Hello, my somewhat wealthy friend. You’ve worked hard in your life to earn your riches. You deserve nice things. Things like a 2017 BMW 530i. You’ve earned it. Go on, get it. Oh wait, you’re not somewhat wealthy—you’re stupid wealthy? Well, then. Fuck everyone. Get an Alpina B7. Here’s what $150,000 gets you over $70,000 in BMW sedans.
There is no disputing it. Place a regular driver in a regular BMW 5 Series—an all new car for 2017—and then have that same regular driver hop into a regular 7 Series, and the experience is virtually the same. Big comfy throne for a chair. Same BMW interface. Those neat and nifty and extraordinarily nerdy gesture controls to make the radio louder or quieter.
That’s almost what makes the 5 Series so good. You sit there and you think, “Oh, thank GOD I didn’t buy the 7.” Because if you did, you’d end up just looking like a showy dunce who likes to spend money.
But when you add Alpina into the mix, things get a little more interesting, and a lot more expensive.
(Full Disclosure: BMW wanted us to drive both the BMW 5 Series and the Alpina B7 so bad that we asked for them, and they said, “okay.” We picked them up from their garage here in New York, and both of them came with a full tank of gas.)
They both come from Germany, they both have turbocharged engines, and they’re both built on the same modular platform. They both feature gesture controls, which allow you to wave your hands in the air, much as you would if you didn’t even care, to turn the volume up down. They both also feature a regular volume knob. They both have extraordinarily comfy seats.
They both have at least one BMW badge, somewhere. They both have heads up displays so large, it’s as if all 441 square feet of the Waldseemüller Map is spread across your entire face when the GPS system says it’s time to make the next turn, right up until it disappears again (is that a road hazard, not being able to see the road? Maybe. I’m not one to make moral judgments. You gotta make peace with your own deities.). They both accelerate to literally some miles per hour in literally some sort of measurable time. They’re both about 200 pounds lighter than their predecessors. They both will get you to where you going.
Really, if all you care about is the basics, along with some hyper-tech and some safe, conservative, reserved style and class, there’s no reason not to get a BMW 5 Series. It makes a car like the Alpina B7 kind of pointless.
But that’s where it all ends. Whereas my BMW 530i tester features a remarkably smooth 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 248 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, the Big 7—which is what the “B7" in “Alpina B7" stands for, I like to think—goes positively insane.
Alpina, as you may know, is an independent company that has for decades specialized in developing high-performance and high-luxury versions of BMW cars, including doing their own extensive modifications to BMW’s own engines.
Here, Alpina does more of more of more. Eight cylinders, containing 4.4 liters, arranged in a V. Two turbos. 600 horsepower. A top speed electronically limited to right around 190 mph—and that’s raised in other, more civilized parts of the world, to an absurd 205 miles per hour.
The B7, like the 7 Series it’s based on, features carbon fiber in the chassis, too, just to make sure that what looks to be an elephant can truly dance. It’s vast in size and scope, with its long wheel base allowing nothing but the most sophisticated, discerning passengers to recline in the big rear thrones, massaged by nothing but the finest air bladders. The bladders are synthetic, BMW claims, but I have a sneaking suspicion they come from animals so fine mere mortals like you and I have never heard of them. They shit gold.
Alpina badges are everywhere, even in the electronic instrument cluster. They remind you that this is no “ordinary” BMW. It’s rarer even than a vaunted “M.” In fact, just inside the door there’s a little manufacturer’s note that this is actually no longer a BMW, not by the German government’s definition, anyway. In fact, Alpina claims it’s changed:
- The adaptive steering
- The adaptive suspension
- The dampers
- The wheels, obviously
- The turbos
- The exhaust, so now you can almost, sometimes, if you’re just whispering amongst yourselves, consider it “loud”
- The intake
- The steering wheel leather, which now comes hand-stitched in Alpina’s traditional blue and green
- The intercooler
- The pistons, now made by Mahle
- The transmission, which Alpina lets you switch around not by paddles, but by buttons on the back of the steering wheel (though you can still specify paddles, if you really insist upon it)
- The very heart and soul of the beast itself
And it’s got neat little white stitching on the brown leather, too. I didn’t have that in the 5 Series, no siree.
If you strip away all the Alpina bits, and just leave a regular 7 Series, you get a very good, very competent, very luxurious car. And that’s all pretty neat and fine, were it not for the 5 Series, which really does feel just about every bit as good and lovely as the 7, as long as you’re not eight feet tall with consistent NBA contract demands to sit in the back seats wherever you go. If you can only afford a car that’s $72,135, as ours was, and you want a BMW, I suggest the 5 Series.
But if you can afford a car that’s over $150,000, and you’re desperately curious, deep within your loins, for the carnal knowledge of what it must feel like to get smacked in the back of the head with a sledgehammer, dully muffled by the softest suede-covered pillow, get the Alpina B7.
Despite its 4,500 pounds and lack of electric motors, it’ll still use its all-wheel-drive systems to waft you up to 60 miles an hour in a claimed 3.6 seconds – though it feels even faster than that, if that’s even scarcely believable.
And when it all gets too fast, when it all gets too scary when not even the B7's ionized perfume dispenser can calm you beating heart, your spine pummeled into dust by furiously inflating and deflating bladders, massive platters masquerading as brake rotors behind the gorgeous 20-inch, 20-spoke Alpina wheels haul you back into humanity’s normal dimension.
It’s sort of all astounding how it does it.
BMW’s self-driving system is still pretty crap. It snakes, it slithers, it forces you to constantly put your hands on the wheel. It’s silly and pointless. Don’t use it. It’ll get better, but it’s not good now.
The steering, while vastly improved and much more direct than BMW’s early iterations of drive-by-wire tillers, still doesn’t provide much by way of feedback either, even if you shove it all the way from Comfort Plus (which can be earnestly compared to feeling like you’re driving along a road paved with the backs of particularly plump dogs) all the way into Sport Plus, which is like the Sport mode in many cars, but also, Plus.
This is one of those weird questions. It’s not like “oh, should I get a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic?” This comes down to an even deeper question about what sort of person you are. Even beyond the silly, entirely, completely inconsequential question of how big is your wallet?
Maybe it helps that I can’t really afford either of these cars, despite my vast blogging riches.
But do you want a car that gets you quietly and confidently to your destination, reserved in intent and purpose, to wow only those that get close enough to for you to show off your nifty finger-twirling radio tricks?
Or do you want the sort of car that hears about rising income inequality, the death of the American dream, and any semblance to an end to rent-seeking and says, stoutly and resolutely, that to hell with all of it, I’ve made my way in this world, and I deserve to be rewarded with nothing but the sensation of buttery-soft cow peelings repeatedly shoved forcefully into the back of my head?
I know which one I’d take. But I’ll need the money for it somewhere.