Who’d want to live with a diesel estate in 2023? If it’s this one, virtually all of us

Why we ran it:  To see if a fast estate is still the best car in the world

Month 4Month 3Month 2Month 1 - Specs

Alpina d3 s nose on clear

Life with an Alpina D3 S: Month 4

Who’d want to live with a diesel estate in 2023? If it’s this one, virtually all of us - 27 September

Forgive me for talking shop for a moment. All of us at Autocar Towers fill in a spreadsheet to note which car we're driving every day, in case of a speeding ticket (never!) or unpaid toll fine (sometimes) later drops onto the doormat.

When I spool back through, the phrase 'Alpina D3 S' appears with remarkable infrequency next to my name. Remarkable but perhaps not surprising. I wanted to know if the Alpina - officially the product of a manufacturer in its own right but, as you'll know, effectively a BMW 3 Series Touring, was the best link of car to live with. Perhaps the best specific car.

And it seems I wasn't the only one. I can't remember the last time that something I had on test so often ended up in other people's hands. But there's so much more than just desirability at play here. Alpina last year announced it had been approached by BMW and the Bovensiepen family, who run the place, were asked if they'd like to sell up. 

They weighed up the pros and cons, and given that it is ever harder to stay on top of the complexities of new car technology and, as importantly, legislation, and that is only going to get worse, they accepted. From 2025 onwards, Alpina will become BMW official. 

There's still no word on what an Alpina-badged BMW will be, but if it's as special as the cars are at the moment, that'll be a feat. It's only understandable, then, that while it lasts, everybody wants a piece of it. 

And so, to this DS 3. Underneath, this car starts out as an M340d, with the 3.0-litre straight-six engine's output boosted by 15bhp to 355bhp and with torque at a tremendous 538lb ft, driving all four wheels through an eight-speed torque converter automatic gearbox. 

As standard, the car costs £66,000, but throw in a few options - and this car has a large number of fees - and you end up at £88,265, which is a lot for a compact executive estate car, but you wouldn't need the half of it, albeit, the galvanic finish on the controls (£95) and CNC machined gearshift paddles (£290) are very nice. And if you want the classic Alpina-style many-spoked alloys, there 20in items are £3420. 

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They're also wrapped in impossibly thinly sidewalled rubber, 30-profile Pirelli P Zeros, which fives the Alpina part of its distinctive driving character. This feels quite a firmly sprung car, with a combination of tight body control and ride comfort that's better than it ought to be when you look at the paucity of sidewall, but that still thunks hollowly a touch over surface imperfections and cat’s eyes.

But then it needs to be tightly controlled: it’s a car developed to do 168mph on smooth autobahns and replace the ball-ache of queueing and taking off your shoes for internal flights. It wasn’t developed with dreadful British B-road pothole replacement schedules front of mind. 

As a result, it's a small miracle then that two of the biggest pothole whacks I heard didn't burst a tyre, although one seemingly did nick the wheel rim, which is apparently made of incredibly stern stuff. In its natural habitat, the Alpina was exceptional. I drove it to the Nurburgring to try a prototype Hyundai Ioniq 5 N, and there are some de-restricted bits of autobahn nearby.

When it's easing itself up to 160mph and soundly back down again with no hint of directional instability, time and again, or cruising at a steady 100mph and still returning the good side of 40mpg, you get a true feel for the Alpina's purpose. If you like traveling long distances quickly and stopping infrequently, and I do, this is the one. 

 In its ideal place, it makes more sense than just about any other car you can mention. And yet out of its natural comfort zone – which I suppose would be a typical pockmarked back road – fears for the rims aside, it’s still great fun. It may be a two-tonne estate car with a big diesel engine up front, but it was developed by people - in Alpina and of course BMW - who understand how to get the best out of those things. 

Away from high-speed continental runs, I did drop the tyre pressures from 2.8 bar to 2.4 bar to see if that made it more compliant for the UK. (Anything less than that and it too often tells you not to exceed 81mph) It did help compliance a little, but also reduced steering response. 

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There's not much in it either way, and seat comfort, plus the user interface, which retains the rotary controller and separate physical buttons for most major controls, sits in a sweet spot. Brief ownership is similarly painless. Over nearly 9000 miles in three months, it wanted an AdBlue top-up, no oil, and returned close to 50mpg. In fact, the most stressful thing about running it was wondering when I might get it back. A tremendous car. 

