Tech Backlash: Start Me Up (Just Try)

When you're driving a road rocket like the $70,000 BMW 745i, you need some good tunes to provide a soundtrack to your speed. But as I flouted traffic laws all over Detroit in a wild weekend ride of this new Beemer, I found myself trapped in classical-music hell. The person who test-drove this car before me preset the radio to all-NPR, all the time. And this isn't just any old radio. The 7's stereo is part of the high-tech iDrive system, an onboard computer displayed in the dash and operated by a fist-size mouse in the center armrest. But as much as I torqued and clicked that mouse, I just couldn't dial in my favorite alternative-rock station. Deflated, I finally pulled over, hauled out the owner's manual and spent 10 minutes decoding iDrive. If this is the future of driving, somebody direct me to the nearest exit.

Why am I dishing dirt on this dreamboat? Because with the new 7, BMW is letting technology run roughshod. Oh sure, the 7 still drives like the best sports sedan on the road. But the computer is encroaching on the sportiness. In the spot where the gearshift used to be now sits the iDrive mouse, ready to perform a dizzying array of 700 functions. The mouse controls the stereo, satellite navigation, cell phone, climate control and other functions, with menus displayed on the dashboard computer screen. Without the central control pod, BMW argues, the new 7's interior would have so many knobs and switches it would resemble the cockpit of a 747. Critics like me, in BMW's view, just don't get it. "I don't mean to be arrogant about it, but what does a journalist know?" BMW chief designer Chris Bangle said to me.

Rather than simplifying, BMW has complicated its Ultimate Driving Machine. Routine tasks are difficult and the computer screen can be a dangerous distraction from driving. Dealers are spending as many as two hours teaching new owners to navigate iDrive. Perhaps the hardest part about driving the new BMW, besides affording it, is simply getting it started. You boot up the 7 by inserting a matchbox-size plastic fob into the dash, stomping the brake, punching a launch button and pulling a gear stalk on the steering column forward and down. Got all that? The Bavarians say they made the change to show off the 7's advanced electronic controls and as a nostalgic nod to BMWs of the '50s that had push-button starters. But BMW was concerned enough to outfit each 7 with sticky notes in the glove box that contain instructions for parking valets. "Are we going to have to re-educate all the valets?" jokes Chrysler chief designer Trevor Creed, whose parent company builds the archrival Mercedes.

BMW views its critics as Luddites and says many competitors are already copying iDrive. "At BMW, we aren't afraid of the future," says Bangle. "People in the real world don't have problems with this car." He may be right; 7 sales are up 45 percent this year. Even Mercedes admits cars of the future will have a computer screen, mouse and voice-activated controls. Still, word is that BMW is retooling iDrive so that version 2.0 coming in the next 5-series in 2005 will be much more user-friendly. As long as I can tune in my radio station, I'll be happy.

Photo: The mouse that roars: A controller on the console handles 700 functions