ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It takes a car-minded person, or even someone well-versed in BMW, to really notice an Alpina in passing. The Bavarian tuner, which trades solely in BMW, doesn’t plaster its performance-enhanced cars with carbon fiber or overwrought aerodynamics. Instead, there are subtle, Alpina-specific design cues: special wheels and lower body work, plus Alpina badging, including the additional “B” in the model designation. It all looks consistent for a BMW, but if you look long enough, you can pick out an Alpina in a parking lot, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time looking at the BMW models they’re based upon.
But for a sub-brand that has historically dealt in cars — with the 7 Series-based B7 long being the only offering in the United States — Alpina has now given its special treatment to BMW’s flagship SUV, the X7. The Alpina XB7 tops the X7 lineup in terms of power and price, and carries on with a tradition of tactful styling and sterling quality. While BMW didn’t exactly hold back when penning the X7, Alpina didn’t go overboard with anything … except maybe performance. It’s a superlative BMW that somehow has nothing to prove.
Alpina’s visual upgrades to the already-flashy X7 are tasteful. If you can pry your eyes from that massive kidney grille, you can see the Alpina has tweaked the front fascia, notably adding its name/logo to the very lower lip of the bumper as in its past creations. While our tester wore the 21-inch Alpina Dynamic wheels shod in Pirelli winter tires, the optional 23-inch, 20-spoke Alpina Classic turbine wheels are more certain to catch the eye of other drivers while still being, well, classic. Seriously, they’re rad. In back, the XB7 sports a rear diffuser flanked by quad stainless steel exhaust outlets that promise to give the Alpina a voice all its own.
Inside, we see more special touches. The Alpina emblem on the steering wheel — a coat of arms containing a pair of velocity stacks and a crankshaft side by side on a red and blue field — is the first thing to catch one’s eye when sliding