BMW's big 740i sedan has never exactly been a wallflower, but the availability of a Sport package ($2,600) gives it new vigor that brings it closer to being the life of the party.

The 7-series is BMW's flagship four-door. The 740i has a 4.4-liter V8 and starts at $62,970. The 750i has a 5.4-liter V12 and starts at $92,670. These prices are way beyond the average buyer, I know, but BMW sold more than 18,000 last year.

Our test car was equipped with BMW's in-dash navigation system, an $1,800 option on the 740i but standard on the 750i. This system uses GPS satellites to pinpoint the car's exact location at all times, which is then displayed on a small color screen in the center of the dash. Regional maps on compact discs are loaded into the system, which means they can be changed easily as you move from one region to another.

How is the 740i Sport differentiated from its more pedestrian mates? First, it sits a little closer to the ground and wears very low-profile tires on massive 18-inch diameter wheels. Second, the side window trim is black instead of chrome. Third, the axle ratio has been lowered for stronger acceleration from rest, and fourth, the shock absorbers, springs and anti-roll bars have been changed to make it corner flatter and steer more responsively.

Special 18-way seats, Vavona redwood trim and the Steptronic automatic/manual transmission are also part of this package.

While these changes may seem subtle, they sharpen the reflexes of the 740i and give it more aggressive performance. With 282 horsepower lingering under the hood, the standard 740i is far from sluggish, but the lower (higher numerically) axle ratio of the Sport package livens it up considerably. BMW says it scoots to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and the top track speed is electronically limited to 128 mph, which is academic in this country.

The Steptronic allows the driver to shift manually for optimum performance by sliding the gear lever to a special gate on the left side of the console. In this mode, drivers make their own upshifts and downshifts by nudging the lever forward or back. Although this is essentially a novelty that will be ignored in daily driving, it does give the driver more control over the car when the situation calls for it.

The added performance of the Sport package comes at a slight cost in fuel economy (15 city, 21 highway instead of 17 city, 23 highway), but let's face it, the folks who can afford this car aren't going to quibble over gas mileage.

As one would expect in a car of this caliber, the interior is very well appointed. The leather front seats had large side bolsters and adjustable under-thigh support that made them comfortable for long stints behind the wheel. They also provided excellent support in high-speed turns.

BMW instrumentation is among the best in the business for clarity and simplicity. The 740i's secondary controls for audio and climate control, on the other hand, tend to be less eas y to understand and use. The buttons are small, the layout crowded. Steering wheel controls that replicate many of these functions are handy, but their markings are so cryptic I had to resort to the manual to decipher them.

Notable safety features include tubelike airbags that inflate to protect front-seat passengers' heads in a side impact and optional side-impact airbags for the back seat.

Electronic controls help keep skids in check, provide traction in bad weather and apply full braking force in emergency stops.

Options abound. They include break-resistant glass, parking distance sensors in the bumpers, a power rear sunshade, heated seats, heated steering wheel, built-in cellular phone and upgraded stereo system.

The base price of our test car was $62,970. Optional equipment included the Sport package and navigation system, which brought the sticker price to $67,370.

Four years or 50,000 miles.

Point: e l xurious 740i gets a shot of adrenaline from the Sport package. Its 4.4-liter V8 is creamy smooth yet fast; bigger tires sharpen its reflexes without degrading the ride quality.

Counterpoint: The 740i's styling is beginning to look dated, secondary controls are small and complicated, and most of us can't even afford to look at cars in this price range, much less buy one.


ENGINE: 4.4-liter V8


CONFIGURATION: Rear-wheel drive

WHEELBASE: 115.4 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 4,255 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $62,970


MPG RATING: 15 city, 21 hwy.