Buchloe’s five-star performance estate is updated in line with the BMW 3 Series on which it’s based
Alpina has had the ultra-rapid 3 Series estate market sewn up for quite some time. Ever since the days of the E36 generation, in fact, when the six-cylinder Alpina B3 Touring first emerged and was later joined by the rare B8 4.6 Touring replete with, yes, a 4.6-litre V8 (calm yourself).
But the monopoly is almost over. We’re now months away from the arrival of the first BMW M3 Touring, and you can bet the M wagon be a compelling and wildly quick machine. However, anyone in need of a medium-sized BMW estate with genuine Porsche 911-shaming performance would be foolish to dismiss the current B3 Touring, which has recently been facelifted.
With BMW updating the entire G20-generation range, Alpina has adopted some of the broader design tweaks and has also taken the opportunity to give the B3 yet more power and torque, plus marginal improvements in cooling and aero, all of which you would expect to make an already five-star car even more… five-starry.
We drove the updated saloon earlier this year and liked it very much, but really the B3 is all about the big-booted Touring derivative, especially in the UK. Of the mere 88 pre-facelift cars sold over here, just nine were saloons and the remaining 79 were estates. Note also just how rare Alpina’s wares remain. This is partly to do with the high asking price and partly down to lack of awareness among the general public, but the result is a degree of exclusivity that no M3 could ever dream of. Currently, the DVLA has roughly the same number of G20 B3s on its books as it does McLaren Sennas.
As for the car itself, fundamentally not much has changed. The most noticeable updates are the slightly more thuggish front bumper and, inside, the vast curving displays of the BMW’s iDrive 8 infotainment, which are a bit distracting compared with the neat screens of the pre-facelift B3, but on the various diagnostic readouts, they do now show an actual B3 Touring (and in the correct colour) where before there was a paltry 320i SE or somesuch. At last.
And the mechanicals? Also almost entirely unchanged. Four-wheel drive is standard and remains tuned to deliver a fractionally more even distribution of torque between the axles compared with the M340i on which the B3 is based. This is because with so much performance on offer, it’s just more sensible that way, especially given the car’s potential for nearly 190mph.
Upstream of the ZF-built eight-speed automatic gearbox sits a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six with plenty of bespoke cooling apparatus to cope with sustained high-speed driving. There’s also extra cooling for the gearbox and differential, although little if any of this is new compared with what you get on the pre-facelift car. The springs’ settings have been ever so slightly retuned and the car weighs a touch more than before, although we’re talking bags of sugar here, not anvils.
Of the main optional extras you’re likely to consider, our test car has most of them. Most obvious are the 20in forged multi-spoke wheels. With UK-appropriate pressures (there’s no need for the super-inflated, autobahn-ready approach on the M1), the Alpina-specific Pirellis provide a degree of absoprtion that belies the lack of sidewall, but equally it would be interesting to try the car on its standard 19in wheels. They’re not quite so classic in style but they’re still attractive and might unlock just a touch more rolling refinement on tricky road surfaces.
This car also has the high-performance brake kit, which is, I think, borrowed from that of hotter 7 Series models and is recognisable by its drilled discs. Note also the CNC-milled gearshift paddles, which feel far more satisfying to pull than the plasticky paddles on the M3 and are £290 very well spent.
It’s no surprise that on British roads, the B3 Touring remains almost absurdly versatile. Ride quality and direction changes unfold with a relaxed precision that feels ideal for real-world driving. You also get a surefooted (but far from characterless) turn of pace that can take some mental building up to before you fully tap into it. Pre-facelift, the car was hardly lacking oomph but 456bhp has become 488bhp and 516lb ft has become 538lb ft, and it’s that torque figure that is remarkable for an in-line six of just 3.0 litres – even a twin-turbocharged one built by M, then fettled by Alpina. That all this torque comes online from just 2500rpm has the effect of making sixth gear feel like third, or fifth – and it feels ridiculous to even write this – feel like second. It fires the car’s 1880kg bulk forward without any hesistation whatsoever.
The result is extreme cross-country, any-weather pace, and it’s supported by excellent but not overly dominant levels of traction and stability. Whatever mood you’re in, this Alpina seems to rise effortlessly to the occasion. Stability here, just a hint of rotation under power there, and almost rock-solid confidence in the machine beneath you. The B3 also remains unusually talented in its ability to curb roll and pitch – the easy-sounding but tricky task of simply remaining level – while deploying massive performance and maintaining good compliance. It’s more or less vice-free in this sense, with no notable weaknesses or trade-offs.
This is all just as well given the £79,000 asking price, which rises to triple figures for our sumptuously upholstered test car, whose entirely leather-clad dashboard felt as though it had been lifted from the 7 Series. Of course, when it arrives, the M3 Touring won’t cost any less than that, although the magic letter means prospective buyers will find the idea of such huge outlay on a mere 3 Series a little more justifiable. Consider also that the few who do opt for the Alpina will find that they have a less engaging car to work with during those sporadic moments when they take it by the scruff. The B3 has a softer brake pedal, more filtered steering, less inclination to rotate on the throttle and less precise turn-in than an M3.
But the trade-off is a fair one, because in broad terms the B3 Touring is easily one of the most capable cars ever made. Day in, day out, whatever the weather, there’s almost no question to which it doesn’t provide an enthusiastic, convincing answer.