A first-gen iDrive controller (left) and the new iDrive controller (right), although you'll have to spec the Professional Navigation system to get all the new features. (Credit: BMW)
Be careful though. Currently in the new 3-Series range many models can be optioned with either the Business Navigation or Professional Navigation pack. Both feature the new slimmed down iDrive controller, flanked by a number of shortcut and function buttons, but only the Professional pack features the guts of the second-gen iDrive system: namely the new software, menu system and hard disk-based satellite navigation.
Meanwhile, the Business nav system runs a version of the first-gen iDrive system, which was BMW's first attempt to consolidate the functions of the sat nav, entertainment, climate control, phone and car configuration systems into a single computer driven menu system. However, the system's "four quadrants design" limited functionality and forced designers to put new features in odd locations. Naturally buyers and reviewers alike were left scratching their heads.
Thankfully, the new iDrive has gone from chump to trump with a menu structure that no longer distorts the space-time continuum. In the main menu you'll find:
Most of your in-car entertainment options reside here, including CD, auxiliary jack and USB playback — the latter happily accepting iPods. CDs can be ripped to the car's hard disk, with 8GB out of the hard disk's 80GB capacity set aside for this purpose. You can also view DVD video and TV (standard-def digital and analog) when you're parked; the sound continues playing without vision when you tootle off down the street.
Once we found all our favourite AM and FM radio stations, we assigned each of them a shortcut key — more of which below.
- Phone and contacts:
From the Phone menu you can pair up Bluetooth enabled phones with your Beemer. You can also view your phone book (oddly with our Palm Centro, the car only displayed our SIM contacts), and recently received and dialled calls, as well as make calls. With calls being funnelled through the sound system augured with the general hush of the cabin, we were able to hold long discursive conversations without any problem.
The new iDrive system features a revamped hard-drive based nav system, which not only loads up more quickly and has virtually no lag when searching for destinations, but also features a 3D view for the first time. Despite being able to read out street names when you're issuing voice commands, turn instructions do not include spoken street names. Like many of the best portable GPS units around, the BMW system features large turn graphics for highway off-ramps and major intersections, though you'll need to enable split-screen mode to see these as well as any visual turn instructions. Another one of our bugbears is that the lane info, while large, is chopped off and, well, almost useless.
- BMW services:
Overseas, BMW drivers can sign up for things like on-the-road internet access. However, that's yet to be offered here, so you'll only find shortcuts to roadside assist, your dealer and the BMW hotline for the time being.
- Vehicle info:
Feeling inquisitive about your car's tyre pressures, oil levels or fuel consumption? This is where vehicle diagnostics and an extended version of the trip computer reside.
From the important, such as language, speaker balance and tone, through to the minor, for example how long the courtesy lights stay on for or how many doors are unlocked at once, many settings have no other home than under this menu.
Shortcut keys, not just for radio stations!
Underneath the CD slot in the dashboard reside a phalanx of eight shortcut buttons. These can, like they do in most other cars, store radio stations through the usual press and hold to store, and a quick press to recall procedure. You can also, through the same method, assign shortcuts to any menu screen of your choosing — it sounds like a bit of a gimmick but having a button specifically for USB/iPod playback, instead of just CD and Multimedia, was a boon for us. In a neat touch, the buttons are touch sensitive, so lightly fingering a button will throw up a preview of what that button is linked to.
Unlike HAL, voice command enabled BMWs will do your bidding ... most of the time.
Press the voice command button and you can directly jump to almost any menu or menu item in the iDrive system. With the windows closed and no passengers aboard, the system worked almost flawlessly. A bit of fresh air reduced our hit rate by about half. And while issuing voice commands while others are in the car is a great way of showing off, you'll probably look a bit crazy after a while and, anyway, background chatter is a great way of sending the on-board computer into a tizzy.
You'll also need to know the menu or item name, so familiarity with the system is a must. For solo drives though, voice commands are a great way of keeping your eyes on the road. You can even change radio stations, dial phone contacts or enter sat nav destinations orally. Unfortunately, while the system attempts to recognise names in your phone book, you have to spell out the city name and street names letter by letter.
With the latest generation of iDrive BMW has gone from chump to trump, as the new system is easy-to-use, powerful, feature-packed and aesthetically pleasing. It's a shame then that voice recognition system can't digest street names.