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Grand touring: 1000 miles across Europe in the new Alpina B3


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Alpina B3 Touring road trip
It’s effortlessly rapid over distance, but you’ll pay for it at the pumps
Could Alpina’s take on the BMW 3 Series be the ultimate long-distance driver for a post-pandemic world?

Another new 3 Series drives off the assembly line at Regensburg, north-east of Munich. It carries M division’s latest 3.0-litre straight six, but given the narrow hips and Touring body, it’s clearly no M3. Neither is this shade of green one you’ll find in BMW’s brochures. Nor, for that matter, is the car going by train to the port of Bremerhaven, where most of the 1100 cars that leave Regensburg daily head for export.

Instead, it’s loaded onto a carrier trailer and taken 120 miles south down Autobahns 93 and 9, and west along Autobahns 99 and 96, destined for Buchloe. Here, already benefiting from the fettled M motor and other driveline upgrades, more good things happen. It gains soft leather, the aero needed to travel seriously fast and some stripes that add another 5mph to the claimed 186mph top speed. The VIN is then neatly crossed out and a new sequence of numbers and letters etched into the engine bay. After this, the finished car is test driven on local roads, valeted and finally parked up next to a similarly hued B5 Biturbo in the glassy reception area of Alpina Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH & Co KG, its drilled brake discs and blue calipers visible through forged 20in wheels.

This machine is our ticket back to London. It’s the first right-hand-drive B3 Touring of the new G20 3 Series generation, painted Alpina Green and with the Deco-Set pinstripes limited to the draping chin spoiler rather than running in full extrovert-spec down the entire length of the car. Mumbling behind our masks on the flight over this morning, photographer Olgun Kordal and I debated whether the new B3 would look as subtly lust-worthy as this most junior Alpina model frankly always has in the past. The G20 is fiddly in its details and bulbous in its features, not least that grille, but honestly, we need not have worried.

In the metal, the B3 Touring has perhaps lost some elegance and simplicity but gained something in presence. At a standstill, it has every ounce the desirability you’d expect from a 3 Series Touring costing – deep breath – almost £70k, even before you start to customise the interior. Which you will. In fairness, it also has the performance to blow away more expensive sports cars that have only a fraction of the B3’s comfort and practicality, but we’ll get to these attributes in due course.

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First, the bigger picture. This year hasn’t been easy for Alpina. A mere four cars were finished before BMW shut its plants due to Covid-19 (this car, Touring No 007, wasn’t one of them), and that’s why Alpina’s typical annual volume of around 1500 cars will be lower this year. In an attempt to make up numbers, the company is now aiming to build 1000 cars in the second half of the year. Such numbers are nothing in the context of Regensburg but are something Alpina, which starts and finishes its cars by hand either side of their general assembly under BMW’s watch, has never before achieved.

There is then the old problem of convincing customers why they should buy, for example, that delicious B5 Biturbo for £90,000 when BMW is offering £20,000 discounts on the M5. The former will have stronger residuals, is every bit as fast as the M car and, honestly, will better suit the lives of most owners, but try getting all that across to someone who sees Alpina as an expensive trim level. CEO Andreas Bovensiepen says he isn’t desperate to raise volumes above 2000 cars, but with rising development costs – mostly emissions-related, predictably – the revenue certainly wouldn’t hurt.

The silver lining is that you can’t help feeling that the current pandemic landscape might just end up helping Alpina. If you could swap airports and unpredictable air bridges for your own lavishly appointed and effortlessly quick personal pod, with the ability to go wherever, whenever, you’d be mad not to consider it. Of course, this is one of the fundamental joys of any motor car, but without forgetting the thrill of a good B-road, Alpina in particular aims to make long-distance driving a pleasure. And while crossing Europe in an Aston DBS Superleggera or Ferrari 812 Superfast plays out with almost irresistible romance in our minds, the reality is different: the fuel bills are crippling, you’ll worry about the security of that expensive and eye-catching coachwork overnight, there’s no space for family, and the rolling refinement isn’t anything like as good as you might think. You may even feel insecure about what the other hotel guests make of your ostentatious car, so what you really want, says Alpina, is something like the B3 Touring.

Which is what, exactly? Much more than spindly wheels and pinstripes, as you’d expect from a company where more than one-third of the 280-strong workforce are employed in engineering. Underneath the bodykit sits an M340i, although the driveline is beefed up and the suspension and steering geometry revised for a more natural motion and greater stability. The B3 now exclusively uses four-wheel drive, so the torque split has also been tinkered with. Depending on the drive mode, it’s still heavily biased to the rear, although, interestingly, not quite so much as the standard M340i, which is so generously tail-led that the Alpina’s extra power and boosty torque would mean things could quickly become interesting on twisty, wet, unpredictable roads. In short, British roads.

This leads us to the really big news. For the first time, the B3’s engine is the same as that used for its M3 cousin. To meet CO2 targets, BMW was forced to narrow the bore of the regular B58 straight six. As a consequence Alpina, even after recasting the block and adding an additional turbo, as is its typical approach, still would have been unable to surpass the 434bhp of the B3’s excellent predecessor. This, in the Top Trumps era, would have been marketing suicide, but the close relationship with M meant borrowing the new S58 unit and turning it into the most torque-rich 3.0-litre series-production engine yet made was an obvious fix. To do this, Alpina revises the cooling system, changes the turbo housings and adapts the electronic tuning. The result is 516lb ft and 456bhp, compared with 503bhp but only 479lb ft in the M3. The B4 will be the same when it arrives in 2022 (with, yes, the reviled gopher nose). To cope with it all, the B3’s torque converter shares much hardware with the one Alpina uses for its V8 models. It’s larger than that found in the M3 and marginally slower-shifting, but the character of the two engines will also be considerably and necessarily different in more far-reaching ways. The M3’s S58 is peakier, the B3’s more robust.

