by John Matras
The ultimate enthusiast's luxury sedan.
Base Price $62,970
As Tested $67,270
Like a linebacker performing a pas de deux, big cars aren't supposed to be agile. But with the new Sport Package, the BMW 740i puts a lie to that expectation by hustling down winding roads like a two-seat roadster. The 740i is a handlin' fool and it's powered by a 4.4-liter V8 with even more torque than last year. It is a luxury car for the enthusiast.
The 740i is the shorter member of BMW's big 7 Series sedan line. The 740iL and 750iL have a longer wheelbase for limousine-like rear legroom. While the 740i and 740iL are powered by the V8, the 750iL comes with a magnificent V12. The shorter 740i, hardly a runt, has a 115.4 inch wheelbase and stretches to a full 196.2 inches from stem to stern. It has those BMW trademarks, the dogleg C-pillar and the classic double-kidney grille flanked by quad-headlamps served under glass. The 7 Series is distinguished from smaller Bimmers by kidneys wider than tall, though still with the obligatory vertical slats.
The V8 powering the 740i (and the 740iL) also graces BMW's faster 5-Series models. Swiss watches should have the same engineering elegance. A cover makes the 32-valve double-overhead cam engine look more like a Romulan starship, but the real space age stuff lies underneath, including Bosch HFM-Motronic M5.2.1 with adaptive knock control and VANOS. No, not an archvillan or Star Wars locale, VANOS is an acronym for the German VAriable NOckerwellen Steurung, which translates into "variable valve timing" and can't be used in Scrabble. New this year, VANOS didn't alter the V8's peak power output, a healthy 282 horsepower at 5400 rpm, but it beefed up the torque to 324 pounds-feet at 3700 rpm, bettering last year's output by 14 and lowering the peak by 200 rpm. Normally, we'd say this should make the '99 740i more flexible around town, but the older models hardly had a problem. The new V8s will accelerate faster and are certified for the government's LEV, or low emission vehicle, standard. The V8 also gets long-life spark plugs, and oil-change intervals are now 100,000 miles on average (calculated by an on-board computer).
All 7 Series models come equipped with a 5-speed automatic transmission, but the 740i with the Sport Package features Steptronic transmission control (as does the 750iL). The visible part of Steptronic is a gear selector with a special quadrant. Instead of the usual PRNDL, Steptronic ends at "D." The lever can be slid to the left into another slot for a semi-automatic mode. In this slot, moving the lever rearward selects a lower ratio, moving it forward goes up one. Steptronic can be overridden, sudden full throttle will cause it to downshift, and it will upshift when maximum revs are reached.
The Sport also has a shorter final drive ratio, 3.15:1 instead of the usual 2.81:1, for quicker acceleration. It also includes a torque converter with a higher stall speed for a quicker jump off the line. Underneath, the 740i Sport retains the basic 7 Series suspension: double-pivot strut-type front suspension with forged aluminum lower arms, and four-link independent rear suspension with twin-tube shocks, and anti-roll bars front and rear. But the front suspension is lower by 0.8-inch, springs are 10 percent and 25 percent firmer front and rear while shocks are twice as firm as on the standard 740i. The 740i Sport Package also gets a bigger-22 mm vs. 20.5 mm-front anti-roll bar.
The sharp-eyed may notice the lowered front end and Shadowline exterior trim (matte-black replacing chrome around the side windows, body-side molding and windshield washer jets). The most obvious external cues to the Sport Package are the elegant 18-inch M Parallel Spoke wheels, eight inches wide in front and an inch and a half wider at the rear. The front rims are mounted with 235/50ZR-18 performance tires while the rears are wrapped with fantastic 255/45ZR-18 performance rubber.
The Inside Story
The 740i is a luxury car, something that adding performance bits won't change, obvious to anyone who slips into either front or rear seat. As the Sport Package is available only on the shorter-wheelbase 7 Series, back seat passengers won't get the legs-out-straight room or the footrest of the L models, but 740i has room enough for three authentic adults to be comfortable in back. The Sport Package has its own version of sport front seats that, in addition to providing lateral support for enthusiastic driving, have an articulated backrest that flexes up to 27 degrees for more or less shoulder support as desired. Thigh support - the forward portion of the seat cushion - may be extended up to 2.4 inches. Including the other 14-way power adjustments, including 4-way lumbar adjustment, that's a total of 18 adjustments and more accommodation to one's physique than a waterbed. Full leather is standard. Appropriate to this executive hotrod, the interior is warmed with Vavona redwood trim in place of the usual burl walnut.
Ride & Drive
This may be a roomy and luxurious sedan, but that's moot for the driver who wants to see if the 740i Sport lives up to its moniker. The short answer is, "Yes, indeed." We were able to sample the Sport on the Il Potrero Highway, a sinuous California two-lane snaking through the mountains between Route 166/33 and Pine Mountain Club. The road is an excellent test of the 740's suspension, in many places broken and uneven, while twisting with some corners posted with recommended speeds as low as 10 mph. The 740i took to it like a magic carpet, whisking over the rough stuff with, if not a total absence of feel of the road, at least an insulation from the worst of the impacts. The solid chassis doesn't quiver or shake, providing a stable base for the suspension.
The suspension is remarkable for a large sedan. One might expect a safe but boring understeer designed to keep all but the talented out of trouble. Not so with the 740i Sport. The Sport turns in like a sports car, answering commands from the steering wheel with a reaction from the car as a whole unit. Instead of wanting to push straight ahead, the 740i swings around the corner, taking a set, the rear end moving out to point the car in the desired direction. It's uncanny, almost as if the big car had the telepathic qualities usually found only in two-seaters. It's a perfect example of how a well-designed suspension doesn't need electronic assistance for outstanding performance. The big Bimmer also generates impressive raw cornering forces as well, with more rubber on the ground than a tire store after an earthquake. We found ourselves swinging around corners much faster than the posted advisory speeds and with more confidence than one would expect with a car this big.
The engine is an even match for the chassis, a rolling cornucopia of flawless torque. Silent at idle or cruise, at full throttle the engine emits a mellow V8 burble with nice round vowel tones. The 740i weighs more than two tons, but there's torque abundant to push it through a 0-60 mph sprint in a quick 6.8 seconds, according to BMW, the shorter final drive ratio clipping a tenth off the run.
Using Steptronic to control the transmission yielded a more sports car-like experience with the 740i Sport. Although it lacked the intimate feel of a conventional manual transmission, the transmission responded quickly, shifting up and down without the usual delay of an automatic gearbox shifted manually and there was no chance of overshifting, as with a conventional automatic shiftlever manually controlled. Purists will still pine for a clutch pedal, but Steptronic is a reasonable compromise and possibly the best you'll get in a luxury car here in America. And anyone driving in stop-and-go traffic will appreciate the left thigh-saving feature of the automatic.
There are drawbacks to the 740i Sport. The ride is firmer than that of its standard siblings, and the lower final drive ratio exacts a penalty of two miles per gallon in both the city and highway EPA tests. The Sport Package adds $2,600 to the $62,970 list price of a 740i, but also requires a $1,700 gas guzzler tax. One can also add options including a $1,100 cold weather package (heated front seats and steering wheel, headlamp washers and ski bag), an $1,800 premium sound system, rear side-impact airbags (front side airbags and head protection system are standard), and $2,600 break-resistant security glass.
Like other BMWs, the 740i comes with free scheduled maintenance for 3 years or 36,000 miles.
It's hardly inexpensive, but it's the perfect luxury sedan for the enthusiast. After all, sometimes you need that back seat that the M Coupe just doesn't have.
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