30 DECEMBER 1995, Page 37


Corrupted by 121 buttons

Alan Judd

In the 'Motoring' column of 30 Septem- ber, I confessed to having never owned or even desired a BMW. There was perhaps a hint of smugness in the article, an unap- pealing whiff of assumed incorruptibility.

Well, I have now been corrupted, high, wide and handsome. It was pleasantly done and shamefully easy. Politely regretting my lack of recent exposure to their products, BMW offered to deliver a new top-of-the- range 750iL to my home for a week or so. After pondering for about the time it takes this creature to accelerate from 0-62 m.p.h. (6.6 seconds), I accepted. The demonstra- tion model was a deep dark green, fitted out with cream leather and carpets and just enough polished wood. Its understated lines belied its considerable size; it had a presence that wasn't so much shouted as quietly and unarguably asserted, At around £70,000 (plus a few extras, such as £25 for the number plates), it had to be a serious bit of motor. That's more than you pay for the average house and it probably costs more to run.

It seemed to contain more than the aver- age house, though I couldn't find the show- er or the fax. Television, teletext and telephone were all easily identified and the computer obligingly displayed itself when I was searching for Radio Four (there are 14 speakers). The seats remember and read- just to your body and are particularly con- siderate of the lower vertebrae (ditto the rear seats, which is a real plus point, as is the exceptional leg-room they permit). Automated traction control and suspen- sion, ABS, airbags, cruise control, individu- al heating and even the friendly-sounding eccentric camshafts one can take for grant- ed, but the five-speed 'intelligent' automat- ic gearbox was a surprise. It adjusts itself to the driver's style and, unlike the automatics I'm used to, doesn't run away downhill but holds you back until you indicate that you want to go faster. There is also radar which beeps during take-offs, landings and other low-level manoeuvres to warn you of obsta- cles; with a large but (from within) invisible boot, this is not mere gimmickry. Next year the GPS navigation and Trafficmaster sys- tems will be fitted as standard, so you'll know where you are and where you're heading if not always why.

Leaving aside pedals, steering wheel and gear-selector, I counted 121 buttons, knobs and switches. I may have missed a few. I was worried that among them there might be a device for detecting primitive drivers, in which case the seat-belt would lock on, the automatic pilot take over and I would be abducted to Munich for reprogramming.

For all that, it's remarkably easy to drive. Partly because everything is so responsive, you don't feel the size even in narrow lanes, but you do feel sure-footed, solid and safe. It is a driver's car and it seems a pity that the majority of owners will proba- bly sit in the back, comfortable though that is. It's also the sort of car that makes you nicer, for a while, because you're endlessly willing to pick people up, drop them off, go the scenic route and so on. You mustn't, however, forget — if you do you'll soon be reminded — that there's 5.4 litres and 326 brake horsepower of V12 packed with fear- ful symmetry beneath the bonnet. You may not hear it but extend your right foot and you'll certainly feel it. Take what comfort you can from the fact that it's electronically limited to a top speed of 155 m.p.h., and beware: one good, convulsing sneeze can have you touching the ton.

BMW aim to sell 125 of these cars a year in the UK, mostly to chief executives and others 'who have achieved absolute success in their chosen fields'. Mercedes and Bent- ley are acknowledged as the competition (Toyota's Lexus is unmentioned) while Jaguar, it is snootily conceded, 'nibbles at the lower end of this spectrum'. (It is also conceded that Jaguar outsell BMW in the luxury car sector.) I had one thought about them all: who will buy them when they're ten, or even five, years old? Servicing costs will look like telephone numbers and any- way you need a computer to do it. Persons who have achieved absolute success don't have much time for ten-year-olds and bar- gain-basement hunters will be frightened off, unless they've a degree in computing science.

The test, however, is whether I would recommend the 750iL to Conrad Black, owner of The Spectator and something of a car buff. Presumably, he's exactly what this car is aimed at. The answer is a provisional yes — provisional not because of any doubts about the car but because I'd want to try the competition first. The only nig- gles I'd warn him of would be that the lock and alarm buttons on the key (not counted among the 121) could be better defined and that those deep sills might make for slow disembarking when he's 64. But until then he'd enjoy it.