Road impressions: Alpina BMW

Exclusive!

A manufacturer, not a tuning company, that is the message that Burkard Bovensiepen, proprietor of the Alpina concern, has striven to put across about his exclusive BMW-based products. Each has a chassis number of its own in addition to the BMW one, but self-consciously carried in plain view on the centre console. Unlike many firms who are in the business of altering cars from large manufacturers, Alpina not only has the approval of the Munich factory, but its cars are promoted as a complementary range to the normal showroom selection.

When the operation began in 1965, it concentrated on performance tuning, always BMWs, and made a name in racing with the 2002 and CS coupe. Nowadays, while increased power and roadholding remain central to the conception, other concerns have become equally important elements in Alpina's cars: comfort, economy and low emissions. All cars leaving the factory at Buchloe in Bavaria, which is only 40 minutes' drive from BMW in Munich, are equipped with catalysers, though some models are available without in the British market.

What cannot be measured or specified in brochures, however, is exclusivity, something which Alpina is equally keen to remind its customers and the public about. Total output of the Buchloe plant for one year is only some 500 cars, a fraction of the quantity BMW itself sells, and there are only minor external differences (chin spoiler and those special stripes) to identify the Alpina.

Complete cars arrive from Munich and are partially dismantled before new engines, from ready-modified stock, are installed and running-gear and trim re-fitted. Alpina has its own emissions laboratory, as well as two dyno-cells and facilities for modifying the electronic chips of the Bosch injection systems, and many of the special engine parts are made on site. Thanks to its close links with the factory, Alpina is able to start development work on new BMW models before their public launch, and to allow for development work on the steady stream of new models, a new building is going up. Production, though, will stay at around the same figure —rarity is one of Alpina's strong suits.

On the platform of the new 535i, Alpina offers the B10: a 31/2-litre six with special pistons, longer rods, larger valves, high-lift cam, and modified Motronic injection to give 254 bhp and 236 lb ft of torque, coupled with 17in wheels and tyres stretched to a massive 265-width at the back. But the damping seems to take out any extra noise, and even over white lines and uneven cambers the B10 displayed none of the expected wayward characteristics. We drove it on the autobahn at very high speeds indeed and found it stable and assured, with strong acceleration even in top, and when we turned on to fast Bavarian B-roads, the big saloon felt like a much smaller car, crisp and precise and very rapid.

But for more power, Alpina has turned its attention to BMW's new V12. Twelve Mahle pistons, reworked ports, new cams and revised injection conjure 350 bhp and 347 lb ft of torque out of it — enough and more to propel five occupants at double the speedlimit. Called B12, this is only available as an auto, but Alpina modifies this, giving higher change-points and a faster, harder shift. It works, too, giving the driver back some control over ratios by allowing him to delay or promote upshifts.

Despite all the extra power, the B12's acceleration is only marginally better than the BIO, but the 750i's inbuilt cut-out at 155 mph is removed, and the luxury limousine will reach a staggering 171 mph, if that is of any use to anyone. Nevertheless with its firmer Servotronic steering, the B12 is noticeably crisper than a 750i, with a firm but compliant ride and no significant loss of refinement. Quite an achievement.

But of all the cars we tried, my favourite was the B6 3.5S. Lurking behind those obfuscatory digits is a rather small and absurdly fast saloon, derived from the BMW M3. As it comes from the factory, the M3 already has magnificent poise combined with a raw and racy four-cylinder power-unit. Some have criticised it for its engine, complaining that it steps out of the line-up of traditionally smooth BMW sixes.

The B65 sweeps aside such carpings. Out goes the 2.3 16-valve race engine, and in goes the 31/2-litre 254 bhp Alpina six. With only one minor change to the suspension (the front springs are a little stronger to carry the extra engine weight) and some expensive upholstery, the result is still an M3, only more so. It still has the pin-point sharpness of the beautifully-balanced chassis, but Michelin MXX 225/45 VR16 tyres push the roadholding even higher— in the dry at least. An exotic wood knob adorns the gear-stick, but it is still connected to probably the best performance gearbox in a production car, the slick and sharp Getrag.

But when the throttle is wide open, the abrasive 16-valve noise has evaporated; instead the sweeter note of six cylinders fills the cabin. With 25% increased power the car is a delight for which I would happily forego the internal extras were they not standard: beautiful dark blue suede with fine pale blue piping, a neat supplementary digital display including final drive oil temperature and a fancy steering wheel. Apart from the B6S and 5 and 7-series cars, this engine is also offered in a 325i shell, known just as B6.

Instead of exporting from Germany, Bovensiepen has chosen to licence others to build Alpina cars abroad. In the UK this operation is handled by Frank Sytner, BMW dealer and British Saloon Car racer currently leading the championship, who produces the cars at his Nottingham base, and we benefit from the removal of the catalytic converters. Thus the enlarged 325i engine (2.7 litres) gains 6 bhp to 210, while the big six in the B6 and B10 jumps to 260 bhp. Prices, though, reflect the thoroughness with which the cars are developed and assembled: the bottom end is £7495 + VAT to convert a 325i into a C2 2.7, and £10,950 + VAT to produce a B10. V12 prices have yet to be fixed. GC