It's a storied German BMW tuner, but does the Alpina B5 live up to its proud reputation, or is it too soft?
Depending on your vintage and your level of enthusiasm beyond the mainstream brands and better-known tuners in Australia, you might be thinking... who the heck is Alpina and what on earth is a B5 Biturbo?
There's a chance the millennials won’t have a clue, and maybe a few among Gen-Y, but if you’re as old as me and a car enthusiast with a passion for old-school Bimmers, then chances are you’ll have fond memories of this long-standing BMW tuner from Bavaria.
From the late ’70s and well into the ’80s, Alpina was by far the better-known Beemer tuner, but even then it was a rare sight, at least in Australia.
There were other lesser-known companies such as Hartge, founded in 1971 and famous for jamming M5 engines in 3 Series bodies. And in the same rarefied league were the likes of AC Schnitzer and Hamann, but if you saw just one of those every six months you’d be doing well.
The story of how the company was founded is simply brilliant. Munich-based student Burkard Bovensiepen transformed the family’s typewriter factory after some bolt-on twin Webers transformed his BMW 1500, and gained instant notoriety for both its effectiveness and simplicity.
Worldwide fame came in 1973 with the arrival of the E9 3.0 BMW, which Alpina set upon by replacing its steel panels with lightweight alloy and swapped out the glass windows for perspex versions, thereby creating the iconic 3.0 CSL.
Ingenuity was core to the Alpina brand, which went on to develop the first cross-drilled brake and the first computer ignition system. It also lays claim to coming up with the first shift-by-buttons gearbox (dubbed Shift-Tronic) some five months ahead of Porsche’s Tiptronic transmission. Alpina still uses the steering wheel-mounted buttons – now behind the wheel rather than on the wheel.
My own recollection of Alpina is of it being the ultimate BMW tuner, but in my case with a hands-on experience that involved a hand-on-heart purchase of an outlaw-style E12 5-Series build that was badged M530 (by the owner of the car I presume).
This owner also had a collection of rare and valuable sports cars and racers, including a mint Cooper T53 driven by Jack Brabham, as well as an immaculate Lamborghini Miura SV.
In fact, the deal-clincher on the Beemer, and the only reason I agreed to hand over the $12,500 asking price, was due to a promise of a ride in said Miura. And yeah, while it was quick, my new E12 was crazy quick and turned out to be a proper HSV ‘hunter and killer’, but also doubled as a genuine sleeper.
And if you thought the E12 was a good-looking thing fresh out of the box, which it surely was, then you probably won’t be surprised to know the legendary Italian designer Marcello Gandini and Paul Bracq were the designers.
A brilliant car to drive it was, too, but only when it was tuned properly, which was only when I could afford it. And that only occurred once, just weeks before I was prepping it for a sad sale.
Frankly, it was more racer than road car in terms of ride and handling, and the sheer pulling power from what lurked under the bonnet was addictive – all six stacks of it.
This was Alpina power – and I loved it.
Many decades would pass before I would have any fresh close contact with the brand again. In fact, make that 35 years, but it would seem Alpina has morphed into an entirely different beast – not the full monty, if we’re going to be totally honest and upfront here.
When we collected the B5 Biturbo from the chap at Alpina Automobiles – Australia, he told us that this was an M5 for the ‘gentleman’ – a more refined car for those that shun the spotlight. But, hold on a sec, isn’t that what the stock M5 Competition is all about – understated looks – a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
At first glance I’d have to agree. The Alpina Classic 20-inch forged alloys might be a high-quality product and a hallmark of the brand, but up against those on the standard M5, they look decidedly pedestrian in my opinion, bar the classy Alpina wheel caps.
You’re free to disagree, of course, but to die-hard Alpina aficionados they may be just what the doctor ordered.
Our tester also wore a set of Alpina pinstripes on each side, and a beautifully fashioned Alpina badge on the lower lip of the front splitter with individually embossed letters.
The latter looks good, but hold the stickers please despite the heritage around them. In fact, the whole car just looks underdone against the full-fat M5, but that’s clearly why this car exists, isn’t it?
After all, it’s part M5 but mostly M550i xDrive, which is the donor car it’s actually based on and that we don’t get in Australia, whereas the M5 Competition – while based on the same CLAR platform – is more bespoke.
It’s not like the Alpina is down on power, though… Well, maybe a little, but it gets more torque than the real-deal M5. Mind you, it still gets the same displacement 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, but Alpina-tuned to deliver 447kW and a whopping 800Nm.
And, while it’s definitely rapid, a 3.5-second 0–100km/h sprint time can’t match the M5’s more enthusiastic 3.3-second dash.
From behind the wheel, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as manic as the M5 unless you really bury the throttle, but even then it doesn’t deliver nearly the same visceral experience as the M5. The Alpina is noticeably more refined, though, but very little of that naturally angry V8 growl ever makes its way into the cabin. Certainly, not nearly enough for anyone with real petrol-head passion.
Even in its most aggressive drive mode with your right foot pinned to the boards, the feedback is first and foremost centred around refinement rather than any fast and furious moment. But, then, that seems to be the nature of this beast.
Naturally, there’s a good reason for that. The B5 uses Alpina’s own sports exhaust system – still with two twin tailpipes, though this unit is designed to reduce back pressure, so there’s little to get excited about.
Not sure I’d ever get used to those Switch-Tronic buttons (notwithstanding Alpina traditions), either. They just don’t feel right from the get-go, while the M5’s paddle shifters provide far more driver satisfaction when conditions permit. Interestingly, you can delete the buttons for paddles as a no-cost option, if I’m reading the options menu correctly.
But it’s no slouch, as mentioned earlier in this article. It’s not so much how quickly it can leap out of the gate that impresses, but rather how hard it pulls in the mid-range.
It’s properly fast, but again, the M5 is still the more urgent of the two, and given the advances in refinement and general day-to-day liveability of the latest-generation M5, I’m not sure the Alpina B5 makes any sense these days bar its twenty-grand price discount.
Granted, while the B5 goes for an even softer-sprung ride in all drive modes, I’d argue it’s unnecessarily so, to the point of displaying outright porpoising characteristics when under medium-to-heavy braking pressures around town. Something the M5 simply refuses to do – even on-track under the most severe load.
Sport firms things up considerably and transforms the car into something far more capable in the dynamics department, but again, noticeably less proficient than the M5 in this regard.
Inside, there are some nice touches, like the Alpina badge in the beautifully wrapped steering wheel complete with contrast stitching.
Both the front sports seats and the rear bench are spectacularly comfortable thanks to the super-soft leather upholstery and thickly padded cushioning. Long-haul trips are a pleasure for that reason alone.
There’s also a numbered Alpina build plaque on the centre console, and along with the other petite branding executions and noticeably more luxurious seating, the B5 does feel like something a bit special, at least in the cabin.
The problem is it just doesn’t feel special enough to be considered over the not-so-stock M5 Competition, and for me that’s a real issue given the fond memories I have of the Alpina brand and what it once stood for.
For the die-hard Alpina aficionados, nothing of what we’ve said here will likely stand in the way of their purchase, but I’d also ask them to take an M5 for the weekend and make their final decision. But that’s just me...