by Mark Atkinson
The launch of a new brand-topping luxury car doesn’t happen every day. In fact, it probably happens less often than most since product cycles are greatly extended at this end of the market. The last time BMW launched a new 7-Series, Jean Chrétien was still living on 24 Sussex Drive. Audi isn’t much better since its A8 was born in 2003. Both have received mid-life facelifts along the way – the BMW to try and erase as much Bangle Butt as possible, and the Audi to adopt a big, gaping corporate maw.
BMW solved this for 2009 by offering a completely redesigned 7-Series, but the question is whether it remains the Ultimate Driving Machine or whether it’s so loaded with useless technology that it’s become the Ghost in the Machine.
I had both of these beasts for extended amounts of time – a week with the Bimmer spent in Toronto with a road trip to St. Jacobs, ON, and the A8 L for nearly two weeks on a trip out to New Brunswick for a wedding. Both experiences gave plenty of in-town and highway driving, along with curvier back-road driving as well. So why not compare the two?
The improperly-named 750i is powered by BMW’s new direct-injection, twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 found in the X6. It cranks out a flat 400 hp, and a monster 450 lb-ft of torque, directed to the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. Its character closely follows that of its 3.0-litre twin-turbo six-cylinder sibling, meaning lots of grunt, and virtually no lag. The BMW also features Dynamic Drive, which combines the adaptive steering, adjustable damping and throttle mapping to offer anything from Buick-cush to hardcore track addict.
The A8, on the other hand, uses the ubiquitous 4.2 FSI V8, which is not only down in size, but it’s also missing the BMW’s turbos. That means an adequate 350 hp, but also only 325 lb-ft of torque. That’s a full Honda Civic less torque in a vehicle only marginally less heavy than a Sherman tank. But Audi’s quattro all-wheel-drive is standard, which means stability and confidence. The Audi won’t win the stoplight war, but it’s no slouch either.
Otherwise, it’s remarkable how many similarities there are. Both offer adjustable suspensions, 20-inch wheels and tires, radar-based cruise control, all the safety systems imaginable, and plush, leather-lined interiors with acres of room. All the luxury amenities you could imagine.
The BMW does hold the advantage in size – it’s longer, wider, taller and has more trunk space than the A8, and the (hugely expensive) Comfort Seats adjust in hundreds of way. The A8’s more plebeian front chairs aren’t as tall, which leaves six-foot-three guys like me searching for a chiropractor.
The 750i’s rear seats are more like pods, with a huge centre console in between, and a second iDrive knob to control the pair of rear screens. This is definitely a car to be chauffeured in rather than to drive yourself. The A8 has a more traditional three-across rear bench, which is comfortable, but lacks lateral support.
Styling is obviously a personal choice, but the new seven looks better than its predecessor. There’s no Bangle Butt, the cabin is placed way back in the chassis, and there’s a real sense of solidity. However, the front nostrils mimic those on a hippo, and there’s a real sense of ‘been there, done that.’ Comparatively, the Audi is very conservative in its design, but the lower belt line means the cabin is airier and more luxurious.
For the gadget obsessed, the BMW is the place to be, from its ‘black-panel’ gauge cluster to its night-vision infrared camera to its active blindspot detection, adaptive headlights, heads-up display, lane-departure warning, and the Side View camera system, which transmits images from each side of the front bumper when you’re poking the nose through traffic. That’s a lot of Big Brother for something claiming to be the Ultimate Driving Machine.
And that’s really the problem when it comes to the new 750i. It used to be that Mercedes-Benz would crank out a new S-Class every decade or so, and the whole industry’s next 10 years of technology would be found inside. Meanwhile, BMW would slowly evolve its 7 Series, adding little bits of technology where it made sense, but keeping the experience relatively pure. Now, BMW figures it’s going to displace Mercedes as the gadget geek’s love interest, polluting that driving experience with many filters.
Here’s a perfect example: because function follows form, the cabin is hard to see out of thanks to a rising belt line and big, thick pillars. Old BMW would have made the pillars thinner, and lowered the beltline. New BMW adds the blindspot warning system, backup camera and other bells and whistles.
I’m not a Luddite, but technology for technology’s sake does not equate to a world-beating car. Ultimately, the Audi is the better car to drive because, for the most part, it lets you get on with the driving. You don’t have to spend five days reading through the owners’ manual to figure out what all the buttons do because there aren’t that many buttons. It just moves you quietly, confidently and quickly on to your destination with fewer intrusions than the Bimmer. And it does it for about $10,000 less: the 750i starts at $104,900 or $112,900 for the long-wheelbase model versus $95,000 for the A8 and $100,000 for the L.
So get your hands on an A8 quickly before it too undergoes a radical transformation in 2011. It’s the last real luxury driver’s car.