Fleet News

New BMW 7-series

BMW

Review

BMW is aiming to put Britain's most exclusive fleet of test cars on the road next year in a bid to tempt key fleet and corporate drivers to switch to tomorrow's world motoring.

Seventy vehicles worth more than £35 million will be available for special loans and placements after the new, high-tech 7-Series luxury saloon goes on sale in March.

Unprecedented in the premium sector, the charm offensive is a vital part of an extensive plan to introduce the German manufacturer's crucial and long-awaited challenger to the spectacularly successful Mercedes-Benz S Class.

A select group of UK fleet industry executives have already sampled the most significant model BMW has introduced in the last decade.

In a bid to show potential corporate customers the full extent of the technology it claims will leave its arch rival trailing, the firm allowed officials from CAP, Glass' Guide, Emmox and Henley Systems to spend two days driving the car before the international press introduction got under way in Italy.

THE question springs to mind as soon as you've settled in behind the wheel of the new BMW 7-Series: where have all the switches gone?

The answer is found in iDrive, the radical system now in charge of just about all the operations that used to be managed by the army of knobs and buttons that made luxury car instrument panels look like a Concorde cockpit.

In an attempt to streamline the inevitable mass of dashboard gadgetry that has followed the rapid growth in safety, comfort and convenience features, boffins at BMW have swept away everything they regard as a potential distraction to the driver.

As a result, the business end of the flagship model being lined up to do battle with the Mercedes-Benz S Class has an open, uncluttered look. And there are precious few buttons or levers to go with the two big dials that still show road and engine speed information in the classic format.

Most equipment operations in the next-generation Seven - and there are a staggering 700 in all - are now conducted through the iDrive master control, a large domed knob at the front of the centre console.

Using computer mouse logic, it needs only to be deftly turned, nudged or prodded to command everything from the air conditioning and in-car entertainment systems to satellite navigation and suspension adjustment, and the result of every action is flashed up on a large, high-mounted monitor screen.

BMW readily accepts that most people will find its brave new world of mobile computing confusing at first, and it is producing special leaflets to help owners overcome initial problems and understand how to get the car going.

Though it may seem hard to appreciate, the high degree of electronics involved in the Seven means that normally commonplace items like the ignition key, the gear selector and parking brake all take on an unfamiliar guise - and first-timers really do need some guidance.

Even though the car will not be in the showrooms until March, sales executives have been attending training courses since May to learn a new hand-over procedure aimed at taking the mystery from what many could regard as technology overkill.

My experience of the car suggests that most owners are likely to be familiar with iDrive after two or three days' use - and by that time, they're likely to regard the instrument panels of current cars as old hat. Once you're accustomed to the logic of the system, operation is easy and a glance at the monitor is not always needed to confirm an action.

But while the procedure is fine for organising the level of heating or changing a radio station, I found it just too complex and slow for altering suspension settings - when you're hurtling toward a tight corner and need the sport mode, the instant response of an old-fashioned button wins every time.

There's a lot more to the car than iDrive, of course. Dramatic new bodywork provides lots more room, particularly in the rear, the level of luxury is even higher and the new Valvetronic engines manage to produce higher power from less fuel. In the 4.4-litre version I drove, acceleration was impressively smooth and rapid.

Progress was almost inaudible at cruising speeds, and the six-speed automatic transmission - a first in a production car - operated with seamless efficiency.

When I finally managed to set the dampers in sport mode, I found the Dynamic Drive active suspension remarkable in endowing a car of limousine proportions with the nimble behaviour of a small saloon. While soaking up the bumps, it also allowed the car to be flicked through bends at high speed without incurring appreciable bodyroll.

Prices and equipment levels are still to be finalised, but BMW UK claims specifications will be appreciably higher when the 735i and 745i lock horns with the S Class at between £50,000 and £55,000.

The company expects to be selling more than 3,000 units annually by 2004, when the range will have been widened by the addition of 730 petrol and diesel models, V12 and long wheelbase versions.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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