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Capitalism in the land of Marx: BMW delivers its manifesto

November 07, 2008|DAN NEIL

reporting from dresden, germany

My driving partner and I were in the vicinity of Chemnitz, a somewhat dire little city in the former East Germany known for its alcoholism and an enormous monument to Karl Marx. Naturally, we had to see it.

"Bitte, kennen Sie, wo ist der grossen Kopf vom Karl Marx?" we asked passersby.

The former East Germans, standing in chilly drizzle, were delighted to help the capitalist running dogs in their gigantic limousine, a 2009 BMW 750Li. They pointed us down one of the main streets -- Lumpenprolitariatstrasse, maybe? -- and there it was: A huge, glowering stone bust of the German political philosopher, about the size of a FEMA trailer. Now there, there's a redistributionist.

We were obliged to park the mega-Bimmer in a multilevel municipal parking deck, which was designed for cars about the size of the 750Li's ashtray. No matter. The car was equipped with BMW's new Integral Active Steering -- four-wheel steering, in other words. With a maximum rear-wheel deflection of 3 degrees, the system reduces the car's turning circle almost 2 1/2 feet. With a full crank on the wheel, this huge car seems to shrink to the size of a pensioner's Lada.

It's enough to make der grossen Kopf vom Karl Marx crack a smile. The fifth-generation BMW 750Li is a seriously large car, 17 feet long and well over 2 tons, not to mention the staggering avoirdupois of its ambition. So it's surprising -- even a little scary -- to feel this road-going ocean liner caper through the Eastern highlands like a stripped-down sport coupe. It's the same feeling you get watching a bear ride a bicycle, or Jackie Gleason glide around a pool table, or Warren Sapp sashay across the floor on "Dancing with the Stars": It just ain't natural.

But, of course, nature is what big BMWs must rise above (specifically the physics of mass, inertia and momentum). How do you make a personal limousine loaded to the scuppers with wood, leather, LCDs and circuitry handle like the ultimate driving machine?

The new 7 Series, which will have its North American debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show this month, has many answers for that. Some are fairly predictable and foundational. The metalworking of the body and chassis is astonishing: lightweight high-strength steel where it needs to be, and everywhere else a complex filigree of aluminum and magnesium. Among the all-alloy components: suspension and sub-frames, coil springs, engine block and final drive. All told, the new 7 Series -- the biggest car in its class -- is 121 pounds lighter than the previous model, or about the weight of one of Warren Sapp's legs.

Less mass is always better.

To motivate what mass there is, BMW offers three twin-turbo engines: an inline six in the 740i (326 horsepower); a 4.4-liter V8 in the 750i and 750Li (407 hp); and a diesel in the 730d (245 hp and a tractor-like 540 pound-feet of torque at a mere 1,750 rpm). The U.S.-bound models will initially get only the 4.4-liter gas engine. BMW execs won't commit to bringing the oil-burner stateside.

And yet, lighter is not light. The standard-wheelbase 750i weighs a bridge-bending 4,564 pounds. The long wheelbase 750Li is 4,640 pounds. To counter the sway, the lurch and slide of a heavy sedan driven in anger, BMW has completely re-engineered the 7 Series' greasy bits.

The front suspension is now a double-arm design, while the rear is a so-called Integral-V design. Meanwhile, there's a phalanx of so-called Dynamic systems -- active dampers, stability control, traction and anti-lock control, smart brakes -- as well as BMW's uncanny Dynamic Drive body-control system. This last system, one of the car's few options, comprises an electromechanical anti-roll bar in the back that nulls body roll as the car corners.

So it is that BMW engineering geeks have subverted Newton's laws. But there's still the problem of changing direction. A big, heavy car, relying on those two tires up front, can only exert so much steering force. The heavier the car, the less willingly it will go left or right, right?

The zolution, as German engineers say, is the optional Integral Active Steering. Rear steering has been tried by many companies many times, and has typically been abandoned because of weight, cost and complication. None of that is a factor in the flagship BMW.

The effect of all these components -- harmonized by a high-speed data system BMW calls FlexRay -- is pretty amazing. Come to a corner in the 750Li and get on the brakes hard. The dampers instantly react to compensate for the nose-diving weight transfer. Turn the wheel, and the four-wheel steering bites. The car tracks like a phonograph needle. Mid-corner, where other big cars would be fighting desperately against their own body roll, the Bimmer's body stays flat. The six-speed transmission holds its gear so as not to upset the car's balance. Get back on the gas and unwind the wheel. Perfection.

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