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-Series
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-Series
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.
2009 BMW 7-Series
A little action on the side
Safety gets an intense makeover in the new 7 Series, too. Atop the expected stuff--active cruise control and night vision--the new 7er adds a raft of camera- and radar-enabled gear to help prevent accidents in ways your pitiful human sense organs just can't match.
One of the more useful additions is an update to Park Distance Control that now includes a little side action. With a pair of sideview cameras embedded in the 7 Series' bumpers, it's a little easier to gauge your way in and out of tight parking spots. The camera views are displayed on the dash screen as you negotiate your departure as above; a rearview camera also feeds in its information in high resolution. All the cameras disengage at about 5 kilometers per hour, by our observation.
For U.S.-bound 7 Series, there will also be a Driver Assistance Package as an option. Blind-spot detection is bundled in this group; it uses radar sensors to bleep alerts when objects approach in blind spots, and a triangular warning light also appears in the rearview mirror. A lane departure warning will vibrate the steering wheel if you cross a road stripe without signaling. And with the new High Beam Assist, the 7 Series switches automatically between low and high beams.
On top of all this, there's also a speed-limit detection system available in Europe that uses road signs to alert drivers--but the variations in signage in the United States keep it from being offered in American-market 7 Series sedans.
2009 BMW 7-Series
The (rear) seat of power
We're getting closer to nirvana in the 7 Series, and that's because you play your own music in more ways than ever before. If there's a format that BMW has left on the cutting-room floor we're unaware of it; the new 7 Series will let you import up to 13GB of your CDs, DVDs, iPod, or MP3-player music into its 40GB hard drive or play it in any of those formats.
There's more: USB drives are legitimate input devices, too, as are Sirius Satellite Radio and HD Radio. For square pegs, AM and FM are still there, buried somewhere in iDrive's bin of goodies. All of the formats can be accessed through the controller, too--a duplicate of which resides in the rear-seat armrest, allowing backseat passengers to choose their own media for the twin LCD screens embedded in the rear of the front seat headrests. Game systems can be plugged in back there as well. Riders can choose their own climate settings, too, since the 7 Series offers four-zone climate control.
2009 BMW 7-Series
Google conquers Europe
Last and the biggest tease of all is Web access, the 7er's most innovative feature and one that unfortunately gets left off U.S. cars. European 7 Series owners can opt for Internet access for the backseat screens on the fly--everything from Google Maps to open Web browsing. In the U.S., only Google Maps will be enabled as a part of BMW's ConnectedDrive system--you'll be able to search Google at home or on the navigation screen, plug in a destination and send it to your 7 Series' navigation system. How's that for planning ahead?
And in case you get confused by the myriad options and functions in the car, BMW's placed its owner's manual inside its computerized brain. The "Integrated Owner's Manual" can be accessed through iDrive and played as a slideshow. You can even program iDrive keys to shortcut to different sections of the owner's manual.