High-quality materials and elegant design make the 7 Series cabin an exceedingly pleasant place to conduct the business of driving. Because the iDrive system eliminates so many switches and knobs, the dash looks particularly clean and elegant. Beautiful, buttery leather trim is used throughout, and a variety of materials create interest, without making the interior look busy. Wood trim is spread tastefully on the dash, center console and elsewhere. BMW offers light- or dark-stained Black Cherry with a matte finish, or light or dark high-gloss Ash. I loved the light Black Cherry for its timeless elegance; I did not care for the optional strip of wood on the back dash.
The two front cup holders are handsome, high-tech, and practical. The sun visors do not appear to live up to the quality of the rest of the interior, though. The standard roof liner in the 745i reminds us of fine suit material, something you might encounter on a woman's business jacket, and BMW says many of the interior materials were inspired by the fashion industry. The 760Li's roof is lined with Suede-like alcantara.
Any of the front seats offered are supportive and comfortable. The standard seats in the 745i adjust 14 ways; the upgrade Comfort Seats, standard on the long-wheelbase models and optional on the 745i, adjust in 20 directions. Moreover, some adjustments are automatic, including the headrests, which change height according to the position of the seat. The wide-shoulder seats included in the sport package have bolstering on par with those in a sports car. The V12 760Li includes Active Seat Ventilation (optional on the V8s), which cools the front and rear seats in the summer by blowing air through micro-perforations in the leather, and adds a vibrating feature. Leather trim elsewhere inside is perforated to complement this option.
All 7 Series sedans feature dual-zone temperature and airflow adjustment for the front passengers; the 760Li adds separate temperature adjustments for each side of the rear seat. For 2004, the 7's climate controls have been improved with an automatic humidity control that maintains relative humidity near an optimal 40 percent. A new misting sensor detects misting on the windshield and automatically wipes it off.
Rear seats are roomy and comfortable. The long-wheelbase L models provide as much rear legroom as you'll find this side of a stretch limo. Waterfall LED atmosphere lighting inside the C-pillars adds to the elegance of the rear seats. The 760Li includes power sunshades for the rear and rear side windows, as well as rear Comfort Seats (optional on the 745Li). These include electric heating and 14-way power adjustments, with a control that allows rear seat passengers to move the front passenger seat forward. Having a skilled professional drive you around while you luxuriate in back is not the worst way to travel.
Under power, the 7 Series cabin remains whisper quiet. The only sound we could hear while driving the 745i over San Antonio's busy freeways was the tires whacking over expansion joints or humming across grooved concrete. Ambient noise is wonderfully deadened inside, making conversation easy and pleasant.
The quiet cabin provides a perfect environment for a superb stereo that delivers crisp highs, sharp bass, and clear mid-range tones. BMW's optional Premium Sound Package ($1800), developed by Harman Kardon's Lexicon, is truly sensational. Unless you have a state-of-the-art stereo at home, you'll hear things in your favorite songs you've barely noticed before. The premium package delivers seven channels of surround sound through 13 speakers, including a pair of subwoofers ingeniously integrated into the chassis itself, and includes a CD changer. The optional Sirius receiver, new for 2004, opens the 7 Series to the joy of satellite radio. The subscription fee includes 60 commercial-free channels of music and 40 of news, sports and talk. It's great for tuning into FoxNews or CNN or a myriad of sports channels and you need never switch from your favorite music channel when driving across the country.
The 7 Series provides more interior storage space than some of its competitors, but storage isn't one of its strengths. The center console lid is split down the middle to create a pair of leather-covered access doors. Our console was filled with CD storage, a cellular telephone and the owner's manual, and we decided that it would be preferable to eliminate the CD storage and put the owner's manual someplace else. Likewise, much of the space in the elegantly designed glove box was taken by the CD changer. We'd prefer putting the CD changer in the trunk, or eliminating it altogether in favor of the single in-dash CD, to gain easily accessible storage.
BMW's voice-activation system works reasonably well for people willing to take the time to learn how to program and use it. We'd likely use it for a few key features, like calling home, checking voice mail, or switching among two or three favorite radio stations. It'll do much more for those willing to invest some time in it, however. To use it, press the SVS button and give it a command. A command to remember is "Options," because that will prompt the system to call out a list of recognized commands you can use. "Radio on" turns the radio on. Saying "106.7" switches the station to FM 106.7. You can also tell it to play CD track number five. You can really impress friends (and kids) if you set up only a couple of functions.
