BMW Alpina XD3 2019, BMW Alpina b5 touring 2019
review

Alpina B5 Biturbo Touring, XD3 prototype review

First international drive

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For lovers of hi-po German cars, there’s good news coming in 2019 as Alpina is ramping up its Australian activity, ready to unleash two of the most unlikely missiles you’ll find on our roads.
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The Alpina B5 Biturbo Touring is the V8 BMW 5 Series wagon you were never meant to have, as Alpina’s car is the only current-spec 5 Series Touring with a bent eight.

While the sedan was launched here last May, this wagon variant means you can get to 100km/h in 3.7 seconds and, where possible, on to 322km/h with Fido and his dog bowl in the back.

If you’re looking for more anonymity, however, Alpina is backing this up with the launch of the BMW X3-based XD3. This mid-sized SUV sounds mundane enough on paper – running a 3.0-litre, six-cylinder diesel – until you get to the part where it mentions the pair of large Honeywell turbos (formerly Garrett) and packing 245kW and 700Nm.

That will get you to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds, and a run in the final prototype on the autobahn showed that it felt composed near its book top speed of 254km/h while offering up 700km from a tank of fuel.

If it does nothing else, the rev-happy XD3, which meets Euro 6 emissions standards, will make you re-evaluate previous conceptions of diesels as it eats up huge chunks of highway with incredible ease.

Alpina is to BMW what HSV was to Holden in the V8 era, a performance manufacturer in its own right. Each car that leaves its Buchloe factory west of Munich has its own Alpina chassis number and engine number, as it’s a top-to-toe rebuild of the donor BMW.

Just like the HSV-Holden affiliation, Alpina enjoys a cosy relationship with BMW spanning 53 years, and they also share the workload when it comes to testing for crashes, emissions, extreme climates and covering warranties.

The family-run business also conducts some of this for BMW’s non-Alpina models when capacity flows over at HQ, as Alpina has the latest emissions testing facilities attached to five dynos to meet the new WLTP standards introduced for 2019 cars.

“Our engines cover 40,000km on the dyno, which is the equivalent of 200,000 road kilometres, and our dynos are working every day,” says Andreas Bovensiepen, the son of Alpina founder Burkard Bovensiepen.

Together with his brother Florian, they continue the family legacy, running the company in much the same way as their father Burkard, who still visits most days and signs off the big-ticket items, but the focus now is on expanding into global territories like Australia.

“We’re continually modifying and changing components like intercoolers for hot weather climates, as we need to ensure that our cars can maintain long distance, high-speed touring in high temps. They need to sit on 300km/h in the heat, and we are also doing this for BMW AG.”

Andreas grabbed the keys to an XD3 prototype and took us for a spin on the nearby autobahn. Having raced in DTM, Porsche Carrera Cup and won the ’98 Nürburgring 24-Hour with Hans-Joachim Stuck, he knows how to pedal a car and looks for any excuse to fling the XD3 through a few back lane roundabouts.

On the speed-limitless stretches of road, this diesel pulls power past 5000rpm and is as steady as a rock as he performs a few sudden lane changes to demonstrate its high-speed road behaviour, in the snow, at 230km/h.

“When you push the accelerator at 200km/h, it pulls hard because it’s in the meat of the torque curve at 2500rpm. When most diesels get tired at 4000rpm, this keeps hauling past 5000rpm,” he says.

When it hits the market here in early 2019, the XD3 will be priced at $105,000 and aimed squarely at the Porsche Macan, along with high-spec models in the Audi Q5 and Mercedes GLC lines, and even exotics like the Maserati Levante and Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

“Now that Porsche has dropped the diesel from the Macan, I think that with this kind of torque and power, we should be able to convince former Macan diesel owners to look at the XD3.”

For major hardware items, Alpina has to follow BMW’s lead, so while its big B7 7-Series gets fully adjustable air suspension, the XD3 sticks with coil springs taking Eibach modified coils that drop the ride height by 15mm.

“Air suspension doesn’t give you the same feeling you get with coil springs, and while it’s good for raising the car over speed humps, it’s also heavier, which has a bigger impact on smaller cars.”

The lack of body roll at speed is noticeable from the more balanced chassis, feeling more like a sedan than an SUV, partly because Alpina sends more torque to the rear wheels than BMW to reduce understeer.

What’s also more noticeable over the donor BMW is the difference between its Comfort and Sport modes, and how it not only stiffens the dampers but its recalibrated eight-speed ZF auto ’box reacts faster and is more decisive compared to the BMW operation.

Aside from the subtle body graphics, Alpina’s traditional multi-spoke wheels set this apart from the regular X3, and are offered with either 20-inch or forged 22-inch lightweight alloys running on Alpina designated Pirelli P-Zeros.

