We’ll apologize up front for this being another of our occasional takes on a compelling car that the vagaries of the international auto industry deny us. That’s because although Alpina does exist in the United States—selling its B7 version of the BMW 7-series and set to launch its new XB7 SUV here soon—there are unfortunately no plans to bring any of the BMW tuner’s smaller and more affordable models to the States, such as this impressive 3-series-based B3.
The new B3 isn’t meant to be a rival to the forthcoming M3. Alpina’s close relationship with BMW is based on the clear understanding that the company’s variants are built around a different mission from those that wear M badges. Alpinas are softer and more comfort orientated, designed more for effortless high-speed blasts on Germany’s autobahn than for shaving seconds from lap times. That focus makes for seriously multitalented vehicles, which the new Alpina B3 demonstrates wonderfully.
Alpina’s status as BMW’s officially sanctioned tuner means it basically gets to play Lego with the manufacturer’s componentry. The B3 uses the all-wheel-drive system, mechanical limited-slip rear differential, and eight-speed automatic transmission from the M340i xDrive model but adds a beefier torque converter to better cope with the output of the S58 twin-turbo 3.0-liter straight-six that the B3 shares with the X3 M and X4 M SUVs. For Alpina duty, the six gains smaller, low-inertia turbocharger compressors, redesigned intake and exhaust systems, and a retuned computer. Its 456 horsepower slots it slightly below the 473 or 503 horses of the M models, but the B3 produces a stout 516 pound-feet of torque versus the M tune’s 442 pound-feet. The B3 should be able to clear 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds, and top speed is an unrestricted 186 mph for the wagon and 188 mph for the sedan.
The B3’s engine pulls without lag—or indeed much in the way of apparent effort—generating significant speed with the accelerator pedal only halfway through its long travel. Pushed harder, the g forces increase and the sounds it makes get angrier, but the engine’s linearity and broad midrange muscle is in marked contrast to the top-end fireworks of most M cars. The last-generation B3 was less powerful yet struggled for grip in its standard rear-drive form, but the new car just sticks, even when accelerating hard from a stop. While understeer can be found in tighter bends, the front end’s push is minimal and is usually successfully countered by the all-wheel-drive system.
Even more impressive is the B3’s chassis. It employs new Eibach springs but keeps the adaptive dampers from the M340i, which have been reprogrammed to give a broader spread between Comfort and Sport modes. Even with the dampers in their firmest setting, there was no harshness to the car’s ride over the (admittedly few) rough patches we could find on our test route through the German countryside. There was also no sense of float or excessive body roll in Comfort mode. That includes during hard acceleration, which, despite the softer springs, seemed to produce less squat than is typical in punchy BMWs. The steering feels better weighted as well, with a more natural loading of cornering forces than in the M340i.
We drove both sedan and Touring wagon versions of the B3 on the road and can say there’s minimal dynamic difference between them. The wagon’s open cargo area allows slightly more noise inside, although its cabin is still impressively quiet at cruising speeds. Its responses to control inputs aren’t quite as keen as the sedan’s—Alpina says it weighs 176 pounds more—but with no Touring version planned for the new M3, the long-roof B3 will be the quickest factory-approved version of the current 3-series wagon.
Beyond some discreet Alpina branding, including the company’s badge on the steering wheel in place of the BMW roundel, the B3’s interior is predictably similar to that of a well-specified 3-series. The standard steering wheel features Alpina’s traditional small buttons on the back of the spokes for manual gear selection, but you can opt for more functional machined aluminum paddles instead. Externally, the B3 is similarly understated, especially for buyers who resist Alpina’s optional pinstriping. Beyond the Alpina-branded front splitter—which harks back to when the company competed in the European Touring Car Championship—the B3 shouts remarkably little for being as quick as it is.
On the demanding Bilster Berg racetrack, an exclusive members’ club built on the site of a former British army munitions depot, the B3 felt impressively quick for a luxury performance car. Its suspension retains tight control of the car’s body motions and reveals a playful side that comes in part from the all-wheel-drive system’s rearward torque bias. Chuck it through a tight corner, and the combination of the more aggressive Sport Plus drive mode and the stability control’s Sport setting allows a liberal amount of slip from the back end. The next M3 will undoubtedly be even quicker and more extreme on the track, but the softer-edged B3 is no slouch.
In terms of global reach, Alpina remains a boutique shop. With production limited to about 2000 cars a year in total, CEO Andreas Bovensiepen admits it’s not possible to financially justify the considerable costs of certifying its less-expensive models for sale in the U.S. Less expensive in this case means a starting price the equivalent of $91,000. Still, it’s a shame. What the new B3 gives up in outright performance it more than makes up for in refinement and exclusivity. Sadly, we’ll have to continue to appreciate it from afar.
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