A good test of a car’s comfort is the ease with which you can fall asleep in it. As a passenger, of course. The Alpina B5 Touring is a very easy car to sleep in.Its ample dimensions provide plenty of space, the large front seats recline almost flat and its pillowy-soft suspension serenely irons out bumps. With photographer Alastair Brook manning the helm and the soothing sounds of Pink Floyd’s amazing Pulse album emanating from the speakers, I quickly drift into the land of nod. It’s been a long day.
We don’t often discuss comfort here at MOTOR, unless it’s the amount that’s acceptable to sacrifice in the pursuit of performance, but an appreciation of comfort is key to understanding the Alpina B5. A glance at the technical data suggests that Burkard Bovensiepen and his crew in Buchloe, Germany, have created a subtler version of the BMW M5.
After all, both use the 5-Series as a base, possess stunningly powerful 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8s, eight-speed automatic gearboxes, and all-wheel drive. BMW’s M5 Competition offers 460kW/750Nm, 0-100km/h in 3.2sec and a 305km/h top speed for $229,900; Alpina’s B5 counters with 447kW/800Nm, 0-100km/h in 3.5sec and a 330km/h V-max for $210,000. Horses for courses, surely?
Unsurprisingly, Alpina hasn’t spent valuable time and money developing exactly the same car. Just as all cakes are made with eggs, flour and… other stuff (I’m not a baker) but a carrot cake tastes vastly different to a mud cake, so too the M5 and B5 are vastly different propositions despite starting with the same raw ingredients.
To truly understand the benefits of Alpina’s sports-luxury – as opposed to outright high-performance – approach, we need to go for a drive. A really, really long drive.
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Victoria’s Alpine region seems as good a destination as any, with plenty of highway to traverse en route, stunning scenery to photograph and more corners than you can throw a Lotus Elise at, let alone a two-tonne wagon. Alpina now offers an SUV, the twin-turbo diesel XD3, but remains a staunch advocate of the low-riding liftback form.
Choosing the B5 Touring drops the top speed to 322km/h, shaves 10mm from the rear tyre width (now 285mm), installs air springs for the rear suspension, lifts the kerb weight to 2075kg (105kg more than the sedan), the 0-100km/h claim to 3.7sec, the price to $217,000 and the cool factor by roughly a million.
No one suspects this unassuming black family hauler is packing 600bhp; our test car lacks even the svelte silver stripes that usually easily identify an Alpina. Before we head north to higher altitudes, Heathcote Dragway beckons. Being automatic, all-wheel drive and immensely powerful, it takes little skill to extract impressive numbers from the B5 Touring.
Load the engine against the brakes, release and hold on; 3.9sec to 100km/h quickly becomes a consistent 3.7sec, before some optimisation of launch revs and shift points drops the final figures to a fairly stunning 3.60sec to 100km/h and an 11.53sec quarter mile at 198.92km/h, having passed 160km/h in 7.53sec. To provide some historical context a Ferrari F40 took 8.0sec, a Porsche 959 8.2sec. The B5 is seriously quick.
And seriously comfortable. Alpina uniquely offers a Comfort Plus suspension mode, endowing the adaptive dampers with the absorbency of Sorbent triple-ply. Sharp, sudden impacts can be felt – presumably a consequence of the low-profile rubber – but in general the B5 Touring has a lovely loping ride quality that allows highway miles to melt away effortlessly. The steering is quite mute but there’s tremendous stability at high speed, any overtakes swiftly dispatched thanks to an 80-120km/h time of just 2.1sec.
Sadly, in stop-start driving the B5 fails to display the same level of insouciance that impresses on the open road. The monstrously powerful engine and ZF eight-speed automatic are both well-behaved in their own right, but the marriage clearly has communication issues.
There’s the occasional driveline shunt and tip-in from rest can be abrupt, annoying when the component parts suggest syrupy smoothness will be the order of the day. Thankfully, the ride remains excellent, even in Sport which can occasionally be preferable thanks to the greater wheel control.
Our test car’s interior is very similar to a standard 5 Series, the couple of Alpina-specific touches ranging from excellent (the digital instruments are much nicer than the BMW ones) to questionable (the gearshift buttons on the back of the steering wheel, which always creepily bring to mind nipples).
The good news is that if you want something different, Alpina is happy to oblige. Multiple grades of leather in any colour you can think of and a variety of trim finishes (various woods, aluminium, piano black and more) offer a level of customisation that this overwhelmingly black press demonstrator fails to take advantage of. Even better, you can even opt for the standard BMW shift paddles.
These would come in handy with 30km of serpentine mountain road ahead. As the name suggests, Mount Buffalo Road scales Mount Buffalo, a 1723m peak with stunning scenery and an incredibly diverse ecological environment. Its access road is an extreme test of any performance car.
Narrow and consisting of an unrelenting barrage of corners, the alpine tarmac also prioritises extreme-weather hardiness over grip. Theoretically, the all-wheel drive Alpina should have no issues, but the B5 seems to periodically forget it has front driveshafts.