“Its predecessor was very successful, selling more than 800 units when our total production run is 1500 to 1700. We stay deliberately low to keep the exclusivity, but we have high expectations for the XD3 in Australia because it’s an important market for our SUVs.

“The previous X3 was very late in its life cycle when we launched in Australia in 2016, so we decided to hold back and wait for this new model.”

After two and a half years, Alpina has sold 52 cars in Australia among the current range comprising the B3, B4, B5 sedan and B7, and the plan is to maintain around 20 cars a year before the all-new B3 3 Series arrives in 2020. By that stage, the company is hopeful of doubling that number and already has orders for seven XD3s.

If the XD3 is the volume model for Australia, then surely the 4.4-litre, twin-turbocharged V8, B5 Biturbo Touring is the hero model.

Priced at $217,000, it slips in under its most obvious competitor, the AMG E63, and as Alpina uses the same leather as Rolls-Royce, moulded and shaped in its own saddlery, it’s arguably also more comfortable over a long distance than a comparable M5.

Two leather packages are offered across the full range, with the basic option comprising the seats and armrests at $8000 depending on the model. The second choice is a full interior re-trim that on the top-spec B7 uses up to nine hides and takes two people 10 days to fit the 250 pieces at a cost of up to $32,000. The steering wheel alone is a six-hour job.

“Our intention is not to make race cars, but good overall cars where you can easily do several hundred kilometres in a day.

“Compared to a BMW M customer, an Alpina buyer is someone who covers 50,000 or 60,000 kilometres annually. We recently received an email from a German customer who wrote to say he had covered 70,000km in his first year.”

With the wintry Alps as my road map and the key to the B5 Biturbo Touring, I grabbed the heated steering wheel and set off to clock up a few hundred kays in as short a time as possible.

A consistent dusting of snow turned the mostly back roads into a white-out, allowing the B5’s all-wheel drive to do its thing in the icy conditions.

What was immediately noticeable was the lack of fuss about this car, despite its 447kW and 800Nm of torque. It felt closer to the Aston Martin and Bentley spectrum than the AMG and BMW M side of things.

A small sticker on the windscreen warned me that the winter tyres had a limited top speed of 250km/h, so once on the autobahn, that’s where the cruise control was set and it felt just as comfortable and as sure-footed as it was at half that speed.

Just as Alpina prides itself on building engines with copious torque over revs, so too does it take delight in its cars' braking performance. On a family wagon weighing 2120kg, the four-piston Brembos on the drilled and vented 395mm rotors behind 20-inch forged alloys ensured the deceleration was just as rapid as its acceleration.

Starting with the 4.4-litre engine from the 550i and 750i BMWs, Alpina stripped it down and installed its own Mahle pistons as well as the crank and conrods from the previous-generation V8, as they claim to be stronger and could be adapted to the new engine.

Plugs come from NGK, which perform better in warmer climates, and the 56mm diameter BMW turbos are swapped out for a pair of 60mm Honeywell units that can run a higher 1.4bar of boost.

In order to cope, the B5 runs about 20 per cent more cooling with larger intercoolers and Alpina’s own design air intake, along with larger diameter hoses and bigger fans. Along with the free-breathing Akrapovic quad exhausts, it explains how Alpina can extract an additional 118kW from the standard BMW engine.

Like the XD3, the B5 also runs Alpina’s modified version of the ZF eight-speed auto with Alpina’s Switch-Tronic mapping, and after a few hours this became the stand-out feature of the whole package.

Despite using buttons behind the wheel instead of paddles, though it was very easy to get used to after a while, the intuitive nature of the Switch-Tronic program was among the best I’ve encountered with the popular ZF ’box.

Reading the driver’s behaviour in Sport+ mode, it held gears into corners, kept the throttle alive as I exited, and almost pre-empted down shifting depending on how I tickled the throttle entering a corner.

Slip it over to Comfort and it made use of the enormous torque to keep it in a high gear, but always had power under foot if needed.

Would I prefer this over an old-school H-pattern Getrag manual? Of course not, but times are changing and if we’ve got to go down this path, then this is the best option I’ve sampled in a long time.

“We send ZF our requirements, for example, we need 800Nm, so we get reinforced hardware from them and our engineers look after all the software, programs and shifting times,” Andreas said.

“Things like when should it shift up with part throttle, when should it hold the gear, are all calibrated to Alpina’s philosophy. And the reason why we will never go back to a manual or even a DSC-type ’box is that the ZF unit is the only one that can handle the torque we require.”

Given the long distances most Australians cover between cities, these two Alpina models should sit well with buyers in the market for high-end luxury cars that are a bit different to the regular options.

Alpina offers the flexibility of a family-run business by providing highly tailored, hand-built options, but with the security of BMW’s warranty and service network.

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