Review: 2011 BMW Alpina B7
By Kevin Miller
Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer in the US. The three-day weekend is a time of year when millions of Americans hit the road for one last summer getaway, clogging our nation’s interstates and highways with traffic. Imagine my dismay, then, to learn that I would be reviewing the 2011 BMW Alpina B7 over Labor Day weekend.
Oh wait; maybe that didn’t come out right. While I may have been challenged to find an open road during my week with the Alpina B7, my week with the car was not fraught with dismay. Far from it- when the car was put on my review schedule, I was nearly euphoric – and then I had to start researching the specifications and provenance of this very special BMW.
BMW first offered the Alpina B7 to US consumers for model years 2007 and 2008, based on the previous-generation 7-series sedan. The super-sedan returns for 2011, available in both short- and long-wheelbase versions of the current 7 Series sedan, and the option this time of adding BMW’s X-Drive AWD system.
Visually, the Alpina B7 is set apart from lesser 7 Series cars by tasteful styling modifications. The B7 wears 20-spoke, 21-inch Alpina Classic wheels (which are notable for the fact that the air valve is hidden under the wheel’s center cap). The sedan is finished with bespoke Alpina aerodynamic elements, including front and rear spoilers which have actually been designed to improve stability and performance at high speeds- the spoilers reduce lift at the front by 30% and rear by15%. Also, the exhaust system features two double tailpipes which are integrated into the rear bumper with a decidedly supercar look.
Among the uninitiated, there is an impression that the Alpina B7 is simply an answer to the missing M7 in BMW’s lineup- and the short answer is “no.” BMW’s M vehicles tend to be cars heavily focused on performance, with that performance prioritized above comfort. The Alpina B7 provides the performance of an M vehicle, but with even more comfort and luxury than is typically available on a 7 Series sedan.
The B7 sedan is equipped with BMW’s twin-turbocharged 4.4 liter, all-aluminum, direct injection V-8 engine which has been tuned by Alpina to produce 500 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque. This power nicely offsets the 4600 lb curb weight, and is capable of a claimed 0-60 mph run in 4.5 sec. Maximum torque is available 3,000 to 4,750 RPM. The front of the B7 integrates the fresh-air requirements of the transmission and engine oil coolers, which are separated out of the main cooler module for improved efficiency.
The Alpina’s 500 horsepower is overkill in most situations. Fortunately, the car is docile around town, every bit as usable as a standard BMW 750i, with the possible exception of ride. The car features a version of BMW’s electronically-adjustable suspension with Active Roll Stabilization. Though the system has Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Sport+ settings, even the Comfort setting can only do so much to smooth out the road because of the giant wheels with incredibly low-profile tires. Still, while chop is noticeable (and some expansion joints, pot holes and manhole covers particularly jarring), the ride is otherwise compliant. In Comfort and Normal settings with a full load, there was some sensation of artificial rebound in the suspension, which I had also noticed in the related F10 BMW 535i, which uses the same adjustable suspension system. This is a common problem in adjustable suspension systems.
Selecting Sport and Sport+ changes the throttle mapping in the Alpina-programed ECU to a more aggressive program. Additionally, there is a sport shifting program that can be enabled by moving the automatic transmission selector into the manual gate without actually manually selecting a gear; that mode holds gears longer when accelerating and downshifts more quickly when slowing. Gears can be changed manually using the Alpina Switchtronic buttons on the steering wheel or nudging the gear selector frontward or backward.
The three-spoke steering wheel isn’t quite as thick as the one in the 535i we recently reviewed, and is covered in black leather with green stitching at the top band blue stitching on the bottom. It features Switchtronic shifting buttons, which are located behind the steering wheel spokes at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. They are made from metal and have a very precise feel. Unfortunately, they are quite small, and I found that if my hands were not precisely at the 9 and 3 positions, the buttons were easy to miss.
Alpina replaces BMW’s standard instruments with blue-faced items with luminescent characters and orange needles; the characters illuminate white in the daytime, and orange at night. The bottom of the instrument cluster uses BMW’s clever Black Panel LCD multifunction display across its entire width. While it normally displays time, odometers, and outside temperature, it reconfigures to display navigation directions (when the standard head-up display isn’t in use), audio information when the steering wheel control is being used, and cruise control information when that system is being set. When wearing polarized sunglasses during the daytime, the head-up display disappears – a problem that BMW has had from time to time with its in-car LCD displays as well. At night, the orange instrument lighting is matched by orange LED interior ambient lighting in the door pockets, doors, and footwells, as well as subtle illumination of the center console.
In the real world full of traffic lights, traffic jams, and vigilant speed patrols, it it isn’t always possible make use of the B7’s capabilities. Fortunately, every time you are in the B7 you can make use of its sumptuously-appointed cabin. The interior of the B7 sedan features Alpina blue illuminated door sill trims, a heated steering wheel, and an Alcantara headliner with charcoal leather trim on the A-, B-, and C-pillars. The dashboard, door panels, center console, and seats are upholsterd in matching, hand-stitched Lavalina leather with nicely-detailed stitching; and the headliner is upholstered in beautifully-stitched charcoal Alcantara. Thick carpet mats and lined door storage pockets are are provided to complete the luxurious interior. The B7 also has self-latching doors and an automatically opening and closing trunk.
Multi Contour front seats have 20-way power adjustments with heating, cooling, and massage; There are even cupholders in the center console that hold American-sized commuter mugs and water bottles. When starting the car and buckling the seatbelt, the belt cinches up a bit, tugging over the shoulders of the driver and front seat passenger, then releasing again to allow normal movement. Between this, and the adjustable bolsters on the seatback that move in to place when the car is started (and release to exit when the driver’s door is opened), the car seems to be physically embracing the driver at startup. After several days of wondering why the seatbelt tugs like that, I experienced a moment of uncontrolled oversteer when the stability control was set to Traction mode. The stability control wrenched the car out of the hands of physics and back into my intended path of travel, and at the same time the seat belt cinched right up to the position it had determined at startup, ensuring I stayed in position behind the wheel.
