300-Mile Test 2024 Alpina B3 Touring Allrad G21
It’s built for the Alps, so Alpina’s take on the 3-series estate isn’t one bit bothered by a little frost in Wales.
Words Ben Barry
Photography Charlie Magee
You want ice with that?
Alpina B3 brings out the best in the 3-series Touring
300-Mile Test: Alpina B3: does Alpina really make better M cars than the M division these days?
RAF, SLOW’ warn Welsh road markings come rain, shine or sheep but right now the bilingual advice seems particularly worth heeding – the reading on the Alpina B3’s digital dash has plunged to -5.5ºC, gritting lorries whizz past scattering rock salt like it’s pigeon feed and the B3’s adaptive LED headlights glisten over a surface smeared with grease, grit and slush. I’m definitely arafing down for this hairpin. Not that the tricky conditions seem to be troubling the new 2024 Alpina B3 Touring G21 overmuch, as we head deeper into Wales and Buchloe’s winter wagon works its way ever-deeper into my affections.
You’ll know Alpina, right? Established as a BMW tuner when Burkard Bovensiepen produced a twin-carb conversion for the BMW 1500 back in 1962, accredited as an independent manufacturer by the Kraftahrt-Bundesamt (federal motor transport authority) since 1983 and – most relevantly to the B3 we’re testing – weaver of magic on the 3-series dating back to the E21 323i-derived C1 of 1980.
With the B3’s speed and refinement, and the clarity of the upgraded audio, the journey simply melts away
Based out of Buchloe since 1970, today Alpina’s 300 or so staff (a third of them engineers) put a uniquely sophisticated twist on BMWs, selling around 2000 cars annually – roughly 750 each for the US and Germany, 250 for Japan, Brits taking 110 cars in 2022. The USP is comparable performance to an M car with less shoutiness and more comfort and exclusivity.
This is rear-drive exuberance blended with all-wheel-drive progress and it’s just mighty
Our B3 Touring G21 test car is one of three bigger sellers (along with the G30 5-series-based B5 and G07 X7-based XB7 SUV). It is in effect Alpina’s M3 alternative. You’ll pay from £79,000 for a G20 B3 – £6165 more affordable than an M3 Touring, if a chunky £19k premium over the BMW M340i xDrive G21 it’s actually derived from.
So it’s expensive, but this is an extensively re-engineered M340i – most notably there’s the latest M3’s 3.0-litre S58 engine under the bonnet, which has been tweaked with Alpina-specific mono-scroll turbochargers for additional torque (and a gap-toothed whistle when you really pin it), plus there’s a new exhaust and fresh software calibration. A beefed-up and suitably recalibrated eight-speed auto transmission braces against the extra torque.
Complementary to the extra performance is a special Alpina chassis tune and bespoke steering calibration (appropriately including a Comfort Plus setting), a choice of either 19- or 20-inch alloys with specially developed Pirelli tyres and attention to detail that extends to Alpina lettering stamped on the engine airbox and our car’s uprated brake bells.
First launched in 2020 and offered in both saloon and Touring guises, the B3’s just been updated in line with BMW’s own 3-series facelift, introducing the new Curved Display infotainment system plus a gently tweaked exterior design and performance bumped 33bhp and 22lb ft.
All in that equates to 488bhp and 538lb ft – 15bhp less than the M3 but 59lb ft more torque, a crucial differentiator in a driving experience that’s all about the midrange, if bookended by a pretty outrageous 3.7-second 0-62mph sprint and 188mph top end.
Glistening with frost when I first plip the keyfob late on a Sunday afternoon in December, and resplendent in Alpina’s own green paint with the ‘Deco-Set’ graphics, 20-spoke alloys and deep chin spoiler that have defined the Alpina look for decades, the B3 exudes a stealthy sort of purpose, and certainly appears more than the sum of its parts. No shortage of desire here.
It feels special inside too, even if the B3 is very much G20/G21 3-series-derived. The infotainment wakes up with Alpina-specific graphics – an actual graphic of your car, wheels, colour and all. The steering wheel is wrapped in Lavalina leather and hand-stitched in Alpina’s green and blue, and there are (optional) CNC-milled paddleshifters stamped with the trademark font. There’s a little plaque on the centre console and many, many logos – it stops just short of the full sports-day trophy.
Lavish options tick up our car’s price by £20k to an as-tested £99,165, including 20-inch alloys (£3420), an uprated brake system (£1770), panoramic sunroof (£1550) and £2k of driver-assistance kit. Standard sports seats in Merino leather add a further £3800. They’re relatively firm, with a chunky kind of plushness.
A glimpse at Twitter confirms people are videoing other people having accidents in the snow further south, but for now it’s problem-free around here – quiet roads, those LED lights turning night into day, sat-nav arrival time a-tumbling after 30 minutes’ quick pedalling.
BMW’s upcoming (and first ever) M3 Touring does pose awkward questions for the B3, especially as M has generally moved in a more Alpina-like direction over the last decade – automatic transmissions, torque-rich turbocharged engines, all-wheel-drive refinement – but skirting cross-country the B3 drives to a very different beat. Isolated, planted, smooth and effortlessly quick, it’s an imperious, weighty hunk of a thing at 1955kg, with a plush ride, accurate if damped-down steering and excellent stability, not at all like an M car that wants to fizz with excitement and communication (and scare other road-users with its buck-toothed grille).
