Many people have the anxiety dream where they sit down in a classroom and a test is handed out they did not study for.

Auto writers have a nightmare where they get behind the wheel of a test car and discover they no longer know how to drive. The controls are vaguely familiar, yet the owner's manual has to be consulted just to figure out how to turn on the ignition.

Unfortunately, for many journalists reviewing the fourth-generation BMW 7-Series in 2001, the nightmare became reality. They really did need help starting the car and figuring out how to operate the stumpy little electronic shifter on the steering column. Even adjusting the radio was a challenge, because it had to be done via a hideously complex central controller called iDrive.

Even so, the car went on to become the biggest-selling 7-Series ever. Many of the '02s maligned electronics innovations and design features now are commonplace, such as the initially confusing ignition system that replaces the traditional key with a key-fob transponder and push-button starter.

The car's tall rear-end design, derisively nicknamed “Bangle-butt,” after BMW's head of design, Chris Bangle, also has since been imitated on popular cars from the Toyota Camry to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

BMW takes a decidedly more conservative and consumer-friendly tack with the fifth- generation '09 7-Series which debuts in the U.S. this spring as the 750i and 750Li short- and long-wheelbase versions. The shift lever has been moved back to the center console where it belongs, the iDrive has been simplified and the Bangle-butt is gone.

All together, this latest generation is lower, sleeker and more elegant looking, while also faster, more fuel-efficient and more fun to drive.

The new 7-Series still is so heavily feature-laden it requires more concentration to operate than a typical sedan, but the technology works for you instead of against you.

The interior also is designed with a different spacial concept in mind. The previous generation has an almost architectural feel, with a flat and wide instrument panel.

The new interior is sportier and more driver-oriented, with controls and key instruments canted to the driver's side. Sumptuous materials and textures are used throughout, and the overall ambience is warm and welcoming compared with the previous cool and technical feel.

The new engine, the only one available in the U.S., also reflects BMW's strategy to conserve fuel by moving to smaller displacement powerplants. The outgoing 4.8L V-8 is naturally aspirated and incorporates BMW's Valvetronic system, in which variable-lift intake valves assume the function normally done by the throttle. It produces 360 hp and 360 lb.-ft. (488 Nm) of torque.

The new V-8 has been downsized to 4.4L and replaces the effective-but-cumbersome Valvetronic system with direct fuel injection and twin turbochargers. The new design makes 40 more horsepower and 90 more lb.-ft. (122 Nm) of torque, and delivers both at significantly lower rpms than the previous engine.

BMW also points out the 450 lb.-ft. (610 Nm) torque peak is about the same as delivered by the auto maker's 6.0L V-12.

The new engine looks considerably different. The twin turbochargers and catalytic converters are between the two cylinder banks. This requires the exhaust camshafts and valves to be placed inboard, so that the path for the exhaust gas from cylinders to turbochargers is short. The intake camshafts and valves are then positioned outboard.

Despite the unusual layout, the engine performs flawlessly, producing breathtaking thrust during acceleration and passing maneuvers. It propels the car to 60 mph (97 km/h) in just 5.2 seconds and is speed-limited to 150 mph (240 km/h). U.S. fuel economy figures are not yet available.

In addition to improvements all around, the biggest standout feature of the new-generation 7-Series is its astonishing handling. Despite its proportions — the extended wheelbase 750Li is 205.3 ins. (521 cm) long and weighs 4,640 lbs. (2,105 kg) — you can fling it into corners like a sports car.

Thanks to an aluminum roof, hood, front fenders and door panels, the car has a low center of gravity and is very well-balanced. You never feel its weight objecting to abrupt direction changes.

Unlike its predecessor, we have few quibbles with the latest generation 7-Series.

Even so, a 6-speed automatic transmission, no matter how good, no longer is innovative when competitors such as Mercedes and Lexus offer 7-speed and 8-speed transmissions. They also offer all-wheel drive, which is an even grander BMW omission.

We'd also like to see in the U.S. a diesel-powered version of the 7-Series, which we also tested, and found superb and pleasantly less hedonistic than the full-boat 750Li. And it might make sense to offer one soon. After all, even 7-Series buyers are cutting back these days.

'09 BMW 750Li

Vehicle type: 5-passenger, rear-wheel-drive sedan

Engine: Twin-turbo 4.4L DOHC; aluminum block/heads

Power: (SAE net): 400 hp @ 5,500 rpm

Torque: 450 lb.-ft. (610 Nm) @ 1,800 rpm

Compression ratio: 10.0:1

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 126.4 ins. (321 cm)

Overall length: 205.3 ins. (521 cm)

Overall width: 74.9 ins. (190 cm)

Overall height: 58.3 ins. (148 cm)

Curb weight: 4,640 lbs. (2,105 kg)

Base Price: $80,000 (estimated)

Fuel Economy: TBA

Competition: Mercedes S550, Audi A8, Lexus 600h

[+] PROS/CONS [-]
Elegant design No all-wheel-drive option
Stunning agility Only a 6-speed automatic?
Improved iDrive No U.S. diesel option, yet