Second Opinion

I broke my Alpina duck with the D3 S, and must confess to coming away slightly nonplussed. It's rapid, composed and eminently practical, but a tad rough-riding with it, and it doesn't feel outrageously different from the (already excellent M340d to which it is related. Think I need to try an Alpina B3. 

Felix Page

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Love it:

Buttons - real buttons Proper buttons remain for the likes of heated seats and steering wheel, climate, some shortcuts and audio 

All day comfort Brilliantly comfortable seats with fine (optional but well-stitched) leather. Lumbar support optional. 

A touch of glass Ultimately, it’s still a 3 Series wagon so rear seats are decent and there’s a big boot and a handy glass hatch 

Range masteI know diesel isn't fashionable, but if you're careful, it exceeds 50mph and can go 600 miles between fills

Loathe it:

Dark matter Subtlety is the order of the day for Alpina, but black on black on black is a little too subtle for my liking. 

Final mileage: 11,187

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What better place for a first date? And they say romance is dead... - 20 September

Our road testers have repeatedly given the current BMW 3 Series five stars and lavished it with praise, so I was thrilled to get the keys to the top-rung (if slightly left-field) Buchloe edition. I made the most of it, too: over 200 miles, I used it as an office, a delivery truck and even a venue for a date.

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First, though, I had to drive it to the Cotswolds. Coming from Scotland, I’m not familiar with the area, but I quickly found out why it has such a reputation for a mixture of motorway, village and sweeping country roads: the holy trinity for quickly learning about a car.

On the motorway, it was so very planted; in sleepy little villages, it was quiet and understated enough to only rouse attention from a cyclist (who loved it, by the way); and on the country roads around 

Enstone, it made me realise why so many people love driving there. It let me savour every turn and every straight with point-and-shoot poise and sheepdog get-up-and-go.

Prepare yourself, however, for some criticism.

The steering is too numb: I found myself turning into bends and guessing how many locks I had to put on, and at speeds that were higher than normal (but still within legal limits), that’s not something you ever want to be unsure of.

While I’m criticising, the engine to me isn’t worth the extra money over a standard 3.0-litre straight six from Munich. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an extremely efficient lump, with bigger turbochargers and meatier internals to make it sound meaner, but it doesn’t feel any different to even a previous-generation 335d (a model with which I’m quite familiar).

I did also get slightly irked by the Bluetooth failing to connect to my phone after so many tries that I had to give up. A shame, since BMW’s sixth-generation iDrive is otherwise a very slick and intuitive system. Make no mistake, none of these hairs should put you off what is otherwise a tasty soup. If you’re tempted by one, though, do try it first.

Anyway, onwards through the country and back to London, where I needed to pick up a rare romantic interest. We decided to go for a walk somewhere near Windsor, which meant we needed transport, and I thought the D3 S would make a great companion, being luxuriously trimmed, feeling nicely damped in Comfort Plus driving mode and having a very good (but not overpowering) stereo.

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It turned out to be the main attraction, because my date was just as nerdy as me when it came to cars, and amazingly I wasn’t rejected. I think I have the Alpina to thank for that. 

The next day, I was working from home, so I took my laptop, my charger and my notebook and sat in the car for most of the working day to see if I would get bored or tired. I emerged without backache, fatigue, or discomfort in any form – a comforting reminder that you’re in good hands for long journeys.

My final excursion was the weekly trip to Tesco, for which my housemates and I were amused to be swapping a clapped-out Honda Civic for a brand-new, near-£90,000 performance car.

Unlike in the Civic, all nine of our shopping bags fitted comfortably in the boot, with room left over for a small rucksack. Yet like the Civic, it was very easy to maneuver in tight spaces, with light steering and a large glasshouse that makes the car feel smaller than it is. It’s not exactly a Ford Fiesta, but you get the idea.

One thing that surprised all of us was the accelerative performance, despite the D3 S being laden with three people and their toilet paper, and, thanks to peak torque available from 1750rpm, fuel economy that never went south of 35mpg. I guess that’s what 538lb ft gives you – that and a second date. 

Love it 

What a stunner

It melds form and function in a way few other cars do, with those subtle Alpina decals giving it ‘if you know, you know’ exclusivity.

Loathe it

Not different enough

Its upgraded engine doesn’t make it worth the premium over a tidy used 335d and its steering should be more communicative. 

