BMW Alpina B5

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Call me a sentimental old goat, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Alpina. For a start, I’ve rarely driven one of Burkard Bovensiepen’s tuned BMWs and not liked it. But Alpina is also a proper brand, recognised officially in Germany as a car manufacturer in its own right and, most of all, one which fashioned its skills in the heat of competitive motor sport.

It was an Alpina-built BMW that won the Spa 24 Hours in 1970, and Alpina that a year later persuaded the BMW board that a lightweight version of the 3.0CS coupé might prove a handy device in which to go touring car racing, sparking the legend of the Batmobile, culminating in victory in the 1973 European Touring Car Championship thanks to the driving talents of, among others, Niki Lauda and our own Derek Bell. Of course, Alpina’s great racing days are long since past, but its road cars still have a unique allure.

Yet people still struggle to understand the Alpina proposition. Alpina is known for producing more powerful and sporting versions of standard BMWs, but is that not exactly the job description BMW’s own ‘M’ brand is meant to fulfi l? You could be forgiven for wondering what the point of such cars might be.

In fact an Alpina, any Alpina, is a very different animal to any home-grown BMW M car. Take this new B5 as a case in point – even its name and its proximity to ‘M5’ seem to suggest Alpina is bathing in the glory reflected from its fabled cousin. Moreover its 500bhp is only a fraction shy of the M5’s 507bhp and its £70,500 price tag only £3200 more expensive. Even the 4.7sec it needs to reach 62mph from rest is precisely what BMW claims for the M5. Most of all its timing – arriving in the market just as the old M5 leaves and with over a year before the next one is due – seems so serendipitous as to almost have been planned.

But when you drive the B5 all thoughts that this might somehow be the next M5, or at least a plausible stand-in, evaporate. Alpina is unusual and possibly unique among established tuners of German saloon cars in its insistence that any gain in performance is not offset by a reduction in comfort. On the contrary, it seems to have striven to make a car that is not only outstandingly fast, but also eerily smooth. As we shall see, it is an odd and sometimes uneasy combination.

But for now all you need to appreciate the essential differences between B5 and M5 is a few minutes with the specification sheets of both, and if I tell you the B5 develops peak power at substantially fewer revs than that required to reach peak torque in an M5, you’ll see what I mean.

For the M5 motor is – or I should say was – an awesome, angry powerhouse. A normally-aspirated 5-litre V10 which sounded like a Massey Ferguson at idle and a Judd-powered Le Mans car at 8000rpm. Year after year it won award after award, none of them for refinement, subtlety, economy or emissions. And in keeping with its urgent nature came an equally savage, electronically-actuated, seven-speed gearbox. Depending on which map you chose, shift quality varied from inelegant to painful, but at least it all seemed somehow in keeping with the M5’s bullet-headed demeanour.

Contrast that with the 4.4-litre twin turbo unit used in the B5. It may have seven fewer horsepower than the M5 motor but it has 132lb ft more torque and, what’s more, delivers them all at 3000rpm, less than half the speed at which the M5 engine needs to rotate to reach its more modest peak. And it is so quiet you’d welcome it under the bonnet of a long-M5s, each was set up to steer sharply at the front, and if that meant waving its rear around at times, so be it. If you wanted it to, it would power slide until the asphalt melted. But the B5 doesn’t even have a limited-slip diff installed as standard – that’ll set you back £2000. There’s grip aplenty, as you would expect with the amount of rubber it takes to cover its vast 20in alloy wheels, but there’s no skittishness. It just leans into the corner, soaks up all the bumps, and cannons you ever so smoothly up the road beyond.

Make no mistake, this B5 is a class act. Anything that can provide that much pace and composure seemingly without impacting on ride and refinement is a car to respect and admire.

Only problem is that anyone approaching it thinking it in any way a substitute for the epic experience offered by the old M5 is going to come away distinctly underwhelmed.

It has to be seen in the right context. Because its engine is quiet its responses are soft and muted, and because its suspension is distinctly comfort-orientated the B5 is actually not that much fun to drive. I drove it hard around rural Nottinghamshire and a few days later at Donington, and even after several hard laps spent trying to provoke it with all the electronics switched off I emerged with pulse barely at a canter. If I’d treated an M5 like that I’d have been lucky to bring it back at all. But right up until the moment I threw it into the scenery I would have been having a ball.

It took a while for the disappointment to fade and the only way I managed it was to exorcise all thoughts of the M5 and look at the B5 on its own merits.

I see it now as a business tool, in much the same way as any other 5-series BMW, but with a devastating party trick up its sleeve. In many ways it would be better still if it looked like a 520d just to see the faces of all those overly aggressive road warriors (often borne by other BMWs) who try to intimidate you out of the way. It would not be unamusing on the autobahn either: Alpina feels no need to subscribe to BMW’s mantra that all its cars are limited to 155mph – wait for long enough and this one will do 191mph.

What is abundantly clear at this price is that the B5 is unlikely to threaten Alpina’s position as a seriously niche player. And while I admired its comfort and effortless power delivery so too do I think it has missed a trick, particularly as with no M5 around at present it has the stage to itself. A slightly more inspiring soundtrack and a livelier response to the wheel would transform it. As it is, the B5 is a car I merely quite liked, where to spend that kind of money on a four-door saloon you’re probably going to need to love it.

FACTFILE
ENGINE: 4395cc, eight cylinders, twin turbo
TOP SPEED: 191mph
PRICE: £70,500
POWER: 500bhp at 5500rpm
FUEL/CO2: 26.2mpg, 252g/km
www.sytnernottinghambmw.co.uk

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