Naturally there’s nothing so uncouth as pops or bangs on the overrun when you work the straight-six harder. Rather this is petrol power behaving like a six-cylinder diesel – that’s partly the smooth if rather monotone churn of its bassy soundtrack, but also the easy surge of torque that comes as a calm if muscular plateau of performance, not a rousing crescendo that suggests you send a search party looking for the redline.
Smooth and quick gearchanges underline this linearity, as does an xDrive all-wheel-drive system that’s very much rear-biased but keen to hook up cleanly in typical driving, whether you’re accelerating from junctions or flattening the throttle on a surface that might as well be smeared with Vaseline.
Velvety sophistication defines this experience, then, perhaps at the risk of making the B3 seem a little remote, but there’s no question that fuss-free progress brings a different kind of satisfaction.
Pausing at the excellent Moto services near Rugby – ultra- rapid chargers! High-rise soft-play zone! Access from both directions! – I check on the traffic and weather forecasts on my phone. Both are clearly getting worse, but the B3 feels like a car that should be able to cope with just about anything. The generous 500 litres of luggage space could carry all manner of ropes, ladders, flares etc, but in reality we seem destined for nothing worse than a light dusting of snow and some wild over-reaction by other road users. The B3’s soon back eating up the miles.
Elevated sections of the M6 near Birmingham highlight that the B3’s skinny 30-section sidewalls do clatter over expansion joints even in the Comfort suspension setting (they also nibble a bit in town), but God they’re gorgeous. With the B3’s speed and refinement, and the clarity of the upgraded Harman Kardon audio, the journey simply melts away.
Off the M6, west on the M54, traffic thins and the B3 settles into a commanding long-distance rhythm. It’s incredibly composed under braking for big roundabouts as we transition to the A5, adjustable if controlled and secure powering through them in the damp, then it’s simply gone, lunging forwards with a relentless calm – third, fourth, fifth, the B3 spews performance like a fireman’s hose sprays water, but considering our speed there’s precious little noise from the tyres or wind. The front windows in this test car are double-glazed, which must help, and the sumo-spec stability adds to the sense of calmness; there’s no superfluous bluster about this car.
In next to no time we’re tucking the B3 away in a Welshpool hotel car park, then tucking into the chef’s last efforts of the day before he knocks off.
The Great Moving Of The Bins beats our alarms to it at 5.45am on Monday, so we’re up and out early, clearing ice from the B3’s windscreen as fresh flakes of snow flutter down. Even if the car washes weren’t all closed because of the temperature, it’s one of those days when a car gets dirty and stays that way all day. But being streaked with dirt seems to be the B3 Touring’s natural state.
Narrower roads, less room for error now, so I swap Comfort Plus and its limp steering for Sport mode, bringing welcome extra definition to the helm, notably more suspension control and extra chatter from the road surface. The B3 feels more precise now, though excessively grabby brakes do initially detract from the fluidity until I dial back my inputs.
Up into the hills, temperatures tumble and the sun’s glare diffuses in pale-blue sky like aspirin dropped in a glass of water, the golden fizz merging into a snow-and-frost- dusted landscape below. This is a great chance to find out what xDrive makes of this lower level of grip.
This isn’t the M xDrive system as fitted to the M3, which can be switched to pure rear-wheel-drive mode – that’d be a tricky upgrade on a M340i-based machine, and I suspect Alpina buyers wouldn’t care for such showboating even if they could.
Flawlessly grippy at a moderate lick with all systems engaged, you’ll find the typical and slightly perverse inconsistency of all-wheel drive when digging deeper into its abilities with the electronics off, at least through tighter turns. It might oversteer abruptly then also grab and pull from the front, so you feel one step behind it, second- guessing, reacting, correcting.
Better to be patient and wait for the mid- to faster-paced corners where xDrive truly starts to flow. Ease onto the power confidently and it’ll tuck the B3’s nose into the apex, diverting most performance to the rear while locking up its limited-slip diff and sending just enough drive to the front so you can keep pouring on the speed. This is rear-drive exuberance blended with all-wheel-drive progress and it’s just mighty.
At a nearby cafe we grab a late lunch then head out further west, sun visors down, shades on as the sun plummets ahead of us. Houses, junctions, trees and walls disappear now as the road opens to vast moorland, with all the space and visibility that affords.
The air of detachment that had perhaps prevented me really falling for the B3 initially works in its favour here, particularly as the chassis feels so indomitable – the damping in particular is exceptional, and dovetails with a healthy ride height to allow the B3 to power into dips, soak up the compression and remain entirely unflustered as the suspension progressively rebounds. Tyres stay in touch with tarmac, and there’s suspension travel to spare, so you keep pressing on, untroubled by awkward cambers, tricky corners or big stops.
Set up in Germany it might have been, but the B3 monsters this road like it was raised in the valleys.
