MOTOR MOUTH: Wands without the magic

MOTOR MOUTH: Wands without the magic - There are two issues with the amazing new BMW 745i. First, its appearance. Second, its control systems.

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There are two issues with the amazing new BMW 745i. First, its appearance. Second, its control systems.

There have been ugly cars before, the product of cack-handed ineptitude (as in the old Comecon countries) or of ambitions out of kilter with competence and resources (as with British Leyland in the '70s). But in the 7-series BMW we have challenging ugliness as an act of volition, a deliberate and conscious choice by intelligent designers and managers to confront its public with a car that is demanding to look at.

There are two reasons for this. First, there was an international outbreak of aesthetic apathy when BMW launched its best-selling (and technically superb) 3-series. I guess someone said to Chris Bangle, BMW's American-born designer, 'Aw, c'mon, Chris, this is b-o-r-i-n-g. Got any better ideas?' Second, BMW has exhausted the morphological language of well-bred, finely detailed, properly proportioned design. In matters of decorum and elegance there is nowhere else to go. Thus, in a fascinating inversion of cultural evolution, creative leadership now belongs to those who can make toe-curlingly ugly cars. As ever, BMW and its me-first drivers are in the lead.

The new BMW 7-series may represent a turning point in the history of design, but whither design goes once it turns the corner is difficult to say. For a conventional aesthete, the signs are disturbing. This car is slab-sided, awkwardly proportioned and with irrational details. It does not look sculpted and athletic; it looks lardy and gross. Yet, in a deeply ironic gesture of self-mockery, ghost lines of the past seem to be incised in its corpulent surfaces. Its whole presence hesitates between the memory store of the past and a radical future.

The 7-series' control systems are as radical as its styling and just as problematic. The flagship BMW has always been a technical laboratory, so much so that by the mid-90s drivers were facing a critical ergonomic overload with knobs, dials, diodes and gauges, erupting over every interior surface like a nasty rash. The decision was taken with the new 7-series that, in the interests of simplification, all secondary functions (phone, entertainment, air-conditioning, navigation and, yes, television) would be combined into a screen-based system using menus selected and directed by a knob where the gear lever was in the old days. BMW calls the system i-drive and has, alas, coined the melancholy term 'Mechatronics' to describe the integration of cogs with chips.

The primary controls are an ergonomic mess. By BMW's standards this is incredible. Four separate wands operate indicators, cruise-control, gears, wipers; I could not get the hang of them. Sure, the nicely muted and damped turn indicators work beautifully, but if there was a logic to the self-cancelling mechanism I could not determine it. Worse, when I wanted to signal right, I kept hitting the cruise wand.

The upper right wand allows you to select Park, Drive or Reverse. Again, I simply could not get this reliably right. Nor was I able to select the desired wiper programme. This may have been a case of what they call RTFM in the computer business (Read The F***ing Manual), but since the manual has more than 90 pages devoted to the use of the phone, I felt that life was not long enough.

The fundamental truth about the 7-series is that it has a gorgeous engine, brilliant suspension and outstanding driving characteristics that cannot be disguised by weird styling or an embarrassment of dysfunctional electronics.

So we are back on traditional BMW territory: it is a superb driving mechanism, but I was much, much less happy with the control systems. The i-drive system is clumsy in use and over-complicated. The knob turns and slides and boings up-and-down, but I found it difficult to get purchase on menu items. They claim it becomes intuitive, but it's ridiculous to have screen-based control systems that demand so much acute attention. I gave up using it.

What a paradoxical achievement that BMW's most advanced car is both more difficult to look at and more difficult to use than its meanest offering.

I could get used to its appearance, but not its controls. My guess is most customers will feel the same. Of course you must lead the consumer, but not by too much. Here we have too much.

BMW 745i; From pounds 56,950.

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