Review: The New, 205-MPH Alpina B7 Is Exactly What BMWs Used to Be
But would BMW ever follow the lead of an independent tuner?
BUCHLOE, Germany—Given all the model variations BMW introduces at any given European auto show, it's easy to overlook Alpina's wares, however impressive they may be. BMW always has had the M high-performance models as part of the company, and in the last few years has been proliferating that sub-brand's high-profile letter onto pretty much anything above the most basic versions of its vehicles. (BMW X7 M50i, anyone?) Consider this an apology for this author's habit of ignoring Alpina.
So what, exactly, does the firm do? "We fill niches that BMW doesn't fill," says Andy Bovensiepen, company principal and son of Alpina's founder. One of those rare niches in the lineup is a hot BMW 7 Series to compete with the likes of the Mercedes-AMG S-Class and Audi S8. BMW doesn't do an M7 (even if it offers an M Sport variant), Bovensiepen says, so Alpina does the B7.
But this is a different sort of filled niche from the one I was expecting. Alpina customers don't track their modified BMWs, Bovensiepen says. The relationship between BMW and Alpina long has been very close, its closest analog being AMG before Mercedes-Benz purchased that company outright. As with its predecessor, the B7 will have full BMW factory warranty and backing, and the 400 or so examples of the new car coming to the U.S. and Canada will be sold through BMW's North American dealer network.
Hand-built in a sort of Geppetto's workshop of small, A/C-less buildings outside of Munich where the company also buys and distributes wine—from a cellar that was a great place to be as Western Europe reached record-high summer temperatures—and which is located less than 50 miles from the Austrian border, the B7 uses the N63 4.4-liter V-8 with revised throttle response for improved low-end torque in the B7. The engine, as in the 7 Series, is strapped with two twin-scroll turbochargers, although here their impellers have been increased from 50 mm (2 inches) to 54 mm (2.13 inches) in size.
Alpina's high-performance cooling system for the B7 is designed for better efficiency and maximum effectiveness, with high-volume coolers connected by large-diameter piping for maximum throughput. The intercoolers consist of an indirect air-to-water-to-air system, making for short air-intake paths, and combined with additional external water coolers, ensure the twin-turbo V-8's thermodynamic stability even under the highest loads and ambient air temperatures. The result is a 77-hp, 37-lb-ft bump in the twin-turbo's output, to 600 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque.
The additional upgrades and onboard tech is extensive, as well. A list:
• Reworked sport software for the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, which also gets reinforced components to cope with the engine's higher torque output, avoiding torque reduction during upshifts, as well as closer gear ratios with a total spread of 7.81:1. Alpina says shift times have improved over the previous B7, and "are now considerably quicker."
• A stainless-steel Alpina sport exhaust that reduces back pressure and weight, with its own distinct active exhaust sounds for Comfort and Sport modes. The twin, dual-outlet tailpipes are integrated into the rear bumper.
• Standard two-axle air suspension with BMW's Dynamic Damper Control, Active Drive Comfort, Active Roll Stabilization, and Road Preview for combining high ride quality with minimal body roll. A standard Integral Active Steering system gives rear-axle steering that can turn the back wheels by up to three degrees. The suspension can also adjust the ride height within a 1.4-inch span. The B7 automatically lowers by 0.6 inch at speeds above 140 mph and can be raised by 0.8 inch when traveling up to 20 mph, to increase ground clearance over speed bumps and the like.
• A revised brake system with brake-by-wire technology that actuates four-piston front calipers to squeeze 15.6 x 1.4-inch discs. At the back, a set of floating calipers pinch 15.7 x 1.1-inch rotors.
• A RWD-biased, performance-oriented version of the BMW xDrive all-wheel-drive system.
• Standard Michelin 255/40 performance tires that can be wrapped around gorgeous standard 20-inch or optional 21-inch Alpina Classic wheels.
Alpina claims a 3.5-second zero-to-60-mph time and a 205-mph top speed. It's all yours for $142,800.
Interior tweaks include illuminated door sills, high-quality Lavalina leather with the Alpina-traditional blue and green stitching on a sport steering wheel, and piano lacquer or classic Myrtle luxury wood trim, plus requisite Alpina B7 model badges and an individual production plaque. The laminated glass is 0.2 inch thicker than stock, and upholstery options include Nappa leather with quilting or full Merino leather. There's also an interior design package, a luxury rear seating package with ventilated rear comfort massaging seats, and a 7.0-inch tablet for controlling various functions. A rear executive lounge-seating package with electric reclining seat and footrest, special rear console, and upgraded rear-seat entertainment can be spec'd, too.
Prima facie, this might seem a bit subtle, save for the illuminated door sills and wheels, but based on our fairly extensive drive on tabletop Bavarian alpine roads, the car is quite remarkable. In its Comfort setting, there is none of the Electra 225-like wallow that afflicts the front suspension of the standard 7 Series. Sport tightens things up, especially the steering, but as Bovensiepen says, this is not a track-day car. And all that Rolls-Royce-esque rear-seat plushness indicates that Alpina has brewed the perfect combination of what Bimmer prestige buyers want and the well-balanced dynamics craved by enthusiasts who lament the luxe-focused company BMW has become.
The twin-turbo 4.4, boosted mostly at the lower end, works so well with the well-balanced chassis that it will remind you of what BMW once could achieve on its own. The tires claw at the smooth Bavarian tarmac with a lack of drama that permeates the entire car. The B7 launches quickly but without that in-your-face, in-your-backside kick of, say, and AMG S-class, which can make an unsuspecting occupant feel like they're the unwitting engineer of a runaway diesel locomotive.
As advertised, shifts are quick and smooth when done manually. The combo of smooth and quiet and quick and fast is best manifest on a rare surviving unlimited portion of the autobahn, where 165 mph feels serene and safe. With the B7, Alpina achieves what BMW once did so brilliantly, before overuse of electronic controls added a layer of isolation to all its sedans from the 3 Series up. Alpina's seemingly subtle chassis and engine tweaks truly deliver the near-perfect ride-and-handling balance that made BMWs enthusiast darlings. "The M cars are more track-focused," Bovensiepen says. "Alpinas are more refined daily drivers."
This is what most BMWs once were, even the more basic models. And this is the sort of car all BMWs should be.
2020 BMW Alpina B7 Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2019|
|ENGINE||4.4L twin-turbo DOHC 48-valve V-8; 600 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 590 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||17/25 mph (city/hwy, est)|
|L x W x H||207.4 x 74.9 x 58.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.5 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||205 mph (mfr)|