Mileage: 8210

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Towing is no issue for the Alpina - 6 September

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It’s fun travelling to events with friends in convoy, although it’s somewhat less enjoyable when your mate’s Porsche 944 decides to detach a rear driveshaft. Luckily, the D3 S I had borrowed from Matt Prior has a sturdy electric towbar and an 1800kg towing capacity, so it made light work of Dorset’s rolling hills as we towed it back home

Mileage: 9115

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Life with an Alpina D3 S: Month 3

Prior finally gets his car back... - 28 August

After a month of colleagues nicking it, I’ve regained custody of the D3 S – which is telling me to top-up its AdBlue with some urgency. I believe you get more chilled warnings at first, and knowing that a car should eventually refuse to start without it, I popped in five litres. I will keep a note of when it next gets insistent so I can gauge how much it uses.

Mileage: 8560

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Who needs Italy when you have North Wales and a car like this? - 9 August

Another week, another adventure for the beast from Buchloe. My poor colleague Matt Prior, the car’s official keeper, can’t have actually spent much time with it so far. Pretty much every member of the Autocar office has stolen it away at one point or another, returning a week later with a grin on their face and another 1000 or so miles on the odometer. Sorry, Matt.

As you may recall, Richard Lane treated the D3 S to a lovely summer holiday a few weeks ago. The sun-kissed mountains of Italy awaited him, accessed by mile after mile of French autoroute so smooth that it makes the back of my laptop look like a gravel trap. I decided that this was far too easy, so I decided to take the D3 S to North Wales, a land full of very bumpy roads and probably enough rain every year to warrant building an ark.

Lane suggested that this might just be the best car on the planet in real-world conditions – very high praise indeed – but that was on the wide and well-paved roads of mainland Europe. Could it retain that moniker on the narrow, pothole-strewn lanes of Cymru?

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I don’t know why I ever doubted him. It felt completely at home wherever I took it, from the two-lane ribbons of Tarmac in the highlands of Eryri to the single-track passes of the Elan Valley. I was shocked at how easy it was to place – thanks in part to the fantastic feedback from the steering – and it never felt too large for the fairly narrow roads. I took a Ford Focus ST on a similar tour earlier this year and, if anything, the D3 S felt more appropriate for it.

Alpina d3 s touring roadtrip wales jh 114 copy

It builds your confidence incredibly quickly, holding your hand in Sport mode to encourage you to go faster, even in utterly rotten conditions. You really wouldn’t guess that it’s a 1900kg car, thanks to Alpina’s expertly judged reworking of BMW’s xDrive system to split torque in a more playful manner and the suspension adjustments, which make bumps and holes all but disappear. It’s so accessible, yet so brutally fast.

It just puts a grin on your face. I found a set of tight sweepers that flowed over a pair of fairly substantial crests before dropping you down into a high-speed left-hander and I ended up taking several runs at them, marvelling every time at the inch-perfect turn-in response, brakes that feel like they could stop a train and, of course, the ballistic acceleration.

What impressed me most of all, though, was how despite all this, it revealed itself to be absolutely uncompromised when I travelled back from Wales and started to commute in it. Stick it in Comfort mode and it’ll make mincemeat of any motorway you throw at it. I tend to get quite tired and annoyed after being on the road for long periods of time, but after a trip from Dorset to Norfolk and back in a day, I felt as fresh as ever when I rolled back onto my driveway 500 miles later. The D3 S relaxes you like few other cars can.

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Is there another one out there that does all this and can also swallow an entire drum kit? I doubt it. What a machine. 

Like it

Easy to drive fast

For such a devastatingly quick car, it’s so accessible. Suspension, steering and torque-vectoring tweaks make it easy to unleash your inner Roberto Ravaglia.

Multi-storey stress

Huge wheels seem to protrude from the tyres, making tight car parks incredibly stressful. The black finish doesn’t do the fantastic design justice either.

Mileage: 8008

Jack Harrison

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Life with an Alpina D3 S: Month 2

We let our continent-crushing, ’bahnstorming executive express do what it does best - 12 July 

As I pass broad asphalted and concreted roadside truck parks that used to host the border posts between Belgium and Germany, a blue sign tells me I’ve changed countries and a black and white circle says the speed limit has been adjusted to... well, whatever I think is sensible today.

Roads like this have become a large part of the appeal of Alpinas like this D3 S Touring. There are owners “who will use a car rather than plane to go from Munich to Frankfurt”, I was told last year by Andreas Bovensiepen, who, with his brother Florian, has been running the company their father founded to tune BMWs in 1965.

So I do the polite thing and put my foot in, leave it there and feel the speed build and build.

