July 27 2010   Story: Bryan Joslin

When is a tuner car not really a tuner car? Perhaps when the chassis is fine-tuned by a champion of endurance racing. Or when the engine is built from the block up by the hands of an master technician. Maybe when the interior is stitched and fitted by an experienced artisan. While those points all have merit, we argue that when a fully transformed car rolls of the same assembly line as the very model on which it’s based, it has earned the right to shed the tuner label. In other words, when it’s a BMW Alpina.

To understand what sets Alpina apart from the bevy of companies that meddle with perfectly good machinery in the name of greater performance and exclusivity is to understand the motivations of the company’s owners. The Bovensiepen family, part and parcel of post-war industrial Germany, is an obsessive bunch. Patriarch Brukhard Bovenseipen, unhappy with the output of the BMW 1500 sedan that he raced on weekends, took over a corner of the family’s typewriter factory in the 1960s to work on better-flowing carburetors and cylinder heads. His mechanical work was as meticulous as his driving, and soon his Alpina-tuned BMWs were winning major European endurance races, including the 24 Hours of Spa and the European Touring Car Championship.

Knowing full well the value of nurturing long-term relationships (a family tradition that continues to this day), Herr Bovensiepen began working exclusively with BMW, Michelin and other key suppliers to build his growing performance car business. By 1964 BMW was honoring the full factory warranty on Alpina’s cars, a sign of great trust and cooperation between the two companies. Then in 1983 the German government recognized Alpina as a full vehicle manufacturer, something few tuner businesses ever achieve.

Europeans have known for decades the unique pleasure of owning factory-built Alpina models, but Americans have only recently had the opportunity to experience them. Our first taste was the Z8-based Alpina Roadster V8 of 2003. Next came the B7, based on the final iteration of the E65 BMW 7-series in 2007 and 2008. And now comes the latest version of the B7 based on the new F01/02 7-series sedan.

The new B7 starts out as any other 7-series, emerging as a body-in-white on the assembly line at BMW’s Dingolfing plant an hour or so outside of Munich. Once it takes this form, however, it gets a special build order that calls for an Aplina-built engine to be installed, along with the appropriate hand-trimmed interior appointments. These components are assembled by hand by one of the company’s craftsmen in the Bavarian town of Buchloe, then shipped to the BMW assembly plant, along with the company’s signature 22-spoke forged alloy wheels, for installation. In Dingolfing they’ll be joined by a host of BMW’s most robust 7-series components, including bits from the Security model. The final product must be inspected and signed off by an Alpina employee after receiving its distinguished badges.

At the heart of the B7 is BMW’s 4.4-liter V8 with a pair of turbochargers nestled in the valley between the heads. On this basic architecture, Alpina improves the internal components for the demands of reliable high-performance driving. Redesigned cylinder heads feature additional reinforcement, and stronger Mahle pistons are used. A pair of larger 44-mm turbochargers are installed, and the combination allows for peak boost of 2.0 bar. A low-pressure Alpina exhaust system manages gasses on the backside of the engine. Horsepower is rated at 500 (an increase of 100 horses compared to the standard 4.4 twin-turbo in the 750i) and torque swells to 516 lb-ft, 66 more than the BMW engine.

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Additional power means additional heat, so the B7 gets its own special cooling system with an additional radiator, higher-capacity cooling fan, larger-diameter coolant hoses, an extra oil cooler and an external tranny cooler. All of this is fed fresh air through dedicated ducts in the car’s front bumper. Every opening on the front of the car serves a very real purpose in keeping the internal fluids at the right temperature when the going gets hot.

This overboosted motor is mated to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission — the strongest in BMW’s arsenal — which plays along better with the big torque than an automated manual or even the new eight-speed automatic would. Electronic tuning for both the engine and trans comes in the form of code written from scratch by Alpina; the company doesn’t even bother modifying the BMW factory code, as so many of the parameters are specific to the duty of the B7. The same goes for stability and traction control systems, which get revised programming by Alpina for much higher thresholds and slip angles than BMW allows its regular 7-series drivers.