With the sun dipping into the Irish Sea on the horizon and adding real bite to the cold, we crunch into a snowy car park for the briefest moment to admire the view, then quickly dive back into the warmth of the Alpina’s plush interior, cranking up the heated seats and steering wheel to ward off the chill.
It’s been a big trip in at times difficult conditions but the B3 has been every inch the complete car I’d hoped for, remaining true to the Alpina template that’s been laid down over decades.
How that template translates to the future remains to be seen – the sale of the Alpina brand to BMW was announced in March 2022, securing its future during the tricky electrification transition and ever-reducing exemptions for small-series makers. But it also raises questions as to how authentically independent Alpina vehicles will continue to feel when the first new BMW Alpinas arrive come 2026.
Perhaps it’ll all be for the best, Mercedes-AMG style, and Alpina will flourish under BMW ownership while keeping its own identity. But then again perhaps one day we’ll look back at this B3 Touring as some kind of high-water mark.
For now, we’ve got a couple of hundred miles to cover cross-country in the filthiest conditions imaginable – and the perfect tool for the job.
TECHNICAL DATA 2024 Alpina B3 Touring Allrad G21
- PRICE £79,000 (£99,165 as tested)
- POWERTRAIN 2993cc 32v twinturbo straight-six, ZF 8HP eight-speed auto, all-wheel drive
- MAX POWER 488bhp @ 5000rpm
- MAX TORQUE 538lb ft @ 2500rpm
- PERFORMANCE ACCELERATION 3.7sec 0-62mph
- MAX SPEED 188mph
- ON SALE 2023 Now
- WEIGHT 1955kg
- EFFICIENCY 28.0mpg (20.6mpg on test), 229g/km CO2
- RATING ★★★★★
- PLUS Exclusive looks, practical body, effortless thrust, traction, refinement; an all-weather superhero
- MINUS ▼ Pricey, heavy, diesellike engine; refinement borders on detachment; 20-inch wheels occasionally spoil ride
- BMW M3 Touring G81 - More power, less torque, more dexterous xDrive, £6k pricier
- Audi RS4 — Punchy V6, capable chassis, luxurious interior. Starts almost £12k cheaper
KEEP IT IN THE FAMILY
Up until the end of 2025, Alpinas will continue to be built on the BMW production line using a kit of Alpina-specific parts (engine cooling package, turbos, springs, wheels, tyres, brakes…) before returning to Alpina for final assembly and bespoke interior upgrades.
BMW is already developing next-generation Alpinas that will be ready to go on sale in 2026, but it has bought only the naming rights to the brand, not the company. That leaves Alpina free to continue as a heritage business, offering restoration, engine rebuilds, retrims and so on.
There’s more, though. Alpina says its engineers’ ‘co-operation in the field of development services for BMW Group models will be expanded’ and its know-how offered to third parties. It also has mysterious ‘further plans for the automotive sector’. The family wine business continues too. Think new chapter more than end of story.
Alpinas get homesick if you don’t take them somewhere snowy at least once a year. The M3 Touring does pose some awkward questions, but the B3 drives to a different beat. Jacket required. Gloves and a hat wouldn’t go amiss either.
Not a day for exploring 0-62mph ability, but B3’s average speeds are always high. None of that M3 doubleheight nostril grille here.
- 0 miles — Of all the cars to be driving into some kind of Welsh version of a Siberian apocalypse, hard to imagine anything being more appropriate.
- 3 miles — New Curved Display infotainment gets Alpina-specific graphics. Temp controls now adjusted via screen or (less successfully) by voice control.
- 13 miles — Comfort Plus setting epitomises Alpina’s ‘power with comfort’ philosophy. If you want sharper steering, you can mix and match settings.
- 31 miles — Head-up display is part of £1000 Live Cockpit Professional pack. It’s distracting on unlit country roads. ‘Hey BMW, turn off the head-up display.’ It does.
- 45 miles — Rendezvous with snapper Magee at services. There’s 1510 litres with the rear seats down, but we never need more than the seats-up 500 litres of space.
- 132 miles — Reach Welshpool just before the kitchen closes. Fish, chips and an IPA to wash it down. Plan for the next day doesn’t take long: keep going west.
- 132 miles — Icy start next morning but happily heated steering wheel and sports seats are standard. Seats position you slightly higher than regular 3-series.
- 145 miles — First fill isn’t desperate but sensible before we head deeper into Wales. M3-derived engine sounds and drives like a (very fast) diesel, but isn’t.
- 210 miles — Lunch with Magee – tuna and cheese baguette, coffee, fruit cake – and a well deserved warm-up for a chap in the early stages of hypothermia.
- 263 miles — All-wheel drive, but these Pirellis aren’t winters. Briefly stuck in the car park as gritting lorry speeds past– wheels straight, no throttle, ESC off does it.
- 284 miles — Pondering whether Alpina’s regal-looking crest – twin carbs and crankshaft, two early Alpina tuning staples – will live on into the electric age.
- 458 miles — Journey’s end. In a day-and-a-half we’ve driven 458 miles, spent over 14 hours at the wheel, averaged 20.6mpg and properly fallen under the B3’s spell.