Just another special-edition BMW coupe or something more significant altogether?
2010 BMW B3 Alpina
Is the car you see in the big picture on the right a stroke of genius or gauche and pointless? There is, it seems, little agreement when it comes to those tiny volume tuners who make a living out of turning an "ordinary" BMW into something extraordinary. The B3 Alpina Bi-Turbo pictured, is, on first glance, a 3-Series Coupe, with a performance pack, a nice paint job and a shopping trolley full of goodies inside, including a rather liberal (some might say, excessive) use of Alpina badges - just to make sure you know you're not driving a regular BMW. In fact, the sceptics will sniffily say why bother with the B3 when a proper BMW M3 will do the job much better for about the same money?
Those who beg to differ will argue that Alpina has an impressive racing pedigree - having worked with BMW for more than 30 years - and will also tell you that the company is a car maker in its own right, testing and developing BMW models in parallel with their Bavarian colleagues. They'll also point to the hard statistics that show Alpina churns out around 2,000 cars annually from their German base. Not so much aftermarket, they say, as at the coal face, shaping and moulding new product development.
Nevertheless, the doubters, who call this the motoring equivalent of a Flash Harry, all mouth and money, seem pretty hard to ignore. Decked out in an admittedly quite classy green metallic paint job, the B3 on test sports a trademark gold go-faster stripe down the side (Alpina would prefer this to be referred to as a pinstripe), a speed hump-skimming front spoiler adorned with the word ALPINA in big, gold capital letters and four thick, notice-me polished tailpipes. Even before I've started the car, it is fairly safe to assume this one will not go quietly into the night.
But hang on a minute, step inside the B3 and you enter a world of refined elegance far removed from that mildly uncouth exterior. Cream leather of the finest quality stretches out across the cabin, while the multi-function steering wheel is tastefully finished with green and blue stitching - a splash of well-used colour in a relatively conservative cockpit. The cabin is also fully loaded with those aforementioned executive treats: memory settings for the driver's seat, satnav, bluetooth connectivity for your mobile, electric sunroof, a fully functioning television, front and rear parking sensors, electric rear courtesy blind, multi-zone climate control and front seat belts that present themselves to the driver and any companion - an absurd but absolutely perfect feature you'd find it hard to live without once you've lived with it.
Aside from a full complement of extras, the B3 is finished with lovely looking black polished wood insets on the dash, BMW's rock-solid build quality and a few too many Alpina badges. I counted 13 in all inside the car, plus the ceiling-mounted, silver-plated production plaque telling me I was driving B3 vehicle number 216 to roll out of the car maker's exclusive gates. Even the most forgetful driver is unlikely to suffer a senior moment in this cabin.
But it is on the road where any residual reservations about the Alpina brand will be swept away. At the end of a long hard day at the office when all you want to do is settle back in your sports seat and let something else take the strain, you'll find the B3 is perfectly happy to be a mild-mannered grand tourer. If, on the other hand, you're in the mood to play, the 3.0L inline six-cylinder is so quick to deliver the power and so engaging, you'll wonder why the whole world isn't driving one of these beauties.
The six-speed automatic gearbox is the perfect foil for that six-cylinder engine. Left to its own devices in standard automatic mode, the box moves through the gears in a sporty, sprightly fashion. Switch to manual and you can use the nicely placed plus and minus buttons (not paddles) to push the rev counter to the limit. Or, there is a third altogether more glorious way to get the best out of this absolute bounder.
Flick the gear lever into sport mode and you get gear changes that hold for much, much longer, a glorious engine note and the promise of reaching 100kph in only 4.8 seconds. Driven hard in sport mode, the power literally throws you back in your seat and the progression through the box is so spot on I'd question whether you'll ever use the manual option outside of a track day. Alpina calls all of this real world practicality: impressive performance when you need it - like a reported top speed of 285kph - and good, reliable behaviour when you don't. The fuel economy is also a revelation. Even when this car is given a good thrashing, it still drinks just 12.5L per 100km. Driven conservatively, that figure drops into single figures. Impressive.
Practicality also extends to the suspension. While an M3 might have you reaching for your dentist's telephone number every time you drive over a pothole, such is the teeth-rattling firmness of its ride, the B3's set-up is more forgiving and all the better for it. Abu Dhabi Motors say plenty of customers come into the dealership certain they want an M3 and end up buying a B3 instead. It's not hard to see why, when the Alpina is such a perfect mix of riotous fun and good manners. Overbadged it may be, the Alpina is though, above all else, an immaculate piece of engineering.