The all-new, re-engineered and restyled fifth-generation BMW 7 series is not the quantum leap the previous sedan was, but it is a leap.

The last 7 series, launched in 2002, was a car ahead of its time — and ahead of many of those who tried to learn its complex cabin controls and driving dynamics.

The 2009 750i and long-wheelbase 750iL are so well-integrated, refined and intuitive to master, it is as if the previous model was practice to get this one so right. On a daylong test of a 750i, I found it to be enjoyable to drive at all speeds, on all road surfaces and under all conditions, including snow.

Pricing for the 750i begins at $81,125, but taking advantage of some of the useful technology features can push the price closer to $90,000 and up to $110,000 loaded.

The new model has been in development for five years, which gave plenty of planning time to rethink the car’s position alongside Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Among the changes are more-refined interior materials, colors and finish. Most notable, perhaps, is the more harmonious exterior styling — particularly the reshaped rear deck, which eliminates what appeared to be a crudely applied trunk bustle, as if it were added at the last minute to correct an aerodynamic issue at high speed.

Also improved, again, was the now-notorious iDrive system, the electronic network to adjust cabin comfort, car controls, audio, etc. The system, which uses a large console dial to select pages of information, was reworked to add a couple of buttons and streamline the controller, but it still lags the brevity of similar systems by Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

The new 7 series is about the same size as before, but at a full-bodied 4,600 pounds, the mass has been engineered out of the car. It is nimble and light on its rubber. There is more headroom, but a lower ride height. The instrument panel is tilted a few degrees toward the driver to put most controls within reach of the right arm.

The twin-turbocharged, 400-horsepower V-8 with six-speed automatic earns 15 mpg around town and 22 on the highway, which is down about 1 mpg from the last model.

The heavier, long-wheelbase model is rated 14/22 mpg. It is 5.5 inches longer with a 5.5-inch longer wheelbase, resulting in more generous back-seat room. The standard model is also quite comfortable in back.

For an all-new effort, the six-speed transmission seems outdated when the competition has seven-and eight-speed drivetrains. BMW has a transmission in the works, but it wasn’t ready to debut in this car. When it does, it likely will add a mile or two to fuel economy.

But thank you, BMW, for moving the gear shift from a steering-column stalk to the center console where it belongs — in this car and every BMW. The designers are also experimenting with a $650 ceramic option for the gear shift and iDrive controller. The hardened, glossy material — not at all like dishware — feels smooth in the hand.

Also among the option packages is BMW Night Vision with new Pedestrian Detection ($2,600). The night-vision feature is a wise investment if your vision is not ideal at night or if you travel dark back roads frequently. It works well in the city, too, but I found myself looking to the screen to view traffic rather than at the road.

One important feature that sport-minded drivers won’t pay extra for is BMW’s Electronic Damping Control, which lets the driver choose between four settings for shock-absorber firmness, transmission shift characteristics, engine-throttle response and power-steering assist. Have no fear, go straight for the Sport Plus setting, but at times the other settings of Comfort, Normal or Sport may be more appropriate.

For the serious driver, the Sport package ($4,500) gives this car a competitive edge. It includes Integral Active Steering, which updates the variable-ratio front steering to add speed-sensitive rear-wheel steering. A small turn of the steering wheel at low speeds yields a greater turn of the front wheels.

At low speeds, it steers the rear wheels up to 3 degrees in the direction of the front wheels for greater maneuverability when parking. At high speeds, it steers the rear wheels in the opposite direction for the tail to tuck in and follow the nose.

The result is a 16.6-foot-long car that can tuck in at high speed or cut a circle like a dancer.

During the national media launch in San Diego, the route included a run up to Palomar Mountain during snow showers and sleet. The layers of electronic driver assistance programs — active steering, roll stabilization, stability and traction controls — worked without intrusion, and my driving partner and I pushed the limits. The car powered up the mountain road with remarkable composure. And when we did reach a limit, traction and steering control was returned without a heavy-handed slap down. Also worth noting is that the car can be driven enthusiastically on curvy roads without causing motion sickness for the passenger, which happened to be me on that leg of the drive.

Previous models of the 7 series required the driver to conform to the ways of the car. The new car is much better at adapting to the driver — and it does it with more style, luxury and attention to detail than ever before.

SPEC BOX

2009 BMW 750i

Body style: large, five-passenger, rear-wheel-drive sedan in standard and long-wheelbase models

Engine: 4.4-liter, 32-valve, DOHC, twin-turbocharged V-8 with piezo fuel injection and steplessly variable valve timing

Horsepower: 400 at 5,500 to 6,400 rpm

Torque: 450 foot-pounds from 1,800 to 4,500 rpm

Transmission: six-speed automatic with manual shift mode

Acceleration: 0-60 mph in 5.1 seconds

EPA fuel economy estimates: 15 mpg city, 22 highway; 91 octane recommended

Fuel capacity: 21.7 gallons

DIMENSIONS

Trunk space: 17.7 cubic feet

Front head/leg/shoulder room: 40.6/41.2/59.2 inches

Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 38.5/38.4/57.4 inches

Length/wheelbase: 199.8/120.9 inches

Curb weight: 4,564 pounds

Turning circle: 40 feet

FEATURES

Standard equipment includes: 16-way power front Comfort seats with four-way lumbar support (includes articulated upper backrest, adjustable backrest width, adjustable thigh support, passenger’s-seat memory, active head restraints with adjustable side support), power tilt-telescopic leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel with audio-phone controls and auto tilt-away for entry and exit, heated front seats, 10-speaker audio system with HD radio, Xenon adaptive headlights with auto-leveling and cornering lights, halogen fog lights with cornering function

Safety features include: dual-threshold, dual-stage deployment front air bags, side bags, front and rear air curtains, active knee protection, adaptive four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with electronic brake proportioning; anti-lock brakes with Dynamic Stability Control, including Brake Fade Compensation, Start-off Assistant, Brake Drying and Brake Stand-by features; Dynamic Traction Control and Dynamic Brake Control

PRICING

Base: $81,125, including $825 freight charge; as tested, $94,325, not including an estimated $1,300 for the gas guzzler tax

OPTION PACKAGES ON TEST CAR

Driver Assistance Package, $1,350, includes Active Blind Spot Detection, Lane Departure Warning, High Beam Assistant

Convenience package, $1,700, includes automatic trunk closer, soft close automatic doors, Comfort Access system (keyless starting and lock/unlock)

Camera package, $750, rear and side view cameras

Sport package, $4,500, includes active steering

Premium sound, $2,000, includes iPod and USB adapter, 16-speaker (600 watt) audio system with six-disc DVD changer

Luxury seating package, $2,500, includes heated rear seats, ski bag, front ventilated seats, power rear window and rear side window, active (massaging) driver seat and heated steering wheel

Ceramic controls for gear-shift and iDrive, $650

Warranty: four years/50,000 miles basic coverage with scheduled maintenance

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE.

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