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If there was to be an A-to-Z compendium of ‘Mythical and Fantastic Roadbeasts’, then the first chapter would undoubtedly be devoted to the Alpina.
A rare animal, over fifty-years old, born from the deep green forests of Buchloe in Bavaria. The Alpina is exceptionally uncommon in Australia, as none were ever ‘officially’ introduced... until now.
Alpina, which has a coat of arms depicting a Weber carburettor and a crankshaft, made its name tuning BMW cars predominantly for motorsport. The tuner was instrumental in the development of the iconic 3.0-litre E9 CSL ‘Batmobile’ race cars.
Then in 1978, Alpina turned its attention to the road and created the E21 3 Series based B6 2.8. This offered 125kW and 210Nm, a solid amount more than the standard car’s 105kW/190Nm output.
More models followed, with their deep ‘snow plow’ front spoilers, iconic 20-spoke vane wheels and instantly recognisable stripe decals, Alpinas were among the rarest and most desirable BMWs to hit the road.
In 1983, however, the company became recognised as an official manufacturer, and now three decades later, Alpina cars are finally available in Australia.
The three-model range is spearheaded by this, the 2017 Alpina B4 BiTurbo, a two-door grand touring coupe based on the BMW 4 Series.
If you look at it and think, "that’s just a well specified and mildly tuned 4er", then you wouldn’t be far off - but the Alpina appeal is one that encompasses more than the sum of its parts. It is different, personal and special, and if you are familiar with the name, then it’s just that little bit exciting too.
Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a BMW fan, and have previously owned an Alpina-modified E28 5 Series (to B9 3.5 spec), so the chance to spend time with a real one got the senses tingling nicely.
In typical Alpina fashion, the styling modifications are subtle but deceptively aggressive.
The front bar is the BMW Luxury Line item, which is extended by the Alpina chin spoiler and splitter. It gives the $160,900 (before options and on-road costs) B4 a much lower-looking nose, which helps accentuate the body lines to the rear hips.
The back, too, gets a simple but effective lip spoiler that protrudes over the edge of the boot. There’s a lower diffuser that incorporates the quad exhaust pipes too. Strangely, the model designation badges on the back have been placed inboard of the lamps, and low on the boot line. As a result, they look just a little silly.
It’s a no-cost option to remove them, but we’d just rather they were put in the right spot.
The B4 is available, built to order, in a range of BMW Individual colours (at a cost), as well as the specific Alpina Blue and Alpina Green metallics ($4109 option). Our car is Mineral White, a no-cost choice.
Possibly the most impressive looking exterior change over the regular BMW though, are the enormous 20-inch Alpina 20-spoke wheels.
This design has evolved over the years, but maintains a theme of a hidden tyre valve and wheel nuts. Both are located behind the locking centre caps. And those 20 fins… I can confirm from experience too that they are a pain to clean!
Combined with our test car’s pearl-white paint and silver Alpina Deko stripe kit, the B4 has a classy but purposeful stance. In our few days with the car, we caught more than a few people taking a closer look. It’s a BMW, but not as you know it. The Alpina even scores a new VIN number.
Inside, the Alpina is given free reign of the BMW option catalogue and has every piece of tech and convenience as standard, except the heated steering wheel ($358 option), rear sunblind ($641) and TV Tuner ($1866).
This means adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, sunroof, full iDrive and ConnectedDrive software and full Merino leather package are all included.
You can go a little bit further on the personalisation front though, with a two stage Lavalina leather interior being a highlight. This is Alpina’s bespoke trim, made from cows that live in the Swiss alps, fed only grass and are sung songs daily by the von Trapp children. That last bit isn’t quite true but at $19,605 on top of the list price, it probably should be.
It changes the interior of the B4 from ‘another BMW’, to something more luxurious and special. Contrast piping and stitching colours can all be specified and personalised when you order the car.
But then, you can do this with the BMW Individual program (many of the components are listed as such), and anything not covered in something that last moo’d in the alpine air (see what I did there…) is pretty much standard BMW 4 Series fare.
Switches, buttons, surfaces and functions are all as you would find in a 420i. It’s not a bad thing as it means everything works very well and is supported by that BMW service backbone, plus it has been the case with Alpina cars since the start… but something special or different would have been nice.
Older Alpina models featured a digital gauge cluster that replaced the driver’s side vent in the top of the dash. Sure, it was big news in the 1980s, having a seven-segment LCD showing engine or differential oil temperature, but something unique like this would still have value today, even just as a point of difference.
A maximum of 330km/h shows on the blue-backed Alpina speedo though, and there are plenty of little reminders around the cabin that you’ve been to Buchloe. From subtle Alpina badges on the floor mats and dash panel, to the carby-and-crankshaft crest on the iDrive screen when you start the car.
A favourite is the blue and green stitching on the BMW steering wheel, which strangely, is a standard item and not the lovely M-Sport version.
You’ve gone and bought something unique and special, but inside, while very nice, it is basically the same as everything else. It’s that fine line between not being subtle enough, and being too subtle. The B4 errs to the latter.
Back seat room is the same as a 4 Series, the boot is the same, the cheap feeling handles in the same boot that fold the same back seats down… are the same.
