Road Tests

2017 BMW Alpina B7 xDrive vs. 2017 Audi S8 Plus vs. 2016 Jaguar XJR

Power Corrupts: These innocent-looking, yet anabolic-stuffed chariots are so powerful they need a very empty autobahn to deliver

Four doors, four seats, and a three-box design — while parked, all three of these musketeers play the role of a sedate, executive sedan. At the press of their start buttons, however, they instantly drop their masks and reveal their true character as the big V-8s come to life, hurried up by fat turbos and one whining supercharger. Always eager to rev and pushy like steam hammers, they sport a mighty whiplash punch and have long enough legs to gobble up autobahn blacktop in a time-warp fashion.

Attached to the eight-enders of the 2017 BMW Alpina B7 xDrive, 2017 Audi S8 Plus, and 2016 Jaguar XJR we’ve assembled for this test run are fast-shifting, eight-speed transmissions. All feature a tight chassis boasting broad-shouldered tires and thick anti-roll bars, aggressive brakes employing discs as large as home satellite dishes, and steering boxes that aim, more or less successfully, to fuse intuition, inspiration, and information. Their designs vary from gothic to techno nerdy to neo-baroque. The cockpits indulge in overstimulation, the ambience an arcane mix of sports bar and cigar lounge. Don’t even try to rate these cars with reason; it doesn’t apply here.

2017 BMW Alpina B7 xDrive vs 2017 Audi S8 Plus vs 2016 Jaguar XJR 09

On paper, the Alpina B7 xDrive is the car to beat. Both rivals in this test are 6 years old and lack B7 novelties like adjustable anti-roll bars, rear-wheel steering, adjustable dampers linked to a camera that scans the road ahead, and a special Alpina suspension tune. The Alpina treatment for the BMW 7 Series also includes bespoke turbochargers, a free-flow induction and exhaust system, and a small army of intercoolers, oil coolers, and radiators. All this kit pushes the output of BMW’s venerable twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V-8 to 608 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque in U.S. spec trim, the latter available at between 3,000 and 5,000 rpm. With a top speed of 206 mph and the ability to roar from 0 to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, the fastest-ever BMW needs an empty autobahn or airfield to demonstrate its talents safely.

The untold mission of BMW’s Alpina flagship is to show the world that no one does luxury super sedans better, that it’s the ultimate common denominator of comfort and performance. Although it does impress in many areas, there are three traits we don’t like: The full-throttle acceleration squat at low to medium speed kicks up the bow and feels old school, the brakes compensate for lack of initial bite with vigorous deceleration and a pronounced dive, and the steering is on less than perfect turf, transmitting too much information.

By comparison, the Jaguar XJR is a low-tech contender: no all-wheel drive, no rear-wheel steering, no four-corner air suspension, and no assistance systems overload. But it’s not totally devoid of top-tier tech. New for 2016 is an electronic takeoff support dubbed ASPC and electro-mechanical steering. The Jaguar is comparatively down on power as well, with its supercharged 5.0-liter V-8 making “just” 550 hp and “a mere” 502 lb-ft of torque, the entirety of the latter available only in a narrow band between 3,500 and 4,000 rpm. Predictably, its 174 mph top speed is the lowest of the group, and its 4.4-second run to 60 mph the longest.

To its credit, the Jag’s new steering setup is the most likeable of the three. It packs a sweet blend of input and response with quick turn-in. Its feedback is nicely weighted, generating enough interest as you wind on more lock, yet zero nervousness when carving a straight line. There is some unwelcome momentary stiffening during quick left-right-left maneuvers, though, and the helm feels constantly compelled to make slight self-adjustments — not because one needs them but because it can. What it does not like at all are undulations, transverse ridges, and recurrent surface changes.

2017 BMW Alpina B7 xDrive vs 2017 Audi S8 Plus vs 2016 Jaguar XJR 02

The stoppers fitted to the Jaguar are more obliging and easier to modulate than those of the B7, but they are no less tenacious. Being the only rear-wheel-drive contender of the trio, the XJR is favorably disposed toward the odd smoky burnout or whiff of sideways action. It is more rewarding, however, to harness the momentum, position the car for the next corner, and keep up the flow.

Audi’s S8 Plus is the deceleration king. Its front carbon-ceramic rotors combine a firm bite with the persistent and steady force, tempting you to push the Audi to its ABS-monitored limit. With its twin-turbo, 4.0-liter V-8 pushing 605 hp and 517 lb-ft of torque (available from 1,750 rpm all the way to 6,000 rpm), this kind of braking power is handy to have. The S8 Plus can reach a top speed of 190 mph (electronically limited to 155 mph in the U.S.) and needs 3.7 seconds to hit 60 mph, just 0.1 second more than the Alpina.

In terms of handling prowess, it is quite easy to induce a trace of liftoff on oversteer, which should be fun in winter. Unfortunately, the dynamic steering of the S8 feels artificial, is too light, and fails to self-center swiftly and progressively. The body likes to bob up and down once before it settles down for the exit of a bend. Furthermore, the steering wheel’s calibration is confusingly broad. Around town, a quick two-finger flick gets you around any 90-degree bend. On the freeway, however, the setup is almost too stiff even for high-speed stability freaks. Fortunately, the Audi Drive Select system allows you to dial in slightly more relaxed — or even more frantic — steering action.

Ergonomically, all three strike an odd balance between brilliance and madness. This applies in particular to the new BMW 7 Series on which the B7 is based, which should really come with a half-day total immersion course. Autonomous driving? Yes, but not in this vibrating, beeping and flashing, please-wait-another-four-years manner. Touch and zoom, push and turn? Sure, but not all at once, and be careful with your gestures, or gesture control may turn the radio on full volume when you use your fingers as a comb. The B7 comes with a number of Alpina-specific accents, however, to differentiate it from your garden-variety 7 Series.

Although the S8 still is a quality leader and materials champ, its cockpit no longer feels as intuitive as it once was. How come? It’s the curse of doing the doable, plus an erratic gearlever that drives you bananas when selecting R or P, and the digit’s persistent difficulties to penetrate the callous MMI maze.

The Jaguar is not a master of the center stack, either. While the latest infotainment system does bring it up to speed, the busy steering wheel, scattered controls, and distant touchscreen are nothing to brag about.

At the end of our drive, we came away feeling that the Alpina treatment has turned the 7 Series into a much faster, but barely less docile hyper sedan. Even though ambition and ability don’t always match, the B7 does outperform the competition. The Jaguar mixes eight parts XJ with two parts R — it’s a four-seat GT, brawny and dated, but the winner of our heart. The Audi is the sports car of this trio. The Plus version of the S8 is a sure-footed, corner-greedy, and charmingly competent evolution of a design launched back in 2010.

2017 BMW Alpina B7 xDrive Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $137,995 (base)
Engine: 4.4L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/608 hp @ 5,750 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 3,000-5,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 16/24 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 206.7 x 74.9 x 58.7 in
Wheelbase: 126.4 in
Weight: 4,700 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 3.6 sec (est)
Top Speed: 206 mph

2017 Audi S8 Plus Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $116,850 (base)
Engine: 4.0L turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/605 hp @ 6,100 rpm, 517 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 15/25 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 202.6 x 76.7 x 57.4 in
Wheelbase: 117.9 in
Weight: 4,685 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 3.7 sec
Top Speed: 155 mph

2016 Jaguar XJR Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $118,995 (base)
Engine: 5.0L supercharged DOHC 32-valve V-8/550 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 502 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 15/25 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 202.2 x 74.8 x 57.5 in
Wheelbase: 119.4 in
Weight: 4,134 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 4.4 sec
Top Speed: 174 mph