2001 Alpina B3 3.3 E46
Appellation ContrôléeAlpina’s take on the E46 platform, the B3 3.3, wasn’t strictly an M3 rival – but only because that would have been far too easy…
Words: Dan Bevis Photography: Jason Dodd
It’s said in connoisseur circles that no automotive manufacturer has a better wine cellar than Alpina. Founded in 1965 by Burkard Bovensiepen, the company’s roots were deep in motor racing from the get-go, with said founder having cut his teeth racing the diminutive BMW 700 – and as well as being a qualified engineer, Bovensiepen is a noted enthusiast of fine wines. So beneath the Alpina workshops at Buchloe, squirrelled away as a colossal and wholly unexpected treasure trove, resides a mighty wine cellar.
Above ground, among the warehouses spilling over with bespoke Alpina parts, is a facility capable of storing over a million bottles. Naturally this isn’t the hallmark of an unstoppable lush, but of a distributor; Bovensiepen’s collection may have stemmed from a habit of collecting wines from the areas where his cars were winning races, but it rapidly spiralled into way more than a collection, and Alpina Wines was founded in 1979.
The company has been a major player in the global wine trade ever since; today that million-plus stash of bottles contains around 40 percent of stock sourced from Bordeaux and 25 percent from across Italy, and a particular speciality is large-format bottles – magnums, jeroboams and imperials. Indeed, this plus-sizing to offer a fusion of quality and quantity is perhaps the keenest manifestation of the crossover between Alpina Wines and Alpina Automotive.
The vital truth at the very core of Alpina’s motoring endeavours is that it’s a manufacturer. That might sound like a truism, but the distinction is crucial: this isn’t a tuning outfit, it’s recognised by the German authorities as a maker of automobiles in its own right – so while these cars may be based on BMWs that have already been type-approved, Alpina has to get everything type-approved all over again. Those warehouses of parts?
They’re legally mandated, as manufacturers are required to stock spare parts for models up to ten years old. It’s a relationship that works symbiotically with BMW: Alpina find themselves being furnished with engines and sometimes even entire cars long before they’re publicly released in order to carry out development and tuning work, and BMW emissions-tests the resulting Buchloe engines.
When BMW deliver cars to be converted, they’re already helpfully specced with altered diff ratios or resized fuel tanks to suit the demands. In return, the relative secrecy of Alpina’s operations allows a certain sneakiness for BMW’s own development work – in the past, for instance, Alpina’s test cells have been used to perfect and analyse BMW’s mighty Formula One engines. Now, given that you’re reading a magazine specifically about BMWs, it’s probably safe to assume that you have a working knowledge of where Alpina is positioned within the wider sphere of production BMWs.
Part of the reason that BMW allow such endeavours to exist – indeed, encourages them to thrive – is that these tuned models aren’t direct rivals to their own mainstream offerings. Take the Alpina B3 3.3 we have here on these pages. It may be a highly-specced performance variant of the E46-generation 3 Series, but you couldn’t argue that it’s a rival to the M3. Not really.
Because the thought process is entirely different. Whereas the M3 is a focused and relatively hardcore performance machine, the Alpina mindset is one of effortlessness. They re-engineer the car to be supremely powerful without being hysterical, the ride to be keen without being harsh, the interior to be sumptuous and luxurious with just a hint of a sporting edge. And it’s this sense of taking an offbeat path that led to the bizarrely serpentine engineering which underpins the B3 3.3. It would probably have been easier to start with the M3 and soften off the edges a bit, but ‘easier’ isn’t really Alpina’s ethos.
Instead, what they did here is to begin with a 330Ci and, essentially, do some needlessly mad stuff with it. The engine here is based on the S52B32, previously found in the E36 M3, sourced in this guise as the 240hp spec sold in the US market. This was then torn down and artfully reimagined, built back up with an increased bore and stroke to push displacement to 3.3-litres. The single-VANOS system has more in common with the M50 engine than any of BMW’s M models, and the tuning approach is endearingly classic: a ported cylinder head, lightweight pistons,tuned-length exhaust manifold, and a custom crankshaft with torsional vibration damping.
Peak power for this jewel-like (and deliberately convoluted) engine is a robust 280hp and 247lb ft – so not approaching M3 power, but this zingy straight-six revs out to 7,200rpm. The inherently frantic nature of it means that it’ll near-enough hang onto the heels of an M3 despite the power deficit, with its occupants all the while pleasantly cosseted in creamysmooth leather opulence. The transmission is equally peculiar; in a good way, that is, and once again emblematic of Alpina’s insistence on ambushing reality with the relentlessly unexpected.
The B3 3.3was also offered with a more mainstream Getrag 6-speed manual, but it’s the Switchtronic transmission you see on this car that we find the most interesting. It’s a clever little auto unit with a Sport mode and also, as the eagle-eyed may already have spotted, buttons on the steering wheel for shifting up and down through the gears. Which was pretty sci-fi stuff back at the turn of the millennium. Elsewhere throughout the car we find Alpina touches, from the bespoke pad compound clamping the 330i-spec brakes to the retuned spring and damper settings, and the hidden valves tucked away inside those oh-so distinctive multi-spoke alloy wheels. It’s a matter of particular pride for this car’s owner, Max Goff, to have an Alpina like this in his collection.
You see, Max is an interesting guy; he spent his youth karting, and such is his skillset today that he’s tutoring competitors across the world. He has a particular fondness for cars that we can place within the ‘modern classic’ bracket, and regular readers may recall that we featured his V10 M6 in 2021, as well as his E46 M3 Cabriolet. With this keen motoring history and growing collection of toys, form and function are granted a level pegging in his affections, and the B3 3.3 made a lot of sense.
The acquisition of the drop-top M3 was fuelled by the fact that he already had an E46 M3 coupé, and was keen to enjoy that sonorous S54 howl with the wind in his hair to better appreciate the drama of it all. And so extending the E46 end of the collection to accommodate the B3 means that he gets to enjoy every flavour of the turn-ofthe- century mélange. Outright power for when such adrenaline demands, and the smooth executive express for the times when the cuffs are buttoned. It’s a sublime and beguiling machine, this B3, one that wholly encapsulates the spirit of Alpina’s roots.
Not so much bon viveur as simply an awareness of how things should be done, there are whispers of the past here that stretch way back further than this 3.3’s twenty-two years. Behind the Buchloe plant can be found Bovensiepen’s family home, not far from the employee swimming pool which is heated by the engine test cells. Everything is right and good and happy and proper. That’s what Alpina products have always been crafted to represent, and the results mellow and age across the generations like… well, you can fill in that viticultural simile for yourself. The B3 is tannin-rich with long legs; one equally appropriate to enjoy today or lay down for the ages
MICHAEL DEARDEN 12 days ago #
I have owned my Alpina B3 cabriolet for 8 years now and I concur entirely with the above article. I have owned in the past, several BMWs, Jaguars and have driven various performance cars owned by friends, but none provide the pleasure of sitting behind the wheel of my Alpina.