Monday 7 February 2011

Driven #19:- E65 BMW 730d

It’s funny how things change. Last time I drove an E65 7 Series it had belonged to my boss. This was going back a few years, it was a facelifted, 2006 ½ machine, in Sterling grey, and I absolutely loved it. Such was its imperious bulk, traffic would part the instant it appeared in its rear view mirror, it made you feel special, very special indeed. Everything about it seemed designed to remind you that you had gained admission to the BMW executive lounge. You had made it in life.

It’s now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I realise I had probably been brainwashed by the great Munich corporate propaganda machine that I was working for at the time. Now's a good time for a re-evaluation - for here on my desk are the keys to an original, 2004 E65 730d. 

Firstly, it’s fair to say that the E65 always had, er, challenging aesthetics, inside and out. The facelift in 2006 went a long way to disguising the cars huge bulk and ironed out some of the more controversial design peccadilloes of Chris Bangles flagship, but this particular example comes from before all the rectification work was carried out. Removing my optimistic, analytical hat and donning the headgear of the layman, the E65 was a mess.

It’s a festival of incongruous detailing that creates something that comes to far less than the sum of its parts. The complex headlamp graphic, with its overslung direction indicators, would be fine if the shape was echoed somewhere else on the car, but instead it stands alone, looking lost, floating in a sheetmetal sea. By contrast the taillamps are much too small, and are awkwardly split by a bootlid that seems inelegantly grafted onto the stern. Be glad, then, that this car carries the Sport pack, where much of the exterior chrome is deleted. Add much more shininess to this recipe and it can only lead to stylistic indigestion.

On the other hand, the E65 manages to eclipse its later replacement, the F01, in one vital area. As ghastly as the car may be, as unlovely as all the many, many constituent parts are, the car has presence. Lots of it. And for that, I come very close to forgiving many of its sins.

The earlier E38 7 Series will be forever remembered for its sheer elegance, it sat low to the ground and had a three-box shape that was perfectly balanced. It was a big car, but managed to look lithe, dynamic and exciting. Then the E65 appeared in BMWs Brave New World of flame surfacing and tore the rulebook up completely. Here is design at its most arrogant, showing a flagrant disregard for all the values that E38, E32 and E23 had established. And yet I still can’t hate it.

For two, glorious years the E65 stood alone as a daringly styled executive car. The A8 and S-Class were derivative by comparison, it took until 2005 for Mercedes-Benz to grow a pair and launch an interestingly styled S-Class, after which the 7 Series started to look a bit silly. Then came the facelift, bringing things more in line with conventional wisdom, but it felt a little bit like BMW were surrendering. They had lost the battle to push the boundaries in this incredibly conservative stratum of the market, and the retreat was a hasty one.

If the exterior treatment was risky, the way the interior was designed was downright reckless. Traditionally, the premium luxury car buying fraternity, those who would consider dropping £65k on a big saloon car, are not generally very keen on experimental design. Conservative is the word. Yet, once again the rulebook was shredded for the E65 and new and frightening blue-sky thinking was the order of the day.

BMW chose to suddenly implement a computer interface to access many of the features that their customers had become used to. The idea was to use a central mouse-like control to navigate through feature menus, allowing the button-count to be minimised and the system to be expandable as new technology became available. It was called I-Drive, and today, after years of refinement it’s pretty much accepted as a necessary thing for a BMW to have.

But in 2003, when it first surfaced in the E65, it was bad. Really, really bad. To start with, the mouse-type controller operated not in the four axis that most of today's interactive cockpit systems do, but eight, vertical, horizontal and diagonal. Next, the layout of the display screens wasn’t what you might call intuitive. You could be halfway through entering an address into the sat-nav, and left virtually clueless as to what to do next. There was no convenient “enter” key, or a “previous menu” button to press, once you were into a particular menu that was it. You had to fend for yourself.

Of course, over time the I-Drive application on the E65 was tamed, but the interior architecture was difficult to alter, and is one of the most controversial sets of BMW innards of all time. In what seemed like a move to recreate the interior of American cars of the ‘80s, the centre console and gear selector were abolished in favour of a column shift. If the car was fitted with a bench seat this might have made sense, but instead there was an enormous central storage box, chilled by the air-conditioning circuit, and a platform that carried the controller for the I-Drive system.

Of course, with a fully integrated hi-fi system there was no need for a centre-stack as such, so what to put there? They couldn’t have the horizontal dash just floating in mid air, so they put a chest of drawers in the mix. The dashboard now resembled a kind of Victorian sideboard. But at least with I-Drive the button count wasn’t too ridiculous. Actually, that’s a lie.

There are still buttons absolutely everywhere, some of them artistically squeezed into recesses just for the sheer hell of it. The boot release button, for example, is a plain grey square button just beneath the steering wheel. The electric seat control is by your knee, for some reason, and they operate in a totally different way to what you were expecting.

It’s like an alternative world in there, where the science of ergonomics has been totally rewritten by abstract, surrealist scriptwriters. It’s hilarious. It's also, driver frustrations aside, a very comfortable place to be and a very nice car to be driven in. It's quieter than a lock-in at the British Library, the ride was probably BMWs best ever, the seats are that perfect Germanic balance of firm but supportive and there's space enough for the gangliest or most ample buttocked VIP passengers.

So it looks awful but I like it, the dashboard doesn't work but it's a nice place to be. Paradoxes are rife with this machine. The most nonsensical aspect of the old E65, though, was that it drove so brilliantly. It never feels chuckable like a 3-Series, physics dictate that that would be too much to ask. But it's wieldy and satisfying. It's surprisingly responsive and has some truly excellent engines to call on, from the 730i which is just about up to the task, through the 745i V8 (later the 750i) and the 760V12, as close to a gas turbine as ever to issue through the Munich factory gates.

This 730 diesel, though, Is probably the pick of the bunch. There are overtones of commercial vehicle at tickover, admittedly, but this subsides into a distant rumble and only reappears at wide throttle openings. Best bit, though, is the V8-style surge of torque at 1500-2500 rpm that makes driving the 730d so rewarding and yet so relaxing.

The E65 is destined to become the 7-Series that nobody wants. They're well on their way to losing all their value and becoming unbelievable second or third-hand bargains. But I look forward to a time where individuality and risk-taking is back in vogue. BMW's big risk didn't exactly pay dividends. But their bravery is duly noted.