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BMW's High-Tech Luxury a Hard Sell

The long-wheelbase 2009 BMW 750Li is one of the most sophisticated cars on the market, and you pay for the privilege of getting behind its heated steering wheel. When all the extras on a recent test car--from a $2,200 rear entertainment package to a $1,300 head's-up display--were factored in, the car cost more than $100,000.

Like all luxury carmakers, BMW is suffering in the marketplace. BMW sales declined 38.4 percent in April, which left the company claiming that it (BMW and Mini combined) was doing better than others in the year-to-date market segment. The BMW Group sold 19.362 vehicles in April, compared to 31,448 in the same month a year before. The year-to-date results were also down considerably, 70,606 versus 99,977 in the same period a year ago. "Despite the negative development in April, both BMW and Mini continue to track better than their market segments year-to-date," BMW said.

Back to the 7-Series. Its numbers are worse than the company overall. BMW sold just 792 7-Series cars in North America in April, half the previous year. The year-to-date figure was down 67 percent compared to 2008.

Top-level luxury is hurting, but on every level, the 750Li is an impressive car, powered by 4.4-liter, 400-horsepower turbocharged V-8s that can speed to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds. A lane departure warning keeps the driver in line, and active cruise control makes sure a safe distance is maintained. Seats are ventilated, and the steering wheel is heated. Don't bother dimming the xenon adaptive headlights with dynamic auto-leveling ("the best headlights I've ever experienced on a vehicle," says Edmunds): "high-beam assistant" is on the case.

Here's the 750Li on the road: But is the 750Li in step with our times? Not if the environment is a big issue. Start with a $1,000 gas-guzzler tax. On the federal global warming scale (in which 10 is the cleanest), it gets a four. On the smog score, a five. And its 17 mpg average (14 mpg in the city and just 22 on the highway) is no better than some monster SUVs.

German manufacturers have been slow to get into hybrids and electric cars. Volkswagen is trying to change that: It just signed a "memorandum of understanding with Chinese battery and hybrid-carmaker BYD to "explore the options for partnership in the area of hybrids and electric vehicles powered by lithium batteries."

BMW's green bright spot is a fleet of electric Minis, some of which will be coming to the U.S. in small fleets in California and New York. Interest is apparently overwhelming: 1,800 people applied for 450 slots. The Minis have a range of 120 miles on a 2.5-hour charge, and are being leased for $850 a month. Maybe this little green car is a harbinger of things to come.

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