Reviews

First Drive: 2011 BMW Alpina B7


(Corrects misspelling of Bovensiepen in the first and tenth paragraphs.)

Up Front

In today's consolidated and homogenized global auto industry, Alpina is an odd duck. Based in the southern German town of Buchloe, not far from Munich, the company started taking form back in 1961, when a German entrepreneur called Burkard Bovensiepen began to diversify the family typewriter company into an activity he was more passionate about—making high-performance automobile components. By the late 1980s, the company had focused on its current business: modifying BMWs (BMW:GR) to improve their performance and reselling them through BMW dealers. Mercedes' AMG division has similar roots, the difference being that founder Hans-Werner Aufrecht sold AMG to Mercedes in the 1990s, while Alpina remained independent.

I recently test-drove the 2011 BMW Alpina B7, which hit dealerships in May and is the only Alpina model sold in the U.S. It's quite a car. If you've ever wondered why there's no high-performance "M" version of the 7 Series, as there is of most other BMW models, it may be because of Alpina. The B7 lineup consists of extensively retooled and upgraded versions of the BMW 750i, the long-wheel-base 750Li, and the all-wheel-drive versions of those vehicles. Alpinas are not only quicker and sportier but offer smoother riding than the equivalent BMW production models. They're also among the most exclusive cars on the market: Alpina expects to sell only around 1,000 B7s annually, about 400 of them in the U.S.

Alpina makes extensive mechanical modifications to the 7 Series. For starters, BMW's 4.4-liter V8 engine is significantly tweaked, with enlarged turbos, high-performance pistons, reinforced cylinder heads, and other modifications that raise horsepower to 500 and torque to 516 ft./lbs. (up from 400 hp. and 450 ft./lbs. of torque for the BMW 750i). Cooling capacity is dramatically expanded, the engine fan is enlarged and the rear differential has a shell made of cast iron, rather than aluminum, to improve heat transfer. Enlarged brakes are added, as are big, beautiful 21-in. spoked wheels clad with Michelin performance tires. Special front and rear spoilers and a new front fascia are added, too.

The car's springs are stiffened and the chassis lowered a fraction of an inch closer to the road. BMW's electronic suspension system is reconfigured to emphasize the difference between the "comfort," "normal," and "sport" settings. BMW's six-speed automatic transmission is beefed up and sport-tuned via Alpina's proprietary shift controls.

In width, length, interior space, and luggage capacity, the B7 is comparable to an equivalent BMW (which is to say the B7 is roomy and has a 14-cu.-ft. trunk). The classic paint job is a metallic Alpina blue, but the B7 is also offered in all the colors the 7 Series comes in.

The Alpina comes with all of a BMW's standard safety gear, including a full complement of air bags and stability and traction control. Fuel economy is similar, too. The B7 is rated to get 15 miles-per-gallon in the city and 21 on the highway. (City mileage drops to 14 with all-wheel drive.) That's about the same as the 2011 BMW 750i, which is rated at 15/22 with rear-wheel drive, and 14/20 with all-wheel drive.

Not surprisingly, however, an Alpina is considerably pricier than a comparable BMW. The B7 starts out at about $124,000, including destination and gas-guzzler taxes—about $40,000 more than a 2011 BMW 750i. Add $3,000 to the B7's price for all-wheel drive and $3,900 for a long wheel base. However, the B7 comes packed with around $14,000 worth of standard equipment that is optional on a comparable BMW (heads-up display, premium sound system, full leather interior, and so forth), reducing the real price premium. (Details on that later.)

Behind the Wheel

I tested the Alpina B7 on road and track, both driving and as a passenger. The car has a unique feel to it, different from a BMW and decidedly different from an AMG Mercedes.

As you'd expect, performance is exceptional. The B7 accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds (4.6 seconds in the all-wheel-drive and long-wheel-base versions). That's about the same as the Mercedes S63 AMG and noticeably faster than the BMW 750i, which does 0 to 60 in 5.1 seconds (5.0 seconds with all-wheel drive). The B7's top speed is limited to 174 mph, versus 150 mph for the 750i.

On the track, body motion was limited and the B7 held curves admirably at high speeds, especially given the car's weight. Among other things, I rode as a passenger in the B7 while Andreas "Andy" Bovensiepen (Alpina's current owner and grandson of the original company's founder) did multiple circuits on a New Jersey racetrack, pushing the car to the limit. As Bovensiepen gleefully (and repeatedly) pointed out, the B7 nearly always remained flat and neutral in the curves, despite the beating he was giving it. I had the B7 up to 145 mph on a straightaway and felt absolutely in control. The car was glued to the pavement with no hint that it was straining in any way.

The B7 is engineered to deliver maximum torque over an unusually broad range, from 3,000 to 4,750 revolutions per minute. What that means in practice is that it accelerates very smoothly, with no strain. There isn't the feeling of barely controlled raw power that there is in Mercedes AMG models. One cool feature: Manual shifting is done by pushing buttons (rather than manipulating paddles) on the steering wheel. Push the left button for downshifts, the right for up. Shifts occur almost instantly, with no discernible loss of power.

What really surprised me, however, was how light the B7 felt. The steering feels lighter to the touch, and it drives like a smaller car—more like a BMW 5 Series than a 7 Series. The B7's electronic suspension has the same four settings as the BMW's—"comfort," "normal," "sport" and "sport-plus." However, I drove the B7 back-to-back with a BMW 550i and found that the "comfort" and "normal" settings felt slightly smoother in the Alpina. Put the B7 in "comfort" mode and it's a lot like a top-of-the-line Lexus in everyday driving.

The B7's cabin is similar to that of a BMW 7 Series, except that there's more leather, a somewhat different instrument cluster, a hand-stitched, leather-wrapped steering wheel, an illuminated door sill, and Alpina badges. There's a choice of piano-black or myrtle-wood burl trim.

Buy it or Bag It?

The B7 is pricey, but not as pricey as its sticker would make it appear. That's because the Alpina comes packed with gear that's optional on a BMW 750i and 750Li. For instance, to make a 2011 750i roughly comparable to a B7, a BMW spokesman notes, you'd have to add the M Sport Package ($6,500), Luxury Seating ($2,000), Premium Sound ($1,800), 20-in. wheels ($1,300), Heads-up Display ($1,300), and Cold Weather Package ($800). That's nearly $14,000 in options, erasing a big chunk of the Alpina's $40,000 price premium over the 750i. Plus the Alpina comes with more interior leather than is available on the BMW. And the 750i can't match the Alpina's performance.

The B7 also costs less than many of its major competitors. For instance, Daimler's (DAI) 2010 Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG starts at around $134,000, and the BMW 760Li (which has all-wheel drive and is powered by a massive 12-cylinder engine) at about $140,000. Buyers on a (relative) budget might check out the somewhat smaller 2010 Mercedes E63 AMG, which starts at about $88,000, or the new Audi S8, due out later this year with an expected price just under $100,000.

However, price isn't usually the main consideration with cars like this. On its German web site, Alpina defines its philosophy with a quotation from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. "I have the simplest tastes," Wilde once said. "I'm always satisfied with the best." The Alpina is for consideration by shoppers who embrace that philosophy.

Click here to see more of the 2011 BMW Alpina B7.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for Businessweek.com.

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