We know that any review of a superpowered XXL SUV is likely to raise an angry mob of PH users – plus vocal dissent from those prepared to admit to liking such an idea – but our first experience of the new Alpina XB7 comes with the petrol-sloshing addendum that I only drove it on a tight, twisty racetrack.
To be fair, this isn’t Alpina’s fault. The original plan was, as with the B3 featured here last week, that journalists would be able to experience the new XB7 on both road and track. Unfortunately, COVID-19 got its teeth into that one, with the company unable to register enough examples of the XB7 to make that happen, and hence experience was limited to the Bilster Berg track near Paderborn.
While BMW and Alpina have about the closest relationship possible between independent companies, it is definitely not one of equals. Last year BMW sold 2.1 million cars worldwide and Alpina sold 1,700. Alpina boss Andreas Bovensiepen says the arrival of the XB7 should enable them to increase that total – to around 2000 cars a year. Which explains why BMW hasn’t seen the point of creating a car in this narrow niche – positioned above the existing X7 M50i and M50d variants – but also why Alpina has.
Ensuring the XB7 can outgun the X7 M50i by a sufficient amount to justify its pricetag by something other than chunkiness of bodykit has resulted in a substantial mechanical makeover. Both cars share the same 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, with the Alpina getting larger and puffier twin-scroll turbochargers, a freer-flowing exhaust (also featuring switchable exhaust flaps) and upgraded cooling. Output has increased to 612hp – a 77hp increase on the X7 M50i – and torque has risen to 590 lb ft, this available on broad plateau that stretches all the way from 2,000rpm to 5,000rpm. Effort reaches the road through a standard eight-speed gearbox and an electronically controlled limited slip differential on the rear axle.
Like senior versions of the regular X7, the XB7 gets air springs as standard, plus both active anti-roll, using electric motors to apply torque to the ARBs to reduce lean under hard use, and an electrically steered rear axle. While the hardware is common all settings have been recalibrated, with the air springs dropping 20mm when the car is put into Sport mode, and losing another 20mm in Sport Plus. The system also does the full 40mm drop automatically at speeds of over 155mph.
That’s right, over. Alpina has never felt itself subject to BMW’s policy of 250km/h limiters, with the ability to cruise at higher speeds a large part of the brand’s appeal for those who regularly use its products on derestricted sections of the Autobahn. The XB7 will have a 180mph limiter, although only on cars specified with the combination of 21-inch wheels and P-Zero tyres; buyers will also be able to choose bigger 23-inch rims in Alpina’s classic narrow spoke design or (in some markets) less sporty all-seasons on the 21s. Brakes have also been upgraded, with the combination of huge 395mm discs and Brembo four-pot calipers at the front and 398mm rear rotors at the rear. Buyers can also choose an upgrade option of drilled discs and higher performance pads.
Bilster Berg isn’t exactly a high-speed track, packing 19 corners and 650 feet of elevation change into just 2.6 miles, and you’ll likely be unsurprised to hear that, even in upgraded form, the XB7’s brakes suffered under the loadings involved in repeatedly slowing its 2.6 tonne mass. Alpina sent journos out behind a pace car which was clearly trying to limit thermal loads but by the end of a four-lap stint stopping distances were beginning to stretch and some pungent smells were entering the cabin, although the electrically boosted brake pedal stayed firm. Yes, real world relevance is close to zero – but I’m making lemonade from lemons here.
But the unlikely news continues, with the revelation that the XB7 takes to the tight-fitting circuit better than anything its size and shape could be expected to. The level of pace isn’t that surprising given the size of the number on the left of the power-to-weight ratio, the grip and grace the Alpina shows in such an unlikely context much more so.
The big V8 sounds good under hard use and in the top reaches of its rev range, but the huge mid-range torque means it doesn’t need to be fully extended to experience organ-squishing accelerative forces; even short shifting well before the 6,500rpm or holding onto higher gears through corners it feels barely slower than when fully wrung-out.
It’s no sportscar, but the Alpina handles life on track impressively well for something so tall and heavy. Turn-in is keen, doubtless helped by the rear steering, with the XB7 continuing to find apexes even as speeds increase. Traction is impeccable, with only the slowest corners – and biggest dips – giving any sense of the tyres running short on adhesion. Yes, it can be made to understeer, but the all-wheel drive system fights push hard and the electric anti-roll and air springs keep it flat under heavy cornering loads. Put it this way, it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had in a three-row SUV on a racetrack.
Little of this will translate into everyday use, of course – with the main unanswered question being how much of Alpina’s suspension wizardry the XB7 will exhibit on rougher everyday tarmac. Some strategic use of Bilster Berg’s striped kerbing proves that, even in Sports Plus mode, the XB7 isn’t short on compliance, and based on the brand’s previous form it would be surprising if it wasn’t supremely well suited to the real world. But that’s one that will have to wait for a more comprehensive go.
The other issue is whether the XB7 can justify the premium it carries over the already potent, and not exactly cheap, X7 M50i. Rationally the answer is almost certainly not, only those who are regularly travelling on an empty Autobahn seven-up are going to make regular use of the extra urge. And although design and interior have been given some Alpina tweaks, none take it very far from the car its based on, which is already a seriously nice place to spend time.
But when did rationality come into purchasing decisions like this one? For some the XB7’s extra urge and exclusivity will be enough to justify the supplement. Granted, most of us would rather take a B3 wagon and £60,000 in change, but while the XB7 is more expensive than the obvious alternative of the Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 it does look like an unlikely performance bargain when compared to the smaller, slower and substantially pricier Bentley Bentayga.
SPECIFICATION | ALPINA XB7
Engine: 4,395cc, twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 612hp @ 5500 - 6500 rpm
Torque: 590 lb-ft @ 2000 - 5000rpm
0-62mph: 4.2 seconds
Top speed: 180 mph (21-inch wheels, sports tyres)
MPG: 23.5 (WLTP)
1 / 21