Why do Alpina bother? They set out to better the finest saloons in the world and as we found out recently - they succeed. The best German engineering is bettered by Alpina, put in a package that makes your 3 series stand out from the crowd - yet subtly - and provides a stunning compromise of luxury, power and poise. It's a curious package - just different enough from BMW's own offerings to tempt those with a few extra spondoolies in their car budget.
The B3 uses BMW's legendary straight six, but with some internal trickery including lightened pistons, a revised crankshaft and friction optimised valve gear - one of the world's best engines sweetened still further. The 3.3 litre six purrs at idle yet will the needle will slide silkily up to 7,200rpm delivering 280bhp in the smoothest manner. Blip the throttle at idle and the exhaust will rasp at you giving a cheeky hint of its alter-ego.
You might think that coupling this delicious engine with the Switchtronic semi-automatic gearbox would be a match made in heaven. Well, not quite. Petrolheads everywhere are fascinated by the prospect of changing gears with their fingertips, yet the systems have some way to go before they provide a genuine alternative to a manual 'box.
The system in the B3 uses a ZF five speed automatic gearbox with some Bosch wizardry to allow gear selection with two buttons behind the steering wheel. After several days with the system it became apparent that it's a brilliant compromise between a manual box and an auto, but it's no substitute for a stick when it comes to larging it.
The auto box is great around town although the delay in reacting to kick-downs might make your passengers think you're a bit of a lead-foot. The contrast between pootling and then the surge as 280bhp kick in all at once is quite marked. Accelerating briskly but smoothly is an acquired skill.
Get out of town and onto the twisties and the Switchtronic becomes more useful. Rather than take the gamble of waiting for the engine and gearbox to finish nattering and give you what you need, you flick the gearstick to the left and you're in control. You can then balance the car on the throttle when it would otherwise slush up to the next gear. You now retain control for 'making progress'. Ease your foot down, ease the power in gently - passengers will have more faith in your driving abilities now - and click the change up switch as you near the red line. A fraction of a second later and the 'box will oblige and smooth, rapid progress can be made.
This is not a manual box with hydraulic clutch remember though - it's a auto that's being bullied by electronics. There is a perceptible delay as you ask it to change up or down. Only a fraction of a second mind you, but enough that you need to think a little ahead. It's fun, it puts you back in control but you're still left longing for a manual box for the country roads.
Aside from its turn of pace, the great chassis provides enormous confidence with the skinny tyres occasionally reminding you that you're connected to the road via a very slim patch of rubber. Feedback is good, although a bit of tramlining is evident and a firm grip on the wheel is wise on ridged surfaces. For a four seater saloon, the car is very engaging and you're certainly left wondering how well its composure would translate onto a track.
The interior is also tastefully trimmed in a wealth of leather and wood and for a car with such sporting skills it's a welcome change to sample silence at speed. The aerodynamics of the 3 series coupled with some discrete changes from Alpina makes for an incredibly quiet and relaxed environment and you'll find yourself cruising at highly illegal speeds very easily.
The B3 ably demonstrates that compromise can be enjoyable. Exclusivity in a BMW too - it's an appealing package.
Link: www.alpina.de, [links]BMW|bmw[/links]