A BMW on the outside, but an altogether different beast on the inside, the latest model from Alpina could be the estate for those who value the power to surprise, writes an approving Tiff Needell
It may have a BMW badge on the bonnet, yet the Alpina B5 is very much a car in its own right – and is recognised as such by Germany’s ministry of transport. You can have a B3, 4, 6 or 7 as well. Even though each is based on a production Beemer, all of these are registered as Alpina models too.
Broadly, Alpina is to BMW what AMG and Abt Sportsline are to Mercedes and Audi respectively. AMG has been brought in house while Abt remains an independent concern, but the basic idea is that all three take fast road cars and make them even faster.
The operation was founded in 1965 by Burkard Bovensiepen as a spin-off from a family firm making typewriters. He’d had the idea for the business when he modified his own BMW 1500 with Weber dual carburettors, which took it from 0 to 60mph three seconds quicker than the base model. Alpina initially specialised in tuning cars for the race track. In 1970 the firm first took BMW to European Touring Car Championship honours, continuing to run a team until 1988, when it decided to focus on road car production.
A BMW 535i Touring has been my daily wheels for the past few years and I’m now awaiting delivery of its successor, the 540i. This estate suits the Needell family perfectly: it has plenty of room yet is not too big. The car is a rewarding drive with more than enough power (335bhp) for my everyday needs. If I were to want significantly more grunt, I’d need to swap to an Alpina B5. OK, it’s almost twice the price, but out goes the 3 litre straight six and in comes a 4.4 litre V8. This is based on the 7 Series engine, offering almost twice the power of the 540i. The 7 Series unit produces 450bhp, so you can imagine how much work goes into refettling that with bigger, twin-scroll turbochargers to get it up to 600bhp.
To rein in all those horses, the B5 gets the same four-wheel-drive system that will be on my 540i. This is becoming an increasingly popular feature across the whole BMW stable, although I’d still argue that combining rear-wheel drive with winter tyres is a simpler option and barely less effective. As you would expect, Alpina has modified this system as well to suit the handling balance it prefers. The refinement means that up to 90 per cent of the torque can still go through the rear wheels.
The suspension has also been given the full treatment for more grip and a sportier feel, with huge brakes hidden inside bespoke 20in wheels. For those who want the choice of a gentler ride, Alpina has added a “Comfort Plus” mode to BMW’s standard range of settings.
Despite the insignia on the B5’s nose, its interior is all Alpina. The firm’s own emblem is set into its distinctively styled steering wheel. The logo actually features a carburettor and crankshaft, paying tribute to the company’s background in tuning. Alpina-badged instruments, a different type of leather from that used by BMW and lots of other little touches all add to the makeover.
It could well be outperformed by the forthcoming BMW M5, but it seems unlikely that a Touring variant will be added to the range. So, if you want the fastest estate in town, the B5 is the one for you.