Technology is everywhere inside the 7 Series, and this embrace of technology separates it from other cars. We thought the Mercedes-Benz S-Class was loaded with stuff until we tried this one. Working the systems inside the 7 comes closer to operating a computer than any mainstream production car we've seen. There's a downside to all this technology, to be sure. It requires familiarization (and effort) to begin to master it, and many will find the learning curve steep. Even simple, intuitive operations that we learned the first time we drove a car no longer apply in the 7 Series. You'll have to relearn old techniques just to start this sedan, release its parking brake and back it out of the driveway.
To start the car you insert the key, except that it's an electronic device rather then a traditional key. Then you press the start button next to the key slot. Press another button to release the electronically controlled parking brake. To shift into reverse, pull a small lever on the dash toward you. Snick the lever down into drive to go forward. The "shifter'' feels more like a switch or an electronic stalk than a mechanical shifter because it is, indeed, an electronic switch. There is no mechanical link between the selector and the transmission. It's controlled "by wire," and takes some practice to use as quickly as a traditional gear selector. This immediately became clear while trying to make a quick Y-turn on a street in downtown San Antonio, a move that was not performed as quickly and elegantly as we had intended. However, once mastered, the 7 Series shifter may end up being quicker and less troublesome than a traditional automatic shifter, most of which require that the driver look down to ensure the proper gear is selected, troublesome when in a hurry.
BMW's iDrive system takes automotive operation closer to computer interface than we've come before. iDrive relies on a big, round aluminum knob on the center console to operate most everything in the cabin, including climate controls, automotive functions, entertainment, communications and navigation. Capt. Kirk never had it so good.
The iDrive knob turns like a volume knob, presses down like a switch, and slides in eight directions (left and right, forward and back, and diagonally). Corresponding menus are presented on the video screen. From the main or start menu, sliding the big knob toward each of the eight compass points selects a different sub-menu, or the primary menu for a system. Slide the knob due east (toward the passenger seat), for example, and you'll leave the main menu for the stereo menu. Now rotate the knob to move around the stereo menu, and then press down as with a mouse when the cursor lands on the appropriate function (e.g. Preset Stations). As with a menu system on a computer, you may immediately reach the function you're after, or you may get another sub-menu with more selections to spin through.
BMW says it has improved iDrive for 2004 based on what it's learned through two years of production and customers' ownership experience. The improvements include two new buttons just behind the main iDrive control: one that automatically returns the display screen to the main menu, and another that can be programmed with whatever sub-menu the user prefers. The first button should help reduce frustration levels. The second button should add convenience so that the user can quickly get to the most often-used function (audio or climate, for example).
The iDrive knob is easy for the right hand to locate without a glance; the display screen is big, and can be viewed without completely removing your eyes from the road ahead. Yet, improved or otherwise, iDrive takes a fair amount of practice just to get a rudimentary grip on its operation, and you'll need to do some reading to fully exploit it. In the meantime, it's likely to raise frustration levels. During our first 350-mile test drive, for example, I never learned how to pull up a map, in spite of considerable effort exercised while sitting in the passenger seat. That said, we expect that most people will eventually master iDrive to the point where they use it as intuitively as they now push a station button, or use a computer mouse. But learning isn't the only problem. Even when you've mastered iDrive, you'll have to wade through various menus and sub-menus to finally get to the function that needs adjustment. That function may be one that simply requires you to flick a switch on a conventional dashboard. Whether that's progress is debatable.
A split screen on the display can show all kinds of information depending on the mode selected by iDrive, and the display can be customized according to owner preferences. But it's not ideal. I found the temperature readout nearly impossible to read while wearing brown-tinted polarized sunglasses.
The same issues apply throughout the 7 Series, because many controls simply don't function in the traditional fashion. I struggled to operate the turn signals, wipers and windshield washers smoothly, a struggle that may disappear with familiarity. In some cases the car anticipates what it thinks the driver will do. Often after a quick signal for a lane change, I'd unintentionally signal a move in the opposite while trying to cancel the original signal. Once again, a driver familiar with the signal lever won't likely have trouble.
Park Distance Control, a feature superbly executed in BMW's X5, has been taken to a new level in the 7 Series with a graphic display. Sonar sensors in the front and rear bumpers detect objects near the car and beep with increasing frequency as you get closer. A solid tone means you're almost touching. Different tones for the front and rear greatly assist the driver when parking in tight locations, and they can keep the car from accidentally backing into or over something that cannot be seen from inside the car, like a child on tricycle. The 7 Series takes park-assist a step further with a pictograph of the car that graphically displays the distance and location of the offending object. It sounds like a gadget, but park-assist adds convenience in daily driving and can help prevent an annoying or even tragic accident.