I recently had the chance to spend a day with a very nice 2001 BMW 750iL, which is the most beautiful sedan ever made. Actually, the 750iL isn’t quite the most beautiful; that honor goes to the short-wheelbase version, which had better lines on account of the smaller rear-seating area. But you couldn’t get a V12 with the short wheelbase here in the United States, so I had a choice: Did I want to review a V12? Or a short wheelbase?
I chose the V12, largely because the long wheelbase only messes with the lines a little, but the V8 can hardly stand in for a V12. So I reached out to a viewer near San Diego, who has a pristine 2001 750iL, and I spent the day with it. And what I discovered is, it’s wonderful.
I have this theory that the early 2000s was the best time for BMW. They had two absolutely gorgeous vehicles in the E39 5 Series and the E38 7 Series. The X5 had just come out, and it, too, was gorgeous — and it made a huge splash when it debuted. The Z3 was popular, the Z8 was an amazing flagship, and the E46 3 Series was just beginning what would become an amazing run. Specifically, the 2001 model year was the pinnacle for BMW.
And the 2001 7 Series was one of the bright spots. Not only was the E38 7 Series absolutely gorgeous (and about to be replaced by the highly controversial 2002 model, with its confusing technology and unusual styling), but the last two years of the E38 saw the arrival of the “M Sport” package, which added handsome wheels and body-colored rocker panels. It was the best iteration of the best model.
The interior was wonderful, too. I’m on the record saying I prefer screens to buttons, and it’s easy to see why BMW created iDrive for the next generation of the 7 Series — the E38 model, especially the fully-equipped 750iL, simply has too many buttons. But the feel of the buttons is almost magical. There is no lever or button anywhere in the car industry that has the solid, excellent feel of an E38 BMW 7 Series turn signal stalk. The feel of the buttons almost makes the sheer number of them acceptable, since pressing them is so enjoyable.
But for those who don’t geek out over buttons like I do, you might wonder how this thing drives. The answer is: Just fine. The new 7 Series is, surprisingly, not more athletic; the E38 model was smaller, and the E38’s steering feels sharper and less over-assisted and vague. But still, the E38 750iL isn’t exactly fast, as its big V12 made just 330 horsepower — just 10 more than BMW now gets from the 2018 740i’s turbocharged 6-cylinder.
More importantly, while the 750iL feels comfortable, it’s no match for the modern 7 Series and its cushy ride, paired with its supportive, supple seats. The old model is nice, but just “nice.” Unlike the E39 M5, where you can argue there’s a real connection missed on newer models between the driver and the car, the 750iL was never about that — so the new version has a better driving experience.
But the new version just doesn’t do it for me. The E38 model was perfect, the exact right car at the right time, the right sedan for back when people still wanted great sedans. It’s almost criminal how cheap the E38 models have gotten — and while they surely have reliability issues and high running costs, I’ve always wanted one. After driving it, I’m not sure I still want one, as the driving experience isn’t exactly earth-shattering. But I know that if I had one in my garage, I’d smile every time I saw it. And occasionally, I’d walk out there just to look at it.