less than six seconds. One glorious stab at the gas pedal launches the 760Li into velvety smooth orbit.

And you are the rocket scientist, providing you are familiar with the 221-page instruction book. For this is not so much a car as a 5,000-pound, wood-trimmed, airbag-stuffed computer. Every recent car, from the lowly Kia Rio sedan on up, has some sort of computer, handling, at a minimum, engine management functions to maximize fuel economy, minimize emissions and make it possible to turn the key and drive off.

But engineers have done wonders to make these devices, and their functions, invisible. Like a Dell wired to a living room coffee table, the 760Li puts its computing power on display, courtesy of what BMW calls the iDrive system: a silver, three-inch-diameter wheel on the console between driver and passenger, linked to a monitor on the dash. The iDrive is used to control functions at eight “compass” points; the four primary areas are communication, GPS navigation, entertainment and climate.

If you’re the kind of person who can’t wait to fire up your laptop every morning, the 760Li and its iDrive are for you. The silver wheel is, pure and simple, a computer mouse; with its point- and-click, push-and-pull, what-the-hell-am-I-doing functions, iDrive appeals to the Bill Gates in all of us. Need to fiddle with the treble control on the stereo? Crudely unsophisticated automobiles accomplish this in insultingly sophomoric ways, such as requiring you to reach for a button marked “treble” on the radio.

The 760Li dispenses with that humiliating simplicity; instead, you manipulate the iDrive knob through as many as seven delightfully time-consuming steps until, like magic, the treble setting has been adjusted. Now you know where the designers of your spreadsheet program are moonlighting.

In that the 760Li is a chauffeur-class car, there’s a second iDrive control for the back seat. It serves two functions: (1) to allow the owner to wrest control from the chap behind the wheel, or (2) to allow the owner enough time—say, during a cross-country trip—to plumb the depths of the 760’s sophistication.

(My favorite screen on the iDrive setup contained four icons and a column of letters that read, Auto P, PDC pic., EDC, MFL and TPM. I’d tell you what they mean, but I would have to get out the instructions.) A few of the 760Li’s mysteries are hidden in more conventional ways, behind unmarked controls. (What’s that button? Aha, it’s a phone keypad that pops out of the dash. That other button? It looks like another cell phone but opens the glovebox. And why wouldn’t it be another cell phone—after all, the dash has two CD players, one with a single slot, the other with a multiple-disk changer. Oh, and that unmarked button on the single-disk player is a volume control. Of course, there are also volume-control buttons on the steering wheel. But what are those two unmarked silver buttons near the top of the wheel rim? Paging Mr. Gates.)

Oh, but what pampering lies behind this sedan’s doors, which use hydraulic struts to keep them open at any position. Heated and even air-conditioned seats are no big deal these days, but the 760Li up front has butt massagers to ease the discomfort of long trips. The two back-seaters get their own overhead climate control, but they’ll have to fight over the lone lighted vanity mirror that drops down from the ceiling. That climate control is an $1,800 option, but comes with the “Coolbox,” a mini-fridge behind the rear-seat center armrest.

The 760Li is all about unbounded complexity and sophistication, a car taken to extreme heights in the name of comfort and performance. What else can be said of a vehicle with programmable interior lighting? To open the driver’s door is to be amazed that this thing even needs a steering wheel. Or a driver.

The 760Li is a button-pusher’s dream, with many traditionally mechanical functions replaced by electronica. Push remote control/key module into dash. Push starter button. Push parking-brake button. Wiggle tiny gearshift lever and push into gear. Trying to pull away without releasing the brake? The 760Li won’t let it happen, but it’s done with electric brains, not brawn.

But what of the satisfying ratchety sound of a parking brake being engaged, or the thud when it is released? What about the motions of twisting a key to fire the engine, or grabbing a substantial shift lever to move from “P” to “D”?

There were motorists decades ago who despised the invention of the electric starter, salvation of all those limp-wristed owners who didn’t have the biceps to hand-crank their Model Ts. Eighty- plus years later, the 760Li goes the next step, and then some. And it just might be that someday all cars will have some of this amazing sedan’s DNA.

For now, the 760Li is an extraordinary machine that is to most automobiles what the PC is to pencil and paper: far more expensive, sophisticated and capable—but vast overkill on those days when all you want to do is communicate without reaching for an instruction book.

BrainstormNW - February 2004

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