You might read this next passage and think me mad, but the Alpina seems to need to ‘learn’ the surface grip each time you start the engine. The behaviour first appears when snapper Alastair requests some cornering shots. No problem – fire up the engine, relax the stability control and off we go. The steering is typical modern BMW: uncommunicative and poorly weighted, Comfort offering too little resistance and Sport requiring greater effort for no reward.
It is accurate enough to place the Alpina’s nose on the apex, but applying the throttle leads to the inside-rear wheel spinning furiously as it’s attacked by 800 rampaging newton metres. Whoa – what the hell was that? A rear limited-slip differential is an option and clearly not fitted, but isn’t this thing meant to be all-wheel drive?
The next run results in power oversteer but from then on the Alpina displays remarkable poise and outstanding traction. I put it down to a glitch in the matrix, but the same thing happens again when we shift locations. Engine on, first corner, furious wheelspin; second run, great traction. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve come across as a motoring journalist. The good news is, once it’s figured out what-wheel drive it is the B5 Touring is an entertaining beast, albeit one that, again, is very different to an M5.
It starts with the engine. Both Alpina and BMW use a 4395cc V8 with a pair of turbochargers and very similar ultimate outputs, but the way each delivers its grunt is unique. The M5’s S63B44T4 revs higher, has a more linear power curve and faster throttle response, as you’d expect for a car developed with circuit use in mind.
In contrast, the Alpina’s N63B44-based unit majors on mid-range. The turbos take a little longer to spool up, forcing the driver to pre-empt the power delivery somewhat by accelerating early; likewise, power plateaus from 5500rpm to 6500rpm so it feels more effective to change up early and surf that tsunami of torque available from 2000-5000rpm. Click a gear higher in turns and you’ll be catapulted from corners with those quad-exit exhausts bellowing a deep bent-eight baritone.
A certain rhythm is required to keep the Alpina happy. Attempts to hustle it and use every ounce of grip are unsatisfying as the softer suspension tune and substantial 2075kg kerb weight overwhelm the Pirelli P Zero tyres (255/35 front; 285/30 rear).
Back off slightly, adopt a more point-and-shoot mentality and the B5 is not only more enjoyable but devastatingly capable. The brakes resist punishment well – and deliver an excellent 34.5m stop from 100km/h – the steering is accurate enough for confident car placement and the rear-wheel steer works brilliantly to reduce the load on the front tyres and help mid-corner rotation in these tight mountain hairpins.
However, while eminently able, it’s obvious this sort of terrain isn’t the Alpina’s preferred environment. It’s built for the autobahn, to confidently crush large distances at super-high speed. When you’re cruising at 250km/h-plus, stability is far more important than granular feedback and keeping occupants relaxed a higher priority than ruthless body control.
After almost 18 hours and 1000km, it’s clear the Alpina B5 Touring isn’t a BMW M5 wagon, nor is it trying to be. Its sole purpose is to be a road car specialising in everyday comfort and crushing straight-line performance – that it happens to be reasonably handy in the bends is a bonus.
It’s like a big, cuddly teddy bear with really sharp teeth. BMW’s forthcoming M550i sings a very similar tune, but there’s still room for the Alpina for those who place a premium on exclusivity, personalisation and a wagon bodyshell. It’s comfortable in its own skin; the ultimate sleeper in every sense of the word.
2020 Alpina B5 Touring Specs
BODY: 5-door, 5-seat wagon
ENGINE: 4395cc V8, DOHC, 32v, twin-turbo
BORE/STROKE: 89.0 x 88.3mm
POWER: 447kW @ 5500-6500rpm
TORQUE: 800Nm @ 2000-5000rpm
POWER-TO- WEIGHT: 215kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
SUSPENSION: struts, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, air springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
TRACKS: 1611/1596mm (f/r)
STEERING: electrically assisted rack-and-pinion, rear-steering
BRAKES: 395mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 398mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 20.0 x 8.5-inch (f); 20.0 x 10.0-inch (r)
TYRES: 255/40 ZR20 (f); 285/40 ZR20 (r); Pirelli P Zero
PROS: Monstrous performance; lush ride; personalisation
CONS: Heavy; mute steering; drivetrain stumbles
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
|Alpina B5 Touring|
|0-400m||11.53sec @ 198.92km/h|
|Speed in gears|
|1st||59km/h @ 6500rpm|
|2nd||93km/h @ 6500rpm|
|3rd||138km/h @ 6500rpm|
|4th||172km/h @ 6500rpm|
|5th||226km/h @ 6500rpm|
|6th||296km/h @ 6500rpm|
|7th||322km/h @ 5890rpm*|
|8th||322km/h @ 4520rpm*|
Heathcote, 21˚C, dry. No rollout applied
Driver: Scott Newman
Official timing supplier: www.vboxaustralia.com.au