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BMW's flagship car now tells you when it needs to be serviced

High-line comfort, engineering sophistication, a clear identity, style - all these define the BMW flagship car, the 733i. Although the 320i has long been its top seller in the United States, last year its 5-, 6-, and 7-series cars expanded their market penetration significantly. Thus, one-third of the company's US sales last year were in the cars above the 320i lineup.

John A. Cook, who has been president of BMW of North America since 1974 but will leave that post in May, expects the luxury-performance segment to increase 10 percent in 1983. Since Mr. Cook has been at the helm, BMW sales in the US have climbed from 15,000 in 1974 to more than 52,000 last year. The company looks for 58,000 in 1983. That's easy, Cook says.

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Meanwhile, BMW, which operates in 103 export markets worldwide, turned out 250,000 cars in 1982. Now it plans to build another factory which, by 1990, will boost the company's capacity 40 percent. The facility will be built at Regensburg, about 70 miles north Munich, where BMW now has its car-building facilities and corporate headquarters.

Still, the profitable company doesn't aspire to be a ''really big'' operation. ''We hope we never become a mass producer of automobiles,'' Eberhard von Kunheim, chairman of the BMW board of management, said on a visit to Detroit a few months ago.

BMW sold 4,000 cars in Japan last year, up from 2,900 in 1981, and was the only auto importer to have an ''up'' year in an otherwise disappointing year for the importers. Its goal is 10,000 cars as it expands its dealership body.

As for the updated 733i, first introduced in 1978, it's just about everything a buyer could want in a high-luxury car. It's a highly sophisticated machine with all kinds of controls and gauges and readouts that satisfy a motorist's ''need to know'' as he pilots his vehicle down the road.

Yet it has a very Germanic feeling about it, not the soft, yet still innovative, feel of a highly refined, luxurious French car, for example - such as the Peugeot 604. There is something ''very precise'' about the 733i - the way you sit in the car, the operation of the controls, the ambiance. In fact, both cars - the BMW 733i and the Peugeot 604 - are fun to drive, and both give a satisfying feel of ''having arrived.''

The 3,210-cc engine in the 733i uses a nitrite-hardened crankshaft with two counterbalances per cyclinder and seven main bearings for quiet performance under way.

A sophisticated engine computer combines with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection for improved performance, economy, and emissions control, according to a BMW engineer. The company says the Environmental Protection Agency rates the 733i at 19 m.p.g. in the city and 29 on the highway.

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Considering what you're driving when you sit behind the wheel of a 733i, that's not too bad at all.

BMW has upgraded the tires on the 733i and uses new alloy wheels.

The 733i provides more leg, head, and shoulder room, front and rear, than any previous BMW model, according to the company.

New for '83 is a ''service interval indicator,'' a computerized sensing system that reads the car's operating conditions and signals the driver through a series of light-emitting diodes when routine service is due.

When that happens, bring your checkbook. But isn't that true with any car nowadays?

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