The way Alpina goes about introducing new product to the press provides a first-class metaphor for its cars.
Whereas BMW or any other car maker might launch a model over weeks or months to many hundreds of journalists and associated hangers-on, the launch of the new B5 saloon and estate was attended by 12 hacks, lasted one day and was twinned with the launch of the B3 S and B4 S models.
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.
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.
Of course, and weird though it seems to write it, the B5 is not the only 600bhp mid-size exec out there: Audi and Mercedes have them, too. But it is only BMW who won’t be offering an estate version of its new M5, Munich having again decided that non-existent US sales for cars in this format make its development pointless.
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.
Powering the Alpina B5 forward
The start point, clearly, is BMW’s superb new 5 Series but powered by the 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 currently found in its 750i big sister. The main focus of the modifications to it has been the fitment of bigger, twin-scroll turbos boosting at a muscular 1.4 bar. This is enough to raise power from a fairly lazy 444bhp to a very active 600bhp and torque from 479lb ft to 589lb ft. Alpina will also be completing the 5 Series range with the D5 S, which is powered by a 3.0-litre, straight six diesel, producing 321bhp and 516lb ft of peak twist capable of reaching 171mph and achieving over 40mpg.
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.
Four-wheel drive is fitted here for the first time in seven generations of Alpina 5 Series, but Bovensiepen rejects the suggestion that he had no choice in this.
“We could have had a rear-drive B5 and I’d have preferred it, but even I accept that with 589lb ft, the customer wants four-wheel drive,” he says.
So they fiddled with that, too, and now the B5 sends more of its torque (up to 90 percent) to the rear wheels and does so more of the time.
Interestingly, despite the all-wheel drive hardware adding 70kg, the entire car is 30kg lighter than the previous, rear-drive B5. And Alpina has broken with years of Michelin-shod tradition and developed a new Pirelli tyre to go with the car.
Unleashing the B5’s power on the track
The irony is that although this car was principally developed on the road, it can only be driven on the track – for now.
As I write, Alpina has just three production-specification B5s and none is yet homologated for road use. So it is around the Bilster-Berg test track, smack in the middle of Germany, that I make my acquaintance.
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.
The engine sounds superb and completely natural – although a slightly embarrassed-looking Bovensiepen confesses it’s the first Alpina to synthesise just a tiny bit of sound through the loudspeakers – and is completely simpatico with its new gearshift strategy.
It feels properly rapid, as you might expect, but perhaps not quite as alarmingly so as the Mercedes-AMG E 63, which has the same power, even more torque and a lot less weight.
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.
Is the Alpina B5 worth a splash?
The B5 Touring might be a five-star car – in fact, I have a sneaking suspicion it is – but too much of its story remains untold for me to rush to that kind of judgement. So we’ll call it four, and heading in the right direction.
There may be no BMW M5 Touring in this new generation of 5 Series, but nor is one needed. When I think what I want from such a car, the B5 would appear to provide it.
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.