BMW's tagline may be "the ultimate driving machine," but after test-driving a new 760Li, I'd have to call it the ultimate electronics machine! I don't think it's possible that there's a car with more semiconductor content or electronically controlled features. It's nothing short of mind-boggling. I also give thumbs up to the iDrive, the controversial controller and control display that's the subject of this month's cover story. If you're going to take customizable electronics to the new level achieved by BMW, a control interface becomes essential. I think they've done it right.
On the whole, BMW has virtually overlooked nothing. Start with every electronic option you'd expect on a top-of-the-line luxury sedan. Then, add power trunk closure, power head restraints, power rear sun blinds, a miniature fridge built in behind the center console in the rear seat, and an integrated garage door opener. Heated seats are de rigueur, but this car adds on power seat ventilation and even an "active" massage setting! Three separate disc changers manage music CDs, DVDs, and even CD-ROMs of maps for the navigation system. And on and on.
The remote-control unit, which you insert into a slot before pressing the "start" button, records driver preferences in its memory. Separate remotes for each of up to four drivers store profiles with seat and steering wheel positions, climate control settings, and security system preferences.
The 760's design team has applied sensors in every imaginable way. Tire pressure sensors alert you if it's time to inflate. A rain sensor saves the laborious chore of flipping on the wipers. Light sensors automate headlamps. Motion and distance sensors enable a warning system for backing and parking. Sensors also power the active cruise control, which gave me a sense of what our "drive by wire" future will feel like. Active cruise control monitors the distance of vehicles in front of you and accordingly slows the car when needed to maintain a driver-selectable distance between cars. While the owner's manual specifically warns that active cruise is not a collision avoidance system, it nevertheless adds a level of safety as well as convenience. The car takes matters into its own hands if you start tailgating!
Not only does the car help you drive, it also can listen and talk to you via integrated speech recognition technology. The Voice Command System (VCS) provides a menu of speech controls for the radio, CD players, navigation system, notepad (digital voice recorder), and integrated telephone. It offers voice prompts and responds to the commands you issue. Having the phone integrated is really handy. The music automatically shuts down when a call is initiated via VCS, a one-touch dialing button on the steering wheel, or a pop-out dialing pad within easy reach.
It's understandable, though, why the automotive press has criticized the car for overwhelming the driver with technology. When you first get in as a test driver, your inclination is to try to operate all the controls from the iDrive controller. In reality, the key to iDrive is to use the controller as little as possible when actually driving, and the car is engineered to allow you to do that.
The iDrive controller allows trackball-like control for every electronic function, such as adding new contact numbers to the phone book and destinations to the navigation system and for customizing display and functional parameters for systems like the assisted parking sensors, the climate and security options, and the automatic headlamp control. Once programmed, you can use the heads-up voice command and/or the streamlined set of "hard" controls, which also interface with the iDrive display.
Still, until you find your groove, these control options sometimes feel a little overwhelming. For example, there are four different choices for changing a radio station: voice control, steering-wheel buttons, the iDrive control panel, and the dashboard hard control. As the BMW dealer quoted in our cover story says, drivers are expected to take up to two weeks to get comfortable with the myriad controls and functions. Since a typical day of test-driving isn't enough time to assimilate all of the car's functions, it's not surprising that many drivers conclude that the car is too difficult to learn.
BMW took a risky and bold step by designing a car that requires training—one clearly not for every luxury car buyer. Technophobes and iDrive are not a match. In fact, the iDrive-equipped BMWs may be frustrating to anyone unwilling to devote some time learning and customizing the amazing array of functions the cars have to offer. Owners who do take the time to learn and understand all the possibilities will be rewarded with a level of comfort, control, and safety that truly does make this car the ultimate electronic driving machine.