The rear seats are heated, and each outboard position has its own climate control zone. Though the back seat has three seatbelts, the outboard seating positions are set deeply in to the bench to provide side bolstering, which means that the center seating position is an awkward perch on a hump, straddling the tall drivetrain tunnel on the floor. Although the B7 I tested is based on the short-wheelbase 7-series sedan, legroom was adequate to keep my 21-month old daughter from kicking my seatback (also for me to “sit behind myself” without my knees touching) when it was adjusted for my 6’4” frame to drive comfortably; this is a notable improvement in legroom over the 5 Series sedan. As mentioned above, the B7 is also available in long-wheelbase form for additional legroom. The back seat does not fold to increase luggage capacity, but a pass-through is provided behind the folding back seat armrest for long items.
Even though it is essentially a handbuilt performance car, the Alpina B7 has to work as a normal car too; you have to be able to park it anywhere, drive it most anywhere, run to the grocery store, leave it parked at work or the vacation cabin, etc. As it is based on BMW’s luxurious and refined 750i, it is easy to live with on a daily basis. Despite the car’s big footprint and enormous wheels, the turning radius seems quite small.
On the road, stomping on the accelerator produces from a standstill produces a chirp from the rear tires (mitigated by the car’s stability control system), followed by the type of acceleration uncommon in nearly any passenger car. The acceleration is otherworldly, whether starting from a stop or already underway. Traveling at 30 MPH and floor it? You’re pushed back in the seat and past the legal limit in the blink of an eye. Huge brakes, borrowed from BMW’s armored 12-cylinder 760Li Protection, shed speed nearly as quickly as it had been gained. The thrill of such acceleration is addictive in such a way that I’m still suffering withdrawals.
Even with all that power, the sedan is far from a one-trick pony. Alpina worked near magic in the B7’s suspension tuning. While the laws of physics can’t be totally revoked, the engineering that went into the car’s suspension pays off, and the car feels much lighter on its feet than any 4600-pound sedan could be expected to. In oversteer situations, the big BMW responds predictably to throttle and steering inputs, like something much smaller. Too the B7 and its huge tires are happy to hug curves like a car half its size.
Alpina has also done a good job in tuning the B7’s stability/traction control. In normal mode, it steps in very quickly; you won’t get to “play” with the system on, but it will save your bacon in a hurry, as it did for me when I was accelerating up a curved freeway on-ramp in heavy rain; unintentional oversteer saw the back end of the car trying to pass the front, and before I’d even gotten any corrective steering input the DTC had reined in the oversteer and had me heading in the right direction. While the system doesn’t turn OFF, it has a “Traction Mode”, which allows controlled rear wheelspin and oversteer; this mode can be manually chosen, but it is selected automatically if you choose Sport+ setting for the adjustable suspension. The system will step in if it senses your fun has gotten out of control; to me this meant no “smoky burnouts” in the B7, but plenty of fun hooning the car around corners and cloverleafs at indecent speed.
The Alpina B7 I tested was equipped with a rear view camera in addition to front and rear parking sonar, but not with BMW’s surround view camera system nor with the self-parking system I sampled on the BMW 535i. The camera lens was obscured by water after driving on wet streets but otherwise worked well, and combined with the parking sonar and display on the iDrive screen made it easy to parallel park the B7.
Complaints about this über-sedan are few: the car wasn’t equipped with an iPod interface (one is available at extra cost, and USB and Aux-in were present), and the audio system has only eight presets to be shared across AM, FM, and Satellite radio (though I tended to spend my time in the B7 listening to the beautiful sound of the V8 rather than audio programming). Too, the bezel around the lighting controls to the left of the steering wheel sometimes reflects in the driver’s window, and parts of the dash reflect in the windshield in certain lighting conditions. Finally, a low-pitched mechanical whine in sync with engine RPM was sometimes audible over the sound of the engine.
During my week in the B7, I covered 574 miles, at an average speed of only 34.6 MPH. I refueled the car after 326 miles, with an estimated 27 miles to empty; there was less than 1/4 tank left 250 miles later when my week was over. Fuel economy for the week was 15.9 MPG according to the trip computer; clearly the B7 is a performance car rather than a luxury car. The sound of the V8 is so intoxicating, and the rush of acceleration so addictive, that it was difficult to keep my foot off of the throttle. Couple that with the fact that the B7’s large tires and wheels provide massive amounts of grip on dry pavement; I doubt you’d be able to get any better fuel economy.
The power, luxury and craftsmanship in the Alpina B7 come at a steep price. MSRP for the Alpina Blue Metallic, short-wheelbase, rear-wheel drive version I tested is $122,000, with a mandatory gas guzzler tax of $1000. Already very well-equipped, the B7 I tested had very little optional equipment: the $1350 Driver Assistance Package (Automatic High Beams, Lane Departure Warning, Active Blind Spot Detection); $400 rearview camera; $650 Ceramic Controls; $150 Smartphone Integration; and $850 Destination Fee, for a total of $126,425.
That price tag puts the Alpina B7 in the upper stratosphere of luxury sedans from mainstream automakers. I ended up taking the car to Washington State’s San Juan Islands over the Labor day weekend. While the green Ford Fiesta I piloted up there in August drew a lot of attention from people who wanted to look at the car and find out more about it, the Alpina instead garnered only whispered comments and pointing fingers, but nobody stopped to talk about it. Evidently the B7’s upscale badge either turned people off, or frightened them away. In either case such exclusivity is a part of the purchase price.