SAN ANTONIO, TX — My driving partner and I are sitting at a stoplight in trendy downtown San Antonio when a well-dressed businessman stands at the crosswalk and gives us a big thumbs up.

“That the new 7-Series?” he asks. “Yeah,” we say. “What do you think?”

“Nice,” he says.

“What about the rear end?” my partner yells out the window as we drive off. In the rear view mirror we see him looking hard and giving us another big thumbs up.

So much for our one-man focus group on the latest controversial BMW to emerge from the studios of chief designer Chris Bangle. This is the kind of reaction you want when driving a car with a base price of $68,495 — one designed to compete head-to-head with the vaunted Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan.

Unfortunately, the reaction to BMW's brand new flagship has not always been so favorable.

Starting when it was introduced on the morning of Sept. 11 at the Frankfurt Motor Show to stunned silence, the car has been engulfed in controversy ever since. Created with a new “design vocabulary” to set it apart from other cars in BMW's growing stable, it is one of a handful of cars in recent history — the Pontiac Aztek among them — to be called outright ugly in the press.

Like few other cars in recent memory, this car pushes the envelope on virtually every front: styling, size, technology, horsepower, and interior design as it tries to rewrite the rules established for luxury sedans. Almost everywhere you look there is something awesome or startling. Sometimes this is good, and sometimes it's bad.

The short wheelbase car (long wheelbase and 12-cyl. versions come later this year) weighs 4,376 lbs. (1,985 kg) yet it accelerates from 0-60 mph (100 km/h) in 5.9 seconds.

It's all-new engine still displaces 4.4L and has the same bore and stroke, yet its new version, designated N62, produces 15% more power while delivering 13% better fuel economy (18 city/26 highway).

The car is much larger, 1.8 ins. (4.6 cm) longer, 1.6 ins. (4 cm) wider, and 2.2 ins. (5.6 cm) taller with a 2.3 ins. (5.8 cm) longer wheelbase than its already big predecessor, but it handles like a much smaller car and is extremely flat around curves, thanks to new hydraulically actuated anti-roll bars. Rack and pinion steering, a first for the 7-Series, adds another level of precision to the steering without giving up too much feedback from the road. It also is extremely quiet, almost too quiet for a BMW.

But critics attack its big, doughy proportions, the turn signals that sit over the headlights like eyebrows instead of underneath, and the high, flat hood. The tall, abbreviated rear end with its confusing cuts and creases is singled out for being especially unattractive and “un-BMW-like.” And that's without getting into the car's stunningly different interior design.

A typical headline appeared last December in Fortune magazine titled: “Do You Think This Car is Ugly? “

Most respondents to the January issue of Ward's AutoWorld question of the month reacted negatively to the new design.

Bangle clearly has been stung by the criticism, and he calls some of the particularly mean-spirited comments from some of his fellow automotive designers unprofessional.

He reminds that BMW's board reviewed more than 10 possible designs for the new flagship, and this is the one they picked. One of the problems with the car, he says, is that it doesn't photograph well. Once more people see it on the road, he expects the controversy to quiet down. Dealers are happy with the new design, he says.

“BMW became a benchmark, and when the benchmark moves the whole game forward, you make people nervous,” he says.

Bangle also reminds that BMW used to be criticized for having overly conservative designs: “One sausage, cut to different lengths.”

Those days are long gone now, as BMW strives to broaden its product lineup to include not only variants of premium sport sedans, but sport/utility vehicles, roadsters and other models.

A different “design vocabulary” was specifically introduced on the 7-Series to begin setting apart the company's big luxury sedans from its various other models.

Bangle explains that another reason the new 7-Series strays from some of the old BMW formulas is because the model had a new set of design parameters it had to meet.

First off, it was determined early on that it needed a greater “curb presence” to effectively compete with the Mercedes S-Class in markets like the U.S. and Asia. That meant bigger proportions all around. Secondly, BMW's world-leading engines may be getting more powerful and fuel efficient, but they're also getting taller, thanks to Valvetronic and other technologies that sit atop the engine. That translates into a taller hood line.

Numerous other design constraints limited his options in other areas. The trunk in particular presented numerous problems because it had to be very tall for aerodynamic reasons.

Whether or not you like the new design, iDrive, or the finicky little gearshift lever that engages the new 6-speed automatic transmission, once you finally step on the accelerator and get the car moving, it's a wonderful combination of plushness and precision, although the highly flexible transmission is difficult to operate in its “manumatic” mode and only allows you to downshift with buttons on the steering wheel.

But whether the larger package, more powerful engine and innovative features will justify the 6% price increase over the old model and help BMW catch Mercedes in sales and prestige remains to seen. The car went on sale at the end of January. A long-wheelbase version (123.2 ins. [313 cm] vs. the standard 117.7 ins. [299 cm]) comes out in March. A 12-cyl. version, with a bigger and completely new powerplant is due by the end of the year.

As our 20-year sales chart shows, the S-Class has outsold the 7-Series by as much as a 3 to 1 ratio in the past. While BMW did briefly outsell the S-Class for a few years in the mid-'90s as the previous generation neared the end of its cycle, the minute the redesigned S-Class entered the market, sales spiked back up into territory the 7-Series has never seen.

Even though the new 7-Series appears to be offering more of everything this time around, this could turn into a situation where more still isn't enough, leaving at least one small area of the automotive landscape where BMW still isn't the benchmark — or writing the rules.