The other BMW performance arm

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The other BMW performance arm
By Mark Hacking

Here’s the mark of a car executive every manufacturer would want to have at the controls: On a track day, you can’t pry the steering wheel out of his hands. Such was the case during a late summer BMW M driving event at Laguna Seca, an event that included a performance-oriented vehicle from Bavaria without a M badge on the trunk lid.

The car was the brand new 2013 Alpina B7 and the man behind the wheel was the man behind the company, Andreas Bovensiepen. The son of the Alpina’s founder Burkard Bovensiepen GmbH and a former Nürburgring 24 Hours overall winner in 1998, the amenable principal is, first and foremost, a car aficionado. And it shows—I spend a small part of the day interviewing him and the rest of the day chasing him down the Corkscrew.

During the interview, I had the chance to find out what makes his company and its products unique to the market. First of all, Alpina is classified as a manufacturer and not just another aftermarket tuner—the reason being, very close ties to BMW see the two companies working in partnership during the production of each Alpina model.

Alpina switched from its initial pursuits, typewriters and textiles, to performance enhancements in the 1960s. The initial endeavor, by founder Burkard, was a dual-carburetor system for the BMW 1500. Staring in 1965, the company focused all its efforts on improving the performance of BMW vehicles, keying in on four specific areas: engine tuning, drivetrain modifications, suspension tuning and interior enhancements.

Throughout its formative years, Alpina established a rock-solid reputation as a builder of high-performance BMW machinery, bolstered by its successes on the racetrack. The company won the European Touring Car Championship outright in 1970, ’73 and ’77. During this time, its factory drivers included Niki Lauda, Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx. Alpina also won the Nurburgring 24 Hours twice in the 1970s before their subsequent title in 1998. This last victory is significant because it was the first time a diesel-powered car won a major 24-hour race.

Andreas is proof the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Prior to leading Alpina, he raced cars, graduated university, worked at a carbon fibre manufacturer and then worked at BMW HQ where he spent five years in research and development followed by two years in marketing.

During his tenure in Munich, he was involved with the Z8 project and this car proved to be the one that would spur him to return to his father’s firm. Bovensiepen’s first major project was the BMW Alpina Roadster Z8, released in 2002. This build took what was already an iconic car, fitted a revised V8 engine with more torque and added a six-speed automatic transmission.

The other BMW performance arm

The other BMW performance arm The other BMW performance arm

Despite all the success over the years and the company’s very close relationship to BMW, Alpina remains a private company when it seems clear it could be a subsidiary by this point—much like AMG with Mercedes-Benz.

“There’s a very simple difference between Alpina and AMG,” Bovensiepen explains. “Our family is still involved with the company and still loves cars. The founders of AMG had no one in the family to carry on the tradition, so it made sense to sell to Mercedes.”

There’s also the small matter of BMW having its own performance arm—the M division. When the company you’ve chosen to partner with makes two of the very best cars on the planet—the M3 and the M5—as well as a slew of other desirable high-performance vehicles, it can be difficult to carve out a viable niche.

There is no such thing as a BMW M7, so the mere existence of an Alpina B7 makes sense. But, in other markets, Alpina models could, in theory, compete directly with BMW models—for example, the company offers a B3, B5 and B6. The question is, then: Why does BMW allow this to happen?

“We take a different approach to performance than the M division,” he explains. “Our cars have different characters and they appeal to different drivers. Someone who really wants a M3 might not be happy with a B3.” He has described M models as those that people might conceivably take to a racetrack whereas Alpina models are those designed for high-speed, long-distance travel.

The BMW M cars feature high-revving, high-horsepower engines, while the Alpina variations often go the low-revving, high-torque route instead. Certainly, the new Alpina B7 continues the theme. The twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 develops 540 horsepower (the same engine in the M5 produces 560) and 538 lb-ft of torque (502 for the M5).

The other BMW performance arm
This combination serves to create a large sedan that is deceptively quick and unquestionably smooth. The sprint from 0-100 km/h takes just 4.3 seconds, which is certainly impressive when compared to the M-bunch. Top speed rings in at a stratospheric 313 km/h.

The Alpina B7 definitely does the business, but there are some company quirks that have been maintained, either for purposes of brand identity or differentiation from the M cars, that might be reconsidered. The B7 employs an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission rather than the seven-speed dual-clutch of the M5. Also, rather than providing paddle shifters to take the next gear, the B7 has shift nubs on the steering wheel.

This latter decision represents company tradition and a point of pride, Bovensiepen notes—Alpina began using shift buttons in 1993, before Porsche started down this misguided path with its own variation. Traditional? Sure. Intuitive? Not a chance.

Back on the positive side of the ledger, as the Alpina B7 is based on the BMW 750Li, it’s also available with xDrive, the BMW all-wheel drive system. Of course, no M model is available with all four wheels churning pavement at the same time, so the B7 represents a good choice for blizzard-like conditions.

For sure, there’s a place for the Alpina B7 on our roads, but other models might have a tougher time of finding a market. Still, there’s definitely something very intriguing about an independent company with a strong corporate partner and its own definition of performance.

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