The 2013 BMW 750Li may seem like the perfect luxury car, but it did not organize my financial portfolio for me. Nor did it shine my shoes. It did not even bother to buy me a winning lottery ticket. But those are about the only services it failed to perform.
The 750Li overwhelmed me with everything it did offer, from driving modes to connected features. It delivered on BMW's reputation for excellent handling and served as a superbly comfortable freeway cruiser. It abounds with tech from stem to stern, improving its fuel economy and entertaining the driver's every whim.
Among its few faults, the combination of the turbocharged, direct-injected 4.4-liter V-8 and the eight-speed automatic transmission could not deliver linear acceleration. The idle-stop feature, which shuts down the engine during traffic stops, might annoy a few, but it is easily switched off and makes for an essential part of BMW's fuel efficiency strategy.
As for connected features, they live under three distinct interface areas, making it feel like BMW directed multiple groups to work on this technology and employed all their efforts. The 750Li included the smartphone-based ConnectedDrive app integration, which I was able to run from my iPhone 5. Sorry, Android users, no ConnectedDrive app for you.
With my phone plugged into the car's USB port, the only way ConnectedDrive works, I could view Twitter and Facebook updates on the 750Li's screen, and have them read out to me. I also posted canned tweets, such as "It's 46 degrees out but I'm keeping warm in my BMW." My photographer was particularly entranced by the Web radio feature, which let me tune in a station from Mali, where he served some time in the Peace Corps.
The ConnectedDrive app also offers a News feature, but so does the BMW Online service. BMW Online relies on a data connection directly to the car, and previously only offered a few features, including Google local search, weather, and news. A new section appeared on the 750Li's menu called Applications, which let me add new apps, such as Fuel Prices and Yelp, from an app store.
Looking for a lunch place while driving down the freeway, I tried Google rather than the navigation system's own points-of-interest database. The interface's entry fields were not very intuitive to use, but I eventually entered the name of a sandwich chain, found one in my direction of travel, and sent its address to navigation.
However, the Fuel Prices and Yelp apps did not seem to be functional. Yelp showed a sample list of restaurants when I chose that category, but they were not real places in my vicinity, while the Fuel Prices app said no data was available. It seemed that BMW had not actually activated it in this 750Li, although it looks as though it will be very promising when it does go live. Better yet, it should replace the need for the ConnectedDrive app, so Android users would not be locked out.
But wait, there's more. The 750Li came with another new feature called Widgets, which rely on a data connection. The Widgets show only in the main LCD's split-window view. The car let me choose weather, time, or Panoramio, which displayed photos representing areas through which I drove.
This smorgasbord of data features make the 750Li the most connected car I've driven, but BMW needs to streamline its strategy, and get all this functionality under one roof.
Chauffeur wanted, inquire within
The driver of the 750Li may not be able to take advantage of all this digital goodness while concentrating on the road, but that "L" in the model name refers to the extended wheelbase, extra length devoted to the rear-seat passenger's comfort. Each rear-seat passenger was afforded a monitor, and iDrive controls on the rear console gave access to all the infotainment features.
The Luxury Rear Seating package included in our car gave these seats power adjustment and memory settings. Rear and side sunshades shielded rear passengers from bright light and provided a bit of privacy, as well. Those rear seats made me very disappointed that I did not have a driver for the week.
In front, the dashboard contained BMW's standard, top-end array of cabin technology. The wide, 10.2-inch LCD in the center of the dashboard showed imagery with excellent resolution, and let me choose between the aforementioned split view or full-screen. Familiarity with the iDrive controls on the console made it so I did not have to look to see which buttons gave quick access to the stereo or navigation.
There are a lot of menu items on the home screen, but the system reacts very quickly, loading each one with tablet speed. A lot of other manufacturers struggle to make their infotainment systems respond so promptly. Some of the input screens use unnecessarily confusing paradigms. I usually listen to music from my iPhone or a USB drive, and I have never liked BMW's music library screen. After selecting an album, artist, or genre, I then had to select Play from the top-level menu. Why not begin playback when I first select the album?
iDrive includes a fairly comprehensive voice command system, but it was not very easy to use. I tried saying "Play Lana Del Rey" as I drove along, and the screen brought up the owner's manual. Asking the system for help, it explained that I needed to burrow down through a voice tree to find my play commands. BMW's voice command generally works on the principle that you can speak commands based on the current screen showing on the LCD.
Once I had the system figured out, I was impressed how easily I could, for example, enter a street address into navigation. I spoke the entire address string, with street, city, and state, for CNET's garage entrance, and the system got it right in one. I found that impressive because the street name, Tehama, often proves difficult for voice command.
Detailed maps and traffic
The 750Li kept all the good things I like about BMW navigation. It offered many different map views, and rendered city buildings in detailed 3D. Using traffic data, it proactively rerouted me when there was a traffic jam up ahead. I was pleased to see the little rerouting message pop up a few times while I had the car; anything that can keep me out of stopped traffic deserves the highest praise.
In addition to these excellent navigation features, I was pleased to see the results of something BMW announced last year, better surface street coverage for traffic. The 750Li highlighted the surface streets of downtown San Francisco in green, yellow, or red, the traffic data indicating how fast I could get through.
An oddity that I had not seen in BMWs before was that the navigation system said I had arrived at my destination when I was still a block away. This behavior proved annoying when my destination was on a one-way street, and I wanted the car to actually help me get on to that street, rather than ending route guidance on a cross street.
Following the turn-by-turn guidance was easy with the car's voice prompts, which named the streets on which I needed to turn, and the head-up display, showing upcoming turns and even lane guidance for freeway junctions.
Another quirk of the system was that, once I got to my destination, the head-up display continued to show an arrow pointing in its direction. If I continued past that destination, the arrow remained on the head-up display. Maybe this is BMW's way of making up for the route guidance ending prematurely to arriving at the destination, as I could still drive around city blocks and see the arrow pointing in the right direction.
I found it very easy to get used to the head-up display, and relied on it heavily. Along with turn-by-turn directions, it also showed the car's speed and the road's speed limit. However, the speed limit function was not all that successful.
The car uses a camera to recognize speed limit signs along the side of the road to get its data, but BMW does not seem to realize that roads in the U.S. are poorly marked. Many times while I was driving, the BMW showed the limit from the last sign it had seen, even though I knew the limit on the current road was higher. Speed limit data is available on the digital maps used for navigation, and BMW should simply rely on that, at least in the U.S.
Finely tuned tunes
Another feature in this 750Li I have seen in other BMWs was the Bang & Olufsen audio system. A $3,700 option, its presence was obvious from the acoustic lens that rose up from the center of the dashboard and the metal grilles mounted on the interior panels for the 16 speakers.
I liked the sound from this system. Feeding it a variety of music, mostly from a USB drive plugged into the car's single USB port, I reveled in the superior audio quality. Guitar riffs sent chills down my spine and background vocals, buried by inferior systems, became more present, adding richness to the soundscape. Heavy bass pummeled my body without shaking interior panels and percussion instruments came through with crisp, clear beats. It you really love music, this system proves its worth.