Five p.m., Friday afternoon, Munich airport parking lot. I’m handed the keys to the BMW Alpina B6 Gran Coupe. At 5:06, I’m doing 140 mph on the autobahn.
Oh, the glories of Germany, the only place in the world where the highway to an international airport often has no speed limit. It’s also a place where a grand-touring car like the B6 makes stupendous sense.
By 5:25 p.m. I’ve made two conclusions: 1) I’m not sticking around Munich, but am heading to the Austrian Alps, and 2) This may be the most capable car I’ve ever driven on the autobahn. By weekend’s end I’ll also come to another: The Alpina B6 is the best version of BMW’s 6 Series sold today.
Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH is officially an independent car company, but all BMW Alpina models are manufactured in a BMW plant and then hand-finished by Alpina in Buchloe, about forty-five minutes outside of Munich. You might break down the company’s philosophy in two salient points: The best of everything, only with lots more torque.
Alpina sells a number of models in Europe, but in recent times we’ve only been offered the B7 in the United States, a well-optioned, higher-torque version of the 7 Series. (BMW North America hasn’t been keen to invite in-house competition with its own M cars, so we don’t get the Alpina 3 Series, for instance.) The B7 is a nice car, no arguments, but it falls short of being an argument-ending reason to choose the Alpina over the twelve-cylinder 760Li or even a nicely optioned 750i xDrive.
The B6, on the other hand, is something special. Based on the lovely four-door version of the 6 Series (misleadingly named the Gran Coupe), the $118,225 Alpina gains standard all-wheel drive and a retuned engine, transmission, and electronics. The 4.4-liter, bi-turbo V-8 makes 540 hp and 540 lb-ft of torque.
The B6’s most obvious competitor is the $115,300 M6 Gran Coupe, with the same engine but slightly different output (560 hp and 502 lb-ft of torque) and rear-wheel drive. The B6 has 20 fewer horses but 38 foot-pounds of extra torque. It’s not a sports car anyway, so the tradeoff provides the grunt that drivers will find most useful while pounding away from a stop light (0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds) or making power passes on the freeway. I exulted every time I saw the autobahn-specific sign of a circle with three lines marked through—i.e., no speed limit. The car slips from 75 mph to 135-plus in moments. Top speed is 198 mph when equipped with Michelin Pilot Super Sport performance tires, though I never got a clear enough stretch to test it.
The Gran Coupe has a feminine shape, and when it’s all dressed up in as an M model with a carbon-fiber roof and an exaggerated front end, it looks a bit like Kate Upton in bondage gear. By comparison, the Alpina’s restyled fascia, rear diffuser, and double tailpipes add a touch of attitude without taking away from the pretty lines. The nose includes a subtle carbon-fiber front splitter, which will be body-colored in the States. Alpina execs say exterior changes are functional and in service to the top speed or efficient cooling. My car was the very first finished B6 off the production line, and it was painted Alpina blue. (Green is the other Alpina-specific color.) It also had Alpina’s traditional 21-spoke wheels.
The interior on my test model was top-of-the-line BMW, including plush Merino leather. Alpina’s own special hide isn’t offered in the U.S., but we do get a steering wheel coated with the fabulously soft stuff, with blue and green stitching. Interior alterations include Alpina aluminum doorsills and distinctive blue-hued gauges.
The significant changes are all under the skin: reworked engine mapping and altered gear ratios, extra cooling capacity, a retuned exhaust system and a tweaked division of torque on the AWD system. There is no specific torque split, the Alpina guys say, but it consistently skews significantly to the rear, a truth you can feel on the move. The tuning of the ZF eight-speed transmission deserves a special call-out. The car is always in the right gear, and kick-downs are instantaneous yet never jarring. The systems are gorgeously mated: Ask for power and it translates to smooth, right-now, forward movement. The sum of the parts is a grand-touring dynamo that feels more special than any BMW I’ve driven in recent memory. It’s more refined and sensible than the M6, and makes the regular 6 Gran Sport seem downright frumpy.
I was headed to Salzburg, which would maximize autobahn miles. However, the quick changes of speed limit can be bewildering: The nav system and a forward camera kept better track of them than I could. The speed limit is then beamed onto the head-up display. Brilliant. Like all 6 Series cars, however, the Alpina is hampered by awful sight lines; the A-pillars are fat and the wide rounded fenders are impossible to see. You’ll live in terror of brushing them against walls in tight parking garages or curbing tires on the street.
It began raining, varying from annoying drizzle to windshield-obscuring downpours. Temps were in the 40s and 50s, which gave me some concerns about the performance tires, but traction was sure throughout. (Later, in a wet parking lot, I turned systems to sport plus and horsed around. I could get it to power slide, but only after serious coaxing. The considerable torque is well curtailed.)
The Alpina’s other distinction is the chasm between driving modes. Comfort plus is far more plush than the comparable mode in a regular 6, while the max sport setting amps up response times considerably. Comfort plus was too lazy for my taste; the electrically adjustable dampers smother road imperfections but the steering becomes disturbingly lax. Sport is just the right amount of firm without being too harsh, and you can point the big car down the road with precision.
After finding a hotel in Salzburg (and discovering you can’t park within the old section at all—you’ll have to haul your bags), I sated myself with Wiener Schnitzel and local brews. The mountains were cloaked in clouds in the morning, and I chose the tiny hamlet of Hallstatt, on Lake Hallstatt, as a lunch destination. Snaking roads followed rivers running white with overflow. After I realized that the B6 wasn’t going to snap out from underneath me, even in the wet, I changed the settings to sport and had a good time.
Sunday evening, 375 miles on the odometer, I was back in Germany. I returned the B6 to the Alpina factory in Buchloe. They’d shown me just how good a 6 Series can really be.
2015 BMW Alpina B6 xDrive Gran Coupe
|Engine||4.4L twin turbo V-8|
|Power||540 hp @ 5200–6250 rpm|
|Torque||540 lb-ft @ 2800–5000 rpm|
|L x W x H||197.1 x 74.6 x 54.8 in|
|0-60 mph||3.7 seconds|
|Top Speed||198 mph|
|Fuel economy||16/24/19 mpg (city/highway/combined)|