Is Alpina’s B5 Touring better than a Beemer?

Tweaks by a key collaborator strengthen the appeal of BMW’s capable family wagon.

By Ged Bulmer, November 22 2019
Is Alpina’s B5 Touring better than a Beemer?

You’ve got to love a car brand whose crest features a crankshaft and a pair of Weber carburettors. It’s a case of truth in advertising for Bavarian car maker Alpina, harking back to the very components that helped kick-start its automotive tuning business nearly six decades ago. 

Alpina has been making mischief with machines from Munich’s favourite motoring marque since 1962, when its founder developed a Weber dual carburettor setup for the tiny BMW 1500.

BMW liked the throaty Webers and the extra zing they gave the little sedan so much that they took the unusual step of handing a full factory warranty to cars fitted with Alpina enhancements. The relationship grew from there. 

Some 57 years since the original Alpina-enhanced BMW, the relationship has evolved to something resembling a symbiotic one. It resembles the way HSV and Holden interacted, back when the two made Commodore-based performance cars in Australia.

A symbiotic relationship

Like HSV, Alpina stepped out of the aftermarket hot shop and into the big league, becoming certified as an automobile maker in its own right in the early 1980s.

Many successful collaborations on BMW models have earned Alpina the trust of its patron – so much so that Alpina’s vehicles are bolted together on the same production line as regular BMWs at the company’s Dingolfing plant.

A key difference is that Alpina models are fitted with the company’s own engines, before being shipped back to its Buchloe facility for modifications including brake, suspension, transmission and exhaust upgrades, along with interior re-trimming and subtle exterior styling enhancements.

Alpina’s styling touches are less shouty than HSV’s. That means the fundamentals of the donor BMW 5-Series Touring – which begat the Alpina B5 Biturbo Allroad Touring we’re testing ($217,000 RRP plus on-road costs, $220,842 as tested) – haven’t been messed with. 

Restrained menace

Closer inspection reveals Alpina lettering emblazoned across the front splitter, a lowered stance, the company’s trademark 20-spoke alloys, and quad tailpipes beneath Alpina B5 Biturbo logos at the rear. It’s all quite restrained and cohesive, with just enough hint of menace to tell those in the know that this family truckster is packing some serious heat.

How much heat? Put it this way, if BMW built an M5 Estate (it doesn’t), that car would struggle to shake an Alpina B5 Touring on any given stretch of tarmac.

The hand-assembled 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 beneath the B5’s bonnet musters a whopping 447kW and 800Nm, close to matching BMW’s M5 Competition sedan (460kW/750Nm).

Like the M5, the B5 puts its prodigious power to the tarmac via an eight-speed auto and all-wheel drive. However, in deference to BMW, Alpina ensures neither its B5 Touring, or its sedan equivalent, knock the M5 off. The Alpina pair still lay down blistering 3.7- and 3.5-second 0-100km/h sprints respectively, versus the M5’s blink-and-miss-it 3.3. 

More of a luxury tourer

Alpinas differ in several other key ways from BMW’s in-house ‘M’ performance subsidiary – most notably that they are specced and tuned more as luxury GT cars than track-day specials. This heightened focus on luxury-performance is the subtle difference that permits the two brands’ happy co-existence.

Inside the handsomely trimmed B5 cabin, this is evidenced in the soft, aromatic black Nappa leather on dash, doors and seats – the latter with diamond quilt pattern – plus the retrimmed leather wheel, behind which are shift buttons in lieu of shift paddles. The latter is an Alpina brand USP, dubbed Switch-Tronic, which the brand is credited with being the first to use.

The wheel-mounted switches control an eight-speed ZF automatic with specific Alpina tuning that is hard to fault for its intuitiveness.

It helps that effortlessly available torque is also an Alpina hallmark, and it’s hard to imagine this better demonstrated than in the B5, which wafts along on a rolling wave of barrel-chested grunt, treating crests and hills with utter disdain. 

There’s just a hint of V8 burble entering the cabin until you drop the hammer, when the note rises in intensity and the big estate rockets forward with haste belying its 2120kg mass.

Subtle but effective

There are multiple references to the Alpina brand inside the cabin via badging on the steering wheel, carpet mats and dash, plus a numbered metal build plate on the centre console. It’s all handled very subtly so as not to overshadow the classy feel, or downplay its BMW origins.

Ordinary tuners might be able to build you a faster car, but they can’t always build you a better car. In the case of the Alpina B5 Biturbo Touring, the enhancements add much to the driving pleasure and exclusivity of the 5-Series Touring platform.

I loved this car and its iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach; that, and its crazy-cool crest, which I’m thinking of having tattooed somewhere.

Ged Bulmer

Executive Traveller motoring correspondent Ged Bulmer is one of Australia's most respected motoring experts and a former editor of Wheels, Motor, WhichCar and CarsGuide

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