DRESDEN – 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.

But engineers and designers clearly realized that in their eagerness to make the ‘02 7- Series the most technically advanced sedan of the day, they also made it unintuitive and intimidating to drive.

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. It is as if BMW sent the car to the gym for a year and it has come back buff and trim.

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. Now you feel smarter behind the wheel of a 7-Series, rather than like someone trying to relearn driving.

For instance, as we leave Dresden to begin a lengthy drive in the former East Germany, my driving partner briefly struggles with the navigation system and begins to read me directions from a map. I wave him off.

“I know there is a roundabout in exactly 2000 meters (1.2 miles). I know all the turn-by-turn directions to our destination, and I know all the posted speed limits,” I tell him.

My driving partner’s jaw goes slack. “How do you know all that,” he stammers.

“Because I drive a BMW 750Li and that makes me a Master of the Universe,” I say dismissively.

“And because all that information is displayed in front of me on the optional heads-up display system.”

If the extra-helpful HUD is not enough, the owner’s manual is integrated into the iDrive system, in what BMW claims is a world first. So if you temporarily are stumped on how something works, the iDrive quickly provides a multi-media presentation, including animations, slide-shows and audio and text descriptions from the owner’s manual to help you figure it out.

And there are enough standard features and options to elicit shock and awe, including thermal-imaging night vision with specific alerts for pedestrians near the roadway; adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability; active blind spot detection that vibrates the steering wheel and 4-wheel steering.

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 slightly 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.

’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 10:1
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

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.

Another new feature called “driving dynamics control” electronically ties together suspension damping modes, transmission shift characteristics, throttle response,

steering assist and traction control to create four progressively sporty driving modes.

The sportier settings make driver inputs and feedback from the road so razor-sharp you constantly forget you are driving a rather gigantic luxury sedan.

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 real master-of-the-universes are cutting back these days.

dwinter@wardsauto.com