"What's an Alpina?" It's rare a car flummoxes my friends and family, but the Alpina B5 had them all perplexed.
"So it's a BMW wagon?" (close but not quite, try again champ).
"Wait, is it related to Alpine?" (no, Mum).
"Why are you so excited about a wagon?" (at this point I started searching for a new girlfriend).
It's a shame more people don't know what Alpina is all about, because it's a fascinating brand. Founded in the 1960s and legally registered as a carmaker in Germany since 1983, it takes BMW models and reworks them for German executives in a hurry.
Fewer than 2000 are built annually, and they're assembled alongside the BMW range with parts developed and delivered by Alpina.
That means powerful engines, lashings of leather, and comfort-focused suspension systems designed to soak up hour-upon-hour of Autobahn blasting at a time. So dramatic are its changes, the BMW VIN is crossed out and replaced with a bespoke Alpina number.
The new 2019 Alpina B5 Touring you see here might look like a regular 5er, but it's far more special than that. For one, it's priced from $217,000 before on-road costs – and that's before you dive into the options.
Most significant among the changes Alpina has made to the 5 Series lies under the bonnet, where there's a 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged petrol V8 outputting 447kW and 800Nm. The engine is a variation of the unit from the superseded M550i, where it makes 340kW and 650Nm.
Alpina has focused the majority of its efforts on the cooling and turbocharging. That means unique twin-scroll turbos and compressor wheels, along with a new air-water-air intercooler, uprated pistons, and new spark plugs. The package is capped off with a free-breathing quad exhaust from Akrapovic.
It's mated to an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, and punts the B5 to 100km/h in just 3.7 seconds on its way to a 322km/h top speed. This is the world's fastest wagon, folks.
Not that you'd necessarily know. It's utterly effortless around town, gently surfing its low-down torque backed by a deep V8 burble.
You could, hypothetically, never exceed 3000rpm and comfortably keep up with traffic. The throttle has a lovely long travel to it, the transmission saunters from gear to gear, and the ride is supple.
The B5 Touring is the motoring equivalent of a deep, satisfying sigh at low speeds – the sort of sigh that lifts the weight of the world from your shoulders, and sinks you deeper into the couch. The sort usually accompanied by a bottle of red wine and an open fire.
It takes a decent stab of throttle to tap into the mid-range, but what a mid-range it is. Peak torque comes in quite late; it's available between 3000 and 5000rpm, whereas non-Alpina models with an unmolested BMW 4.4-litre engine offer maximum twist from just 1800rpm. It's worth the wait.
With so much torque, leaning on the throttle when you're in the meat of the mid-range squeezes you back in the seat, as the B5 starts reeling in the horizon at a truly remarkable rate. There's no histrionics, just silky-smooth thrust to accompany the feeling your chest is being crushed. It's less of a car, more of a low-flying passenger jet once you're in the sweet spot.
Of course, you can also ditch the nuance and just mat the accelerator pedal, at which point the B5 takes a deep breath, drops a gear or two, builds some boost, and proceeds to just disappear down the road at a truly alarming rate.
There's a surprising amount of turbo lag when you really boot it, especially for drivers conditioned to having all the torque all the time in the age of tricky forced-induction engines. You'd never call it slow, but there's a moment – a couple of beats – of waiting as the turbochargers inhale.
It's a shame the exhaust isn't a bit louder, though, because it's slightly too refined for our tastes at the moment.
In an outright performance car like, say, an M5 Competition that could be problematic. But here, where cruising is more of a priority, it's less of an issue. More of a problem was the start/stop system, which exacerbates the low-down lag by taking too long to fire the engine.
We averaged 14.3L/100km over a week skewed to city driving, with one run from Melbourne to Healesville and back. Budget for plenty of V-Power if you plan on exploiting the B5's prodigious performance.
Although it runs a more rear-biased torque split than the regular M550i xDrive, traction is never an issue in the B5. Wet or dry, you can mash the throttle with impunity and it just hooks up and goes.
That means tyre-smoking hooliganism isn't really its remit, although determined drivers will no doubt find a way.
The effortless engine is matched with a long-legged suspension that does an impressive job masking the B5's 20-inch wheels and 30-profile tyres – running the recommended 52psi, no less.
Alpina fits unique front wishbones, shorter and stiffer springs, uniquely tuned adaptive dampers, and air suspension on the rear axle, while active anti-roll bars work to keep the car flat in the corners.
Flick into Comfort Plus (not offered on the 5 Series) and the adaptive suspension softens right off, but body control is always impressive. It never feels like a wallowing barge – never a given with such a big car promising a supple ride.
The car firms up in Sport/Sport Plus, but we'd stick to Comfort. It feels more appropriate in a car like this, and is keeping with the effortless nature of its performance.
With that said, hard-edged potholes or expansion joints can break down its defences. Although the suspension does an impressive job distancing passengers from rough roads, there's no escaping the physics of big wheels and slim sidewalls.
The steering is also well judged – heavy enough to make the B5 feel purposeful, light enough that it's easy to pilot around town, especially in conjunction with the standard rear-wheel steering system. Slung into a set of bends? The Autobahn-ready tune is less of a positive, and the car's two-tonne kerb weight makes its presence felt.
It's undeniably fast point to point, but our previous experience with the M5 Competition suggests it'd show the B5 a clean set of heels around a track. And that's okay.
Externally, you'll be able to tell the B5 Touring from the regular 5 Series by its deeper front splitter (replete with Alpina branding, and easy to scrape on driveways) and angry quad exhaust pipes, although a set of more obvious graphics is available.
Trainspotters tend to notice what you're driving, otherwise the most noticeable thing about this is the fact it's a wagon, not an SUV. BMW still makes those? Really?
The seats are trimmed in Nappa leather as standard, and they're lounge-style comfort armchairs instead of the racy, figure-hugging buckets you'd find in an M5 or E63 AMG. The ergonomics are near perfect up front, even for leggy drivers.
It's very obviously a BMW from behind the wheel, but the lovely materials are backed by just enough Alpina branding – a build plaque at the base of the centre console, a badge on the dash trim, and a steering wheel emblem – to remind you this isn't a garden-variety Beemer. The wheel is stitched with blue and green highlights, too, which is a lovely touch.
Options abound, but our tester was specced with considerable restraint. The black seats and piano-black dash trim are both standard, although it did still have steering wheel heating ($449), a leather dash ($2243), and soft-close doors ($1150).
Cool though the stealthy, blacked-out cabin is, the gloss-black trim attracts dust at a terrifying rate. We'd opt for something a bit... Woodier.
All the technology is from BMW, which means you get iDrive 6.0 for infotainment and a simple digital set of dials in front of the driver. They have blue faces in Comfort, along with traditional Alpina branding.
Anyone familiar with a regular 5 Series will recognise the base system, but Alpina has just done enough to differentiate the B5's dials.
Given it's built around a regular Touring 5er, the B5 is impressively practical. There's 570L of boot space with the rear seats upright and 1700L with them folded, along with acres of rear leg room behind average-sized drivers. It's essentially the ultimate ski-trip car.
Not everyone will like what Alpina has done with the B5. It's not as racy as the M5 Competition, nor as overtly expensive to look at. But to compare Alpina's wares with those of M GmbH is to miss the point.
The B5 Touring is a car that makes its driver feel good. It's been built to fulfil a very specific set of needs, and it manages that perfectly. Its $220,842 before on-roads is a lot of money, but if you want a car that's unique, comfortable, practical, and fast enough to scare the family, there's almost nothing better.
It's undoubtedly my favourite car of 2019, and has locked down a long-term spot in my dream garage.