The latest version of the BMW 7 Series may have more in-car electronics than a Best Buy. Now, though, iDrive unenthusiasts can breathe a little easier since it's grown more mature and more user-friendly. There's a rash of new computer-processed features too, but most of them are not difficult to learn to use--and some of its cutting-edge entertainment and luxo-tech features have become intuitive.
2009 BMW 7-SeriesEnlarge Photo
A friendlier iDrive
One of the features that did more to cloud the last 7 Series' reputation was iDrive, a controller that was intended to replace a vast array of buttons and switches with a single knob that spun, clicked, and whirled its way through radio, climate control, and navigation functions. It worked about as well as a street map in Tokyo--no matter how you tried to direct it, you always ended up somewhere else through no fault of your own.
This time around, iDrive's been gutted down to the studs, with a mostly new logical flow. The base screen gives more discrete options for functions like climate control and navigation--more like Audi's Multi-Media Interface, which has really lit the way for more usable controllers like iDrive and Mercedes' COMAND. There's simply less whirling and clicking to get to some functions; tilting the controller right in navigation, for example, gives you a choice of views (like three-dimensional flyovers, a favorite) while rotating enables radio presets to fly by. On the old iDrive, it was a challenge simply to find a way to click through the AM band.
Another big improvement--and one that runs counter to the original iDrive mission--is the addition of more buttons. You're only one click away now from navigation, audio, or phone functions from the buttons arranged around the iDrive controller; there's also a "back" button and two more programmable keys (for a total of eight). The new switches completely clear up the intent of iDrive for newbies. It's not a single device to replace other devices; it's a navigational aid to wade through the 7 Series' web of controls. If you treat it like a web browser, it acts like one.
2009 BMW 7-SeriesEnlarge Photo
Fear of a black panel?
One of the arguments for the iDrive system, BMW engineers say, over touchscreen systems is that it enables drivers to keep their eyes on the road ahead and on the gauges. The new 7 Series tries even harder to steer drivers away from the big 10-inch main screen with a new set of "black panel" gauges that change from minimal instrument outlines to a full-blown display with car information readouts, navigation instructions, and music playlists.
On the black panel, the basic layout is simply a digital simulation of four big circular gauges, with needle and scale markings. Opening the door enables the readout for fuel economy and range; pushing the Start button calls up other functions and any relevant warning lights. On the road, the driver can toggle around for all sorts of information, even the need for a service call. Essentially, it's another workaround for iDrive, and it works neatly.
The combination of iDrive and gauges gets even more intimate when the optional head-up display is ordered. Drivers can use the display to choose music or to place a call without shifting their glance from the road. The GPS also puts arrow displays into the head-up display--something my co-pilot and I found very useful wending our way into the reconstructed center of Dresden, Germany.