Keeping all this power moving in the right direction is a suspension that’s been tuned by the calibrated arsch of Alpina’s managing director, the talented Andy Bovensiepen, who has won numerous European endurance races including the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring. Stiffer, lower springs are fitted at all four corners, bringing the car 10 mm closer to the ground. Alpina then tweaks the settings on BMW’s electronic damper system to match the new spring rates. The aforementioned 21-inch wheels are wrapped in sticky Michelin Pilot Sport2 performance tires measuring 245/35 in front and 285/30 in back. Brakes are upgraded to match, with larger calipers and taller pads biting on 14.7-inch front and 14.6-inch rear rotors.

The combination of all these changes makes the B7 an entirely different car to drive than any “standard” 7-series. Power delivery is smooth and silent if you choose to only tickle the throttle; smash it and you’ll be rewarded with a force that can only be described as “thrust” backed up by the satisfying sound of the exhaust system moaning a deep bass note. It doesn’t seem possible for a car as large and refined as the B7 to be capable of a 4.5-second 0-to-60-mph blast. If you ever tire of warp drive, the B7 is just as comfortable cruising along in swift silence.

The chassis of the B7 is absolutely sublime, with its ability to choose exactly the type of ride you wish at the push of a button. Even riding on the 21-inch wheels and rubber band sport tires, the mighty beast is capable of channeling its gentle side, delivering a firm but supple ride in Comfort mode. The ride hardly degrades when Sport mode is chosen; instead of feeling harsh, that same suppleness is matched with a more connected feeling between all the chassis components. Steering effort is light and direct, and the brakes, as you might imagine, are up to the business as well. Few cars of this caliber are able of deliver such a balanced performance.

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Driving the B7 at the ragged edge is only half the attraction, however; for many the appeal lies in its appearance. The wheels are not only light and functional, they’ve become a signature design element of Alpina sedans. The bodywork, too, bears a fairly iconic look. Alpina’s appendages aren’t merely cosmetic add-ons, but wind-tunnel tested airflow enhancements that aid engine cooling and reduce lift for improved high-speed stability. In the case of the B7, front end lift has been reduced by 30 percent, while at the back a 57 percent reduction has been achieved compared to the 7-series. Finished in the exclusive Alpina Blue (though almost any BMW color can be specified), the car looks fast even standing still.

Inside, the B7 abandons all race car pretensions in favor of a finely tailored look. Everywhere you look, hand-stitched leather abounds. Alpina trims BMW’s plastic parts in its own superior hides at its very own “saddlery” shop in Buchloe. Here, old-world upholsters go through spool after spool of heavy-gauge blue and green thread to deliver the hallmark Alpina look. Blue gauges replace the standard black faces of the speedo and tach, and the company crest adorns the steering wheel’s center and the shift lever. Alpina even creates its own wood trim, embedding a checkered-flag motif in either the piano black or myrtlewood trim. The overall effect of the cabin’s makeover is, if somewhat clichéd, like that of a wearing a custom made suit. Every detail works perfectly with the others.

Since BMW and Alpina started working together in the early phases on the new 7s, the new B7’s development costs can be spread over several model years, bringing down the cost of admission. Its base price of $122,875 includes just about every option in the 7-series catalog, slotting it below the turbo twelve-cylinder 760Li in terms of price. Buyers can choose between a standard or a long wheelbase, and rear-wheel- or all-wheel-drive, then select their color and trim options. From there the options list pretty much comes down to whether or not you want rear-seat entertainment.

In a world where exclusivity is getting harder to buy, the BMW Alpina B7 is a standout. When supercharged AMGs, turbocharged Porsche SUVs and Bentley Continentals are practically everyday transportation in some circles, the B7 shines as a beacon of hope for things done right. It’s not so much a fast car wrapped in sexy skin as it is a creation for connoisseurs of both fine craftsmanship and well-executed engineering. And it’s definitely not a tuner car.