Despite the current trend away from big diesels, I still find their generosity of in-gear acceleration really impressive, more so than the 4.6sec 0-62mph standing-start acceleration time suggests. It still builds confidently well into three figures and it’s not long before I’m quickly glancing down at the instruments, then looking way into the distance for traffic, as it heads above 150mph. Then I see a car or truck, back off and do the whole thing again.

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The D3 S apparently tops out at 170mph. I didn’t see that many numbers on the dial but noted an indicated 160mph-plus a couple of times. The brakes are iron rather than carbon-ceramic, but they feel well up to repeated stops. At those sorts of speeds, there’s plenty of air going to them. The required pedal pressures are big, but then there’s a lot of momentum to haul down too. Stability is outstanding and the steering totally steady.

Derestricted autobahns are one of the reasons that powerful German-developed cars feel like they often do. And I don’t think it’s a surprise that cars develop character traits based on where they’re developed – our poor-conditioned roads around small fields are why British cars so often have good ride and steering.

But it’s a treat to take a car to where it’s really in its element. If I had to cross large parts of Germany regularly on business, I think it would be hard to beat a car like this, for the reasons why it’s often difficult to beat the car in general: trains don’t necessarily go when and where you want and ditto aeroplanes. A one-hour flight is at least a three-hour faff involving taking your belt off. And for people like us, driving is good fun. The appeal is undimmed.

Still, ultimately it’s harder to find completely clear bits of autobahn these days and there are sections with variable speed limits, with 130kph (81mph) indicated at busier times. At which speeds it’s still easy to make good progress. On derestricted sections, I settled into a cruise at around 100mph, where the revs were maintained low and I didn’t need to work the throttle, brakes or my concentration quite so hard. And at which speed the Alpina is more inclined to return its naturally easy economy.

It’s hard to get a true bearing on how much fuel high-speed running uses, because it’s so variable, but if all you’re doing is sitting at modest (for German autobahn) speeds, you can expect MPG to be in the high 40s. And it doesn’t take long to fill it.

However, an apology, because I sold you a pup in this car’s first report, saying that BMW UK no longer offers a 3 Series Touring with this big diesel engine fitted to it. My error – sorry. I searched BMW’s online configurator for it and thought it was gone, but the 3.0 is in a section marked under ‘M models’, which I took to only mean the M3, rather than the M340d xDrive – ridiculously daft of me, given that I think I’ve driven one within the past year.

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Like it

Raise your glass

The tailgate has a glass hatch that opens onto the boot without the whole bootlid having to open.

Loathe it

Black mark

I don’t think I’d spec a black finish on the wheels, which pick up brake dust more notably than silver ones

Mileage: 3405

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The D3 S is a welcoming sight when jetlagged - 5 July

In an airport car park at 1:15am, with a two-hour drive home, assuming they haven’t shut any motorways (oh, they have), I will contend there are few better sights than an Alpina D3 S with 250 miles still left in its tank. Responsive enough to keep you awake, refined enough to soothe the miles. It’s the perfect blend of comfort and agility – and you’ll beat the sat-nav’s ETA.

Mileage: 2602 

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Life with an Alpina D3 S: Month 1

Welcoming the Alpina to the fleet - 21 June 2023

Time is running out for independent-era Alpinas like this, the D3 S Touring, which is based on the latest-generation BMW 3 Series and has joined Autocar for the next few months. Goody.

Alpina was bought by BMW last spring but will continue with its own line-up of models (although they are largely finished on BMW production lines) until 2025. After that, BMW will be in control of new Alpina output.

Hopefully, they will continue being things like this. A fast 3 Series wagon is perennially the sort of car that migrates to the top of those ‘all the car you’ll ever need’ lists, and the D3 S is the right sort of fast 3 Series wagon.

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The D3 diesel – and its B3 petrol alternative – were revised last year when BMW facelifted the 3 Series range. The result is a 355bhp and, importantly, 539lb ft estate with a 48V mild-hybrid system.

Because Alpina is rated as a tiny manufacturer and so has less pressure on its corporate average fuel consumption than a large car maker, it can sell a car with this 3.0-litre straight-six diesel engine in the UK, while BMW itself sadly no longer does.

Alpina d3 s tailgate

It officially returns 40.9mpg and 182g/km, and while doing so is a car with a 4.6sec 0-62mph time and a 170mph top speed. Alpina buyers in Germany love that kind of flexibility – and for not unrelated reasons, it’s one of the first places I took the D3 S (more on which next time).