But the styling, inside and out, is just the icing on the cake. The rest of the full, rich, Bavarian Black Forest torte is beneath the surface.
Under the bonnet lies a considerably reworked version of BMW’s 3-litre turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine from the now discontinued 435i. Power is up, 301kW at 5500-6250rpm, vs 225kW at 6400rpm in the 435 thanks to exchanging the single twin-scroll turbo for a pair of parallel turbos, one each side of the engine.
There’s improved cooling and a new forged-steel camshaft too.
Torque is increased to a lumping 600Nm at 3000-4000rpm. That puts the Alpina B4 closer to the 317kW/550Nm BMW M4!
But while the numbers may be close, the drive experience is very different.
The B4 BiTurbo is a much more mature car. It’s fast, no doubt, but there’s no step-and-squirm like the M-Car here, the B4 just builds on speed in quick but dignified manner.
Alpina claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of just 4.2 seconds, but we struggled for traction and couldn’t better a five-second run. That said, the standing start performance isn’t the best way to experience the B4. In-gear acceleration is where it's at.
Rolling at 60km/h, hit the Sport button, squeeze the throttle to the floor and the white coupe really starts moving. Your body compresses into those cows, intake and exhaust noises increase.
The tacho climbs past 4000, 5000, 6000… it just keeps going. The quad Akrapovic pipes singing now, then the modified eight-speed ZF automatic shifts up and you need to back off, as the head-up display shows triple figures that you last saw on the 12-times table.
The B4 can achieve 7.6L/100km consumption, Alpina says, and we saw a bit above that after three days of driving, at 11.9L/100km. And really, even that’s not bad, considering the car!
The response throughout the rev range is great, but not brutal. It’s refined, but still powerful. Overtaking is dispatched without stress, the car steps down a gear smoothly, but only if it needs to, and just solves the problem before it has even begun.
Even cruising, you find the 1615kg B4 just effortlessly builds up speed, corner advisory speeds dropping in significance after every turn.
A BMW 4 Series is already a competent corner carver, but the B4 is even better as the suspension and handling dynamics have also been judiciously tweaked.
Spring rates, anti-roll bars, bushes and damper control settings have all been modified.
Turn-in is typical BMW accurate, and the Alpina feels nicely balanced through the bends. Grip from the big Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres is excellent, and as you accelerate out of the corner, there is only the slightest wiggle from the back of the car as it lines up and shoots ahead.
Hit a tight corner, though, and the traction control system and lack of a limited-slip differential put a stop to any shenanigans pretty quickly. You can feel the inside tyre trying to spin up, but the TCS shuts that down and the car bogs down accordingly.
It’s safe to say the B4 is not a hill climb car.
Get back into some open sweepers, and the car is back at home. The ride can be adjusted through the standard adaptive suspension settings of Comfort and Sport.
Quite frankly, the car is very tractable in both modes. Sport, yes it feels firm, but it’s that 'GT firm' that isn’t really firm. If that makes sense?
Comfort too, isn’t some cushion of air ride, it just rounds out some of the sharper edges and is perfect for day-to-day running.
Where the stiffer setting comes into its own, is on those empty country roads, where you want every topographic detail of the tarmac communicated to the steering wheel. The car deals with bumps and ruts well, the important thing being, you feel as though you are in control.
The brakes (370mm front and 345mm rear) with their cool blue Brembo callipers, need some temperature to work effectively, and can feel a bit soft around town.
On a touring run though, they pull up the BiTurbo quickly and confidently, regardless of speed.
Alpina has reworked the gearing within the ZF transmission unit (some 20 percent of components have been changed), and changed the speed at which shifts occur when the sport setting is engaged. We noted that initially selecting drive, even in the full automatic setting, was sharper than we have experienced in a normal BMW.
It feels a little bit twitchy from a standstill. Almost like it lurches forward when a gear is engaged, but is much more pleasant to use than the DCT in the M4.
But rather than standard paddles, the Alpina features little buttons to shift with on the steering wheel. It’s an ergonomic step backwards, and probably the biggest statement of the car’s GT-over-sports nature. Sadly, conventional paddles aren’t even available as an option.
I found that I left the car in its sports-automatic setting just to avoid using them.
It’s not all bad, though - the best part of the eight-speed ZF gearbox is its day-to-day practicality. This is a car as happy on a potter to the shops as it is on your favourite empty B-road. Would it be good on a track? You know, it probably would… but I doubt anyone buying the B4 is concerned about it in the slightest.
The Alpina is a proper grand tourer. Smooth, fast, luxurious… and expensive.
Look at it this way. If you ticked every option box on a BMW 440i, you would still be some $40,000 shy of the list price of the B4. Yes, you would have a very nicely equipped BMW, but you wouldn’t have an Alpina, and it’s that slice of different that the brand is aiming for.
It isn’t a tyre-frying hot-rod like the Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe, more an understated highway cruiser for the ultra-discerning BMW buyer.
So, think of the Alpina B4 as more of a cut-price Maserati GranTurismo, something with smooth cruising performance, luxury and technology for days, in a unique usable package.
Pricing will likely see the Alpina stay in that book of mythical Roadbeasts, but in a way, it just makes seeing one even more special. A bespoke car, from a bespoke brand, that has plenty of credibility and excitement for those in the know.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.