Out in the real world that is the Alpina B5’s natural home, I expect it to be nothing less than brilliant
Our host was Alpina boss Andy Bovensiepen, who didn’t just fly in, make a statement and bugger off again. No, he hung around for the duration, driving cars, checking tyre pressures and directing events. The last thing he did was give me his mobile number just in case I had any outstanding questions.
Understanding the Alpina B5’s blueprint
During presentations and conversations, talk was of ‘cautious’ component choice, ‘modest’ styling enhancement and development taking place almost entirely on the road and only at the Nürburgring and other tracks for extreme tyre testing, high-speed sign-off and other requirements that can’t legally be satisfied on the street.
And if you wanted one reason to explain why Alpinas feel the way they do, and why that feel is so utterly different from that of any other BMW, be it an M car or not, it is this understated approach that provides it.
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The B5 Saloon and Touring in particular are exemplars of the philosophy. Trademark 20-spoke alloy wheels aside, they seem so subtle and the polar opposite of the look-at-me approach preferred by BMW’s M division customers. But the numbers speak for themselves: 600bhp, 589lb ft and 202mph flat out. And that’s just the estate. While the saloon can reach 205mph if you push far enough.
But Alpina makes fewer than one car for every 1000 built by BMW, so this always has been and remains an opportunity. Indeed, Bovensiepen says most B5s sold will carry Touring bodywork.
As for standard equipment, expect to find a well-stocked 5 Series with adaptive LED headlights, cruise control, quad-zone climate control, electrically adjustable and heated front seats, a Nappa leather upholstery, reversing camera, and BMW’s iDrive infotainment system complete with a 10.25in touchscreen display, sat nav, and BMW’s connected services, fitted as standard. The B5 is finished off with some Alpina tinkering, including tweaks to the sports suspension, auto gearbox, driving modes and steering. A new styled rear spoiler and valance, 20in alloys, ceramic finished controls, floor mats, and the customary blue instrument cluster.
The ZF transmission gets strengthened gear clusters and additional cooling, plus quicker shifts and a larger torque converter. Alpina says it can swap a cog in 0.1sec, which is rapid by any standards in the world.
Keeping the B5’s feet on the ground
The real attention, however, has gone into the suspension. Chassis development chief Andreas Vollmer talks of all the days, weeks and months he and his team spend not hurling themselves around race tracks but just driving, using the cars as customers would. And then they change everything.
You’d expect new springs, dampers and roll bars for a car such as this, but the geometry is different, too, and none more so than at the front, where there’s an entire degree of negative camber that requires completely different wishbones in order to achieve it.
At this stage, though, they’re only getting into their stride. The car has BMW’s four-wheel steering system, but specifically tuned by Alpina, and the software for the normal electric steering is completely rewritten. They even fit a different steering wheel because they don’t like the squidgy rims found on BMW M cars any more than I do.
And the fact that it doesn’t just give up at the first corner is remarkable. This is a deliciously evil track, undulating, very fast and perfect for light, track-tuned cars laden with downforce, such as the Porsche 911 GT3 RS I drove there, and not at all for softly sprung 2150kg estates.
Where it breaks free of expectation is in the corners. Drive as fast as you can around a circuit as fiendish as this and, of course, it’s going to torture its tyres, understeer in the long turns and wobble a little over cambers and crests.
But if you’re conservative with entry speed, get the nose into the apex on the brakes and then power on, it transforms into this most deliciously neutral, adjustable plaything.
And its brakes are incredible: Vollmer proudly says his steel brakes offer better retardation and fade resistance than Audi’s ceramics. All I can say is they didn’t get stressed once in many, many laps.
I wish I could tell you more about the B5’s ride and refinement – I find it telling that in addition to BMW’s usual Sport Plus setting, Alpina has added its own Comfort Plus mode – but slaloming around Bilster-Berg playing with switches reveals very little. I’d be surprised if its ride was less than excellent, but we’ll only know for sure when we drive it in the UK.
You’d have needed to try and ford the Amazon before finding an environment to which it was less suited than Bilster-Berg, but it did very well. Out in the real world that is its natural home, I expect it to be nothing less than brilliant.