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Tiny company makes some of world’s best cars

2020 Alpina B7.
2020 Alpina B7. - Contributed

BUCHLOE, Germany — If you haven’t heard of Alpina, I’m not sure I want to tell you about it. This tiny German automaker might just make some of the best cars in the world right now.

Driving one is like stumbling into spectacular neighbourhood restaurant, or finding an ingenious local mechanic. Part of what makes it so special is the feeling that you discovered it, that nobody else knows.

Alpina is tiny. For context, Aston Martin sold over 6,000 cars last year. Ferrari? They shipped nearly 10,000. Meanwhile, Alpina sold just under 1,500 cars. Production capacity at their workshop in Germany tops out at less than 2,000 cars per year.

Slamming the throttle into the plush carpet of the 2020 Alpina B7 at 200 km/h, it calmly downshifts a couple of gears and begins to accelerate. Then it keeps going. It shoves you back into the seat with the kind of force you’d expect at half this speed. We’re doing 275 km/h on a stretch of unrestricted German autobahn before, inevitably, a minivan pulls out in front of us. The B7’s top speed is reportedly 330 km/h (205 mph).

You may have noticed the B7 looks like a BMW 7 Series, complete with the new, garish, gaping grille. That’s because the B7 was a 7 Series, until Alpina developed and fitted a new engine, suspension, bodykit and brakes and turned it into something altogether better.

In Canada, it’s pointless to have a car that’s comfortable and quiet at 200 km/h. But, to think Alpina is just about raw speed is wrong.

Most automakers think, sadly, that any sporty car must be extreme. It should cater to racecar-driver wannabes. It should set lap records. It should have rock-hard suspension and a huge wing and oodles of carbon-fibre. You know you’re in a sporty car when your whole body is sore after a drive on our terrible roads. It’s like leaving a Russian bath house: you feel beaten up and exhausted. Isn’t this supposed to be enjoyable? It wasn’t always like this.

2020 Alpina B7.
2020 Alpina B7.

What makes Alpina different is that it makes sporty cars for the real world, the world of potholes, traffic, passengers and the daily grind.

Andreas Bovensiepen, the CEO of Alpina, took over the job from his father, who founded the company in 1965. He is refreshingly blunt about his customers: “If you are a rich guy and you’ve had several BMWs, you start thinking ‘maybe I should go buy a Bentley.’ But Alpina is so exclusive — only 1,500 cars annually — that we can fill this niche of exclusivity that rich customers like to have,” explains Bovensiepen. In other words, his company makes cars for people who think a BMW is too pedestrian. Apparently, that’s a viable business model in our new Gilded Age.

The Alpina factory is in a residential neighbourhood in the small town of Buchloe, in southern Germany. It has an old-world atmosphere. There’s a machine shop with hand-operated tools. There are fresh metal shavings on the floor. The leather shop uses the softest cowhide I’ve ever touched. The hand-stitched steering wheels take one person approximately six hours to make. Even the factory buildings are painted in the company’s traditional blue and green colours.

Alpina’s first product was a Weber carburetor kit for the BMW 1500, which Andreas’ father sold in the parking lot of the 1965 Frankfurt motor show — because he couldn’t afford booth space — by placing flyers on windshields. The kit was so good, BMW backed it with their full factory warranty.

Since then, the two companies have had a symbiotic relationship. BMW supplies Alpina with cars to modify. Alpina supplies BMW dealerships with rarified products to satisfy rich drivers. Alpina is officially an automaker, rather than a tuner.

More models are on the way to North America; an Alpina X7 SUV is likely, as is an Alpina 8 Series Gran Coupe. And this, despite the fact sales are slow in Canada, according to the company’s product manager Jonathan Ganser. “Customers [in Canada] want big, bold and bad,” he says. Responding to Canadian tastes, Alpina produced 21 special editions B7s for our country. They had blacked-out trim and dark matte paint, and all quickly sold out.

Maybe the reason all sporty cars have to be so extreme now, always turned up to 11, is because we want them that way? I wish it weren’t so.

The B7 is almost as plush as a Rolls-Royce. It floats over railway crossings despite the huge 21-inch rims. Bovensiepen gives a lot of credit to the soft-sidewall tires Alpina developed with Michelin. 

There are eight driving modes and three gearbox modes in the 7 Series. It’s too many, but that’s a BMW issue. Crucially, even the B7’s sportiest setting is usable on bumpy roads.

Alpina’s BMW-based twin-turbo V-8 — which produces 600 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque — is tuned for low-end shove. Dawdling around in traffic it feels infinitely powerful, like you’re riding a wave.

After a brief drive, it’s obvious this tiny company has produced a better car than BMW’s flagship sedan. It’s a shame that to get such a stupendous machine you’ve got to pony up $173,100 for a B7.

It raises the question: why doesn’t BMW simply make its cars this good to begin with? Bovensiepen leans in close. He doesn’t have a real answer, but BMW Group is a big company, he says. It sold 2.5 million cars last year. Each model is developed by a legion of engineers. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, I suggest? He nods. Alpina is tiny and better for it.

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