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Except ‘robust’ really isn’t the word. This engine has truly Herculean strength. Eventually (although not until the next generation at the earliest), Alpina will need to fit the B3 with a six-cylinder plug-in hybrid powertrain, and if it can source a gearbox capable of taking such a monumental beating, then a 750lb ft 3 Series is surely on the way. And yet, having now experienced what this S58 can do, the idea of needing any more torque is simply ridiculous. Select fifth gear using the gorgeous CNC-milled aluminium paddles and the car takes little more than three seconds to ghost from 100mph to 120mph on the autobahn. In 3 Series-land that is freakishly rapid, especially given that we’re two-up and the boot is laden with photography gear and some sizeable duffel bags.

It’s a similar story through the mid-range whichever gear you find yourself in, although this engine also has the top-end thuggery to force the B3 Touring right up to and beyond that claimed 186mph in superbly short order. Pulling in for fuel late at night, after an enlightening and confidence-inspiring 30-mile stint where we must have averaged more than 165mph, is a memory that will live long in my head. It’s easy to see why Alpina upgrades the cooling apparatus so comprehensively, to the extent that it fits two completely new external coolers. With the fans whirring, heat is cascading off the car in waves I can feel on my skin three feet away. In my hands is the freshly imparted synaptic remnant of the car’s dependable and connected steering at such high speeds, and the drum-skin body control over bridge expansion joints and changes in the road surface. The car is an animal – but one that never lets on just how hard it’s working when you’re ensconced in the cabin. It’s also one that, in this environment, will give you the rush of endorphins that comes from any device that so obviously excels at the job it is designed primarily to do. Just be prepared for your credit card to take a beating: 37mpg in normal motorway running drops to around 12mpg once you acquire the need for speed.

Most of the journey home from Buchloe – up via Stuttgart, then Aachen and west towards Calais, with interludes along more challenging roads away from the motorways – is remarkable only in how unremarkable it is. The B3’s Alpina-unique Comfort Plus damper mode works beautifully well by giving the big body plenty of freedom to float above the road surface. Having experienced the Merino leather-clad seats, I’d also challenge even the most fiscally stretched buyer not to find the additional £1900 needed. The car’s authoritative character over distance is more akin to that of the B5 than the old B3 Touring, only without the baggage of such an enormous body. It’s an advantage the B3 holds even more tightly on country roads, where the chassis’ Hyde bubbles to the surface and you discover a car comfortably more composed, responsive and agile than its refinement suggests. You can truly hammer the B3 and it doesn’t fall apart, so an already extremely broad-batted car somehow becomes even more so. Only the steering, which is less feelsome than before, gives cause for concern, but really we’re splitting hairs. It’s a good set-up. Equally, there are moments when you’d rather only have the rear driveshafts, but these are surprisingly infrequent.

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All of the above, and plenty more besides, will be examined in detail during an upcoming road test, during which we’ll also see exactly how quick the new B3 Touring really is. However, when we arrive back in London, 1000 miles done and dusted, it’s already clear this car is better than the one it replaces in almost every measurable way, which is saying something. Hybrids and even pure-electric cars will eventually come for the brand, but for now Alpina’s engineering doctrine remains old-school and, by dint of this fact, along with it having the right priorities and sheer time in the game, extraordinarily finessed. The B3 Touring feels like a machine on the brink of change but also at the apex of its current development curve, and every bit its 50 years in the making. For a certain sort of owner, it probably isn’t too generous to describe it as the most complete car in the world.

What's next for Alpina?

Andreas Bovensiepen (pictured) will need to guide the company his father founded through times of unprecedented and unknown change over the next decade, but Alpina’s plans for the immediate future are now in place. As ever, the task is to find the niches that BMW M cannot or will not exploit, and create products that go beyond the existing range-topper. It’s why the X7- based XB7 now exists, and this alongside the B3 is expected to be Alpina’s biggest seller, largely because of demand in the US. As for Alpina’s other big beasts, there’s the B7, which can cost up to £200,000 and functions as an M7 stand-in for customers who find the M760i too ordinary. Finally, the upcoming B8 Gran Coupé is now in development and set to use the same 623bhp 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 as the B7. Unsurprisingly, none will be as popular as the upcoming B4 and its mild-hybrid diesel-powered D4 sibling, both of which are due in 2022.

As ever with Alpina, of just as much interest is what is not going to happen. Having dabbled with BMW’s roadsters in the past, today the company simply doesn’t have the spare engineers to develop a slow-selling alternative to the current Z4. Neither will it take on the 2 Series, not least because, between M’s efforts and the contents of the M Performance catalogue, that model is already well catered for in terms of modification and individualisation.

The bodykit for a B2, however mouthwatering the prospect, would also be prohibitively expensive to develop and therefore to buy, not least because the rear portion is heavily integrated into the car’s flanks. As for special projects? Well, Alpina once fitted a 460bhp four-cylinder engine to an i8 prototype and gave the car more grip and a more aggressive suspension tune than standard. BMW wouldn’t allow it, but an appetite for the unusual is ever-present at Buchloe.

READ MORE

Alpina B3 Touring 2020 UK review 

2022 BMW M3 Touring: New images show off hot estate 

New Alpina XB7 revealed with 613bhp and 180mph top speed

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