Running with the bull

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 June, 2005, 12:00am

THE ROAD FROM Malaga to Ronda is as twisty and smooth as Route Twisk, but our driver, one of China's leading motoring writers, has red ants in his pants. Maybe he's testing BMW's new 750Li for a mainland crime film, pretending that the little Seat behind us is a pursuit car. In any case, this revision of the best-selling 745Li holds the road a lot better than my nerve in hairy situations.

As our stretch saloon clocks into another bend, late but with at least three guardian angels on overtime, I wonder whether Bavaria's best safety brains have prepared this Big Bimmer for the extremity of the 'Hong Kong Drivers Abroad' test.

BMW's boffins have done their homework, however. At high noon in this craggy spaghetti western country of Andalusia, the 750Li's adaptive drive suspension forgives jerky driving and slow reactions a lot quicker than a Hong Kong boss might. As we lurch into every sharp, steep turn, the dynamic drive is busy reducing our Big Bimmer's body roll; the electronic damper control sensors are adapting our ride to the road's shimmering undulations; and the dynamic stability control is monitoring, in milliseconds, our tweaked aluminium suspension's inclination to swerve.

All this technology might seem excessive in Hong Kong, but in Andalusia they're worth every cent at every brace. We have high-performance disk brakes, electronic brake force distribution, intelligent headrests, belt tensioners and the reassurance of eight airbags tested by the most tolerant crash-dummies in Germany, but I still grip the door handle, as our back-seat passenger speaks.

'Please keep to the speed limits,' says the former bureau chief of a leading European broadsheet. 'They're there for a reason.' But the 5.179-metre, 2,025kg 750Li sashays around another bend at an unprintable velocity, and with remarkable composure for a stretch.

'The Guardia Civil fine on the spot,' says the voice in the back. Nobody expects the Spanish police, but our driver slows as quickly as some taxi drivers do when they're lost. Our track's been widened by 14mm, but my alert kicks in as our tyres scatter grit into a ravine.

I like to keep busy in these situations, so thank heavens for iDrive, an electronic twiddler and eight-point instruction compass on a 61/2-inch screen that helps you do loads of things and saves BMW putting in lots of switches around the car. With a few twists and flicks, it: connects me on the Bluetooth phone, twice, with an understanding German in Munich; adjusts the air-con; shows a clear map of the route to lunch in Torremolinos; and plays flamenco music through 13 speakers, at 420 watts on a CD-radio-sound system with MP3.

This new, dumbed-down, colour coded iDrive has been criticised in the west. Andrew Frankel of Britain's Sunday Times says the 'infamous [system] remains a nonsense', while Erin Riches of website says 'frustration levels run high [with] too many menus'. They have a point, but protest too much.

Despite having first used iDrive three years ago, I still hesitate to change radio stations on the small dashboard screen while driving someone else's million-dollar car. But the system isn't rocket science, and dealers BMW Concessionaires (HK) are patient coaches. If you can't master iDrive, you shouldn't run a company. Or review luxury cars for achievers.

When I take the wheel in tacky Torremolinos, the 750Li feels big, but the brakes are Porsche-Boxster solid and the steering's responsive. The wheel's handy, with neat thumb nooks, but if its phone, transmission and radio controls are ergonomic, I find the manual gear blippers restricting. Paddles would have offered more hand comfort on long, curvy stretches, but the six-speed box is responsive and jerk-free.

The 750Li's a beauty. When BMW paraded it, I thought the marque was either showing off more tech, or had blinked to the more affordable plushness of the 3.5-litre Jaguar XJ LWB (from $868,000), the style of the Maserati Quattroporte ($1.488 million) and the sexiness of the Mercedes-Benz CLS 500 ($1.15 million).

The 750Li's new five-litre V8 engine is a smooth competitor, with the quiet purpose of Dirty Harry at every gradient. You can sprint the stonking, 367 brake-horsepowered 4,799cc aluminium bloc as easily as the CLS 500 Coupe, which lumbered less in Macau. I'm told this new V8 has 9 per cent more displacement than the 745Li, 10 per cent more horsepower and 9 per cent more torque in cutting four-tenths of a second off a 0-100km/h sprint. So, it's easy to glide through sierra villages at 50km/h, and then breeze a smooth 200km/h on the motorway to Marbella, knowing that you can part traffic at a glance, just like the 745Li.

The 750Li has more presence than its predecessor, however, with a power dome on the bonnet, modified kidney grilles and new headlights, bumper and sills that retain Chris Bangle's design basics, but hint at the muscle of the Bentley Arnage T. The 750Li's 500-litre boot is less boxy, thankfully, with bigger two-stage adaptive brake lights and a strip of chrome across the back. Neither as pert as the CLS, nor as smooth as the Quattroporte, the Big Bimmer's backside is a lot more pattable than the box of its predecessor or the Bentley Continental Flying Spur.

The marque has added four colours to the paint range and your 750Li will look best in black or Monaco blue with cream beige trim in 176 alloy wheels, whose spokes might take your chauffeur an extra five minutes to clean, but are worth the effort. Avoid grey and silver - it's so 745Li, Tung Chee-hwa-era drab, and a black trim defeats the object of an airy, sun-roofed, open cabin.

A subsequent, dark-trimmed commute from Parkview was sombre behind the diffusion of rear-seat sun screens. Lighter shades will flatter the subtle grain of your Nasca leather and highlight the asymmetric knots in the marque's new American walnut decor.

The 750Li turns heads here, but if the descent into Shau Kei Wan is boring after that fling in the sierra, my commute's calm. The shunt of the Eastern Island Expressway's expansion joints might jar your conversation, but with a good chauffeur you can still think and plan in the cool simplicity of your cabin. Install iDrive in the back of this stretch Bimmer if you want to appear important. The Hong Kong test car's back seats seemed naked without it.

Visibility's excellent, with the Xenon headlights a godsend in the dusk of overbuilt Estepona, but you'd better watch your wing mirrors on the Tai Tam Reservoir bridge and heed the parking sensors when you take the car out in Hong Kong.

Even so, this Big Bimmer will worry Audi A8s, hold its own against the Arnage T and make the customised Alphard orgy van brigade look vulgar in Central. I wouldn't trade in your 745i/Li just yet, as your 4.5-litre engine's still a winner and the original 7-Series is a classic.

Frankel says 'the 7-Series still does not feel like a truly luxurious car', but I reckon the 750Li has all a Hong Kong socialite needs, although she might prefer to be seen stepping from a Quattroporte or CLS 500. Our image-conscious hotels might look at the 730Li ($980,000) and 740Li ($1.2 million), but the Hong Kong government has no need to upgrade its 20 735Li vehicles when it's dropped my married tax allowance from $216,000 to $200,000.

The 750Li is a triumph for BMW, but it's more suited to big autobahns and cross-border corporate egos than Hong Kong's tiny roads. If I drove only in Hong Kong, I'd look at the 530i ($679,000) instead of a 730Li or 740Li.

Even so, the 750Li will sell well here. It will need to. A new S-Class Mercedes-Benz is due later this year, and the euro's fallen. So, you might give your dealer a run for your money.