In the meantime, here’s a rundown of the basics. The D3 S costs £66,000 and is respectably equipped off the bat, but you can add a lot of options. There’s a full list of what this car contains on the opposite page, but the important extras are the 20in black forged wheels, instead of 19s, black paint against which it’s hard to see the subtle decal kit and high-performance brakes. Inside is a Harman Kardon hi-fi and merino leather trim (it’s part blue but you can have white, red, brown or black). I’ll go into the others later.

First impressions are good. This shouldn’t be a surprise: a 3 Series is good and Alpina does good work, so an Alpina 3 Series should be terrific. And it is. I know diesels get flak to the extent that they took barely over 5% of new car sales last year, but the BMW 3.0-litre has always been a peach and with the 48V mild-hybrid system start-stopping it in an instant without shaking, the eight-speed ZF transmission remaining one of the finest in the business and the xDrive four-wheel drive system, it’s proving to be a seamless, effortless, 550-mile-to-a-tank and 50mpg-without-trying-too-hard (I’m still settling to an average) mile eater.

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The diesel has lost out to the plug-in hybrid in particular (thanks in great part to the company car tax benefits), but you would have to plug one in a lot to match the D3 S’s economy. In jobs like mine, with lots of long journeys to places where I can’t plug in on location, it’s still incredibly useful.

Alpina d3 s rear

Apparently, those high-speed, high-mile journeys play a big part in the popularity of Alpina’s diesel models in Germany (people will commute big distances rather than fly internally), while in Japan, traditionally a petrol rather than a diesel market, they think of them as we did in the early 2000s too.

Dynamically, it’s impressive. Firm, certainly, but brilliantly controlled, with relatively low noise levels, consistent if heavy steering – brutally stable at high speeds – and just a reliable, unflinching way of going about things.

It’s usually tempting to compare an Alpina with its equivalent BMW M car, but that this is a diesel and BMW itself doesn’t offer this engine means I won’t make the M3 Touring comparison. I think they are really quite different cars – the D3 S doesn’t have M levels of agility.

If it does have an issue, it’s not really all of its own making. Those 20in wheels wear 30-profile Pirelli P Zero tyres front and rear, closely matched at 255mm (front) and 265mm (rear) wide, which should make this four-wheel-drive car with even weight distribution very nicely balanced.

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But twice in the past week I’ve thought I was going to rip a tyre from the rim over some very British potholes that I didn’t see at night. A proper thump of the sort that makes you think you’re going to spend the next two hours waiting for a recovery truck. It’s almost tempting to recommend the 19s instead, but they have a split five-spoke design rather than these slinkier Alpina classic spokes for which, even in black, I’m a bit of a sucker.

Anyway, more next time – including whether continental Europe is kinder to the rubber.

Second Opinion

Prior is right to feel like the cat that got the creamy diesel V6. Alpina’s D4 S Gran Coupé sister car impressed the hell out of me earlier this year with its incredible cruising refinement and long-striding easy performance and efficiency. I remember thinking that you could probably get 40mpg out of one at 100mph-plus autobahn speeds.

Matt Saunders

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Alpina D3 S Touring specification

Specs: Price New £66,000 Price as tested £88,265 Options 20in wheels £3420, Black Sapphire paint £800, decal set £420, performance brakes £1770, carbonfibre interior trim finishers £500, merino leather £3800, comfort access £560, lumbar support £195, electric seat adjust £1120, galvanic finish on controls £95, CNC aluminium gear paddles £290, high-gloss interior £205, panoramic sunroof £1550, laser headlights £1870, shadow line lights £300, driving assistant professional £1870, drive recorder £190, park assistant plus £650, acoustic glazing £190, sun protection glass £380, auto-dim mirrors £310, loudspeaker upgrade £820, electric towbar £960

Test Data: Engine 3.0-litre straight-six diesel Power 355bhp Torque 539lb ft at 4200rpm Kerb weight 1950kg Top speed 168mph 0-62mph 4.6sec Fuel economy 40.9mpg (claimed) CO2 xxxg/km Faults None Expenses None

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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Add a comment…
405line 9 August 2023

So I ask you, do you want to take an internal flight plane or the unrestricred autobahn...err, I get air sick.

m2srt 29 June 2023
You do know that you can still order a M340D in the UK! Still configurable on their website too, not just from stock.
NavalReserve 29 June 2023
Isn't it a straight six, rather than a V6?
m2srt 29 June 2023
Typical slapdash journalism from Autocar, as per the norm!