Starting when it was introduced on Sept. 11 at the Frankfurt Motor Show to stunned silence, the redesigned BMW 7 Series flagship sedan has been engulfed in controversy.
Created with a new “design vocabulary” to set it apart from other vehicles in BMW's growing stable, it is one of a handful of cars in recent history — the Pontiac Aztek among them — to be called outright ugly in the press.
Like few other cars in recent memory, this car (base price $68,495) pushes the envelope on virtually every front: styling, size, technology, horsepower, and interior design as it tries to re-write the rules established for luxury sedans.
Almost everywhere you look there is something awesome or startling. Sometimes this is good, and sometimes it's bad.
Its all-new engine still displaces 4.4L and has the same bore and stroke, yet its new version, designated N62, produces 15% more power while delivering 13% better fuel economy (18 city and 26 highway).
The car is much larger, 1.8 in. longer, 1.6 in. wider, and 2.2 in. taller with a 2.3 in. longer wheelbase than its already big predecessor, but it handles like a much smaller car.
Once you get the car the car moving, it's a wonderful combination of plushness and precision.
Rack and pinion steering, a first for the 7 Series, adds another level of precision without giving up too much feedback from the road. It also is extremely quiet, almost too quiet for a BMW.
But critics attack the car's big, doughy proportions, the turn signals that sit over the headlights like eyebrows instead of underneath, and the high, flat hood. The tall, abbreviated rear end with its confusing cuts and creases is singled out as especially unattractive and “un-BMW-like.”
A typical headline appeared in Fortune Magazine: “Do You Think This Car is Ugly?”
A Ward's poll had 75% of respondents reacting negatively to the new design.
Chief designer Chris Bangle clearly has been stung by the criticism. He calls some of it mean-spirited. He deems comments from some fellow automotive designers as unprofessional.
He reminds that over 10 possible designs for the new flagship were reviewed by BMW's board, and this is the one they picked. One of the problems with the car, he says, is that it doesn't photograph well. Once more people see it on the road, he expects the controversy to quiet down. Dealers are happy with the new design, he says.
“BMW became a benchmark, and when the benchmark moves the whole game forward, you make people nervous,” he says.
Bangle also reminds that BMW used to be criticized for having overly conservative designs.
He says another reason the new 7 Series strays from some of the old BMW formulas is because the new model had a new set of design parameters it had to meet.
First, it was determined early on that it needed a greater “curb presence” to effectively compete with the Mercedes S-Class. That meant bigger proportions all around.
Second, BMW's world-leading engines may be getting more powerful and fuel efficient, but they're also getting taller because certain new technologies sit atop the engine. That translates into a taller hoodline.
It remains to be seen whether the larger package, more powerful engine and innovative features will justify the 6% price increase over the old model and help BMW catch the Mercedes S-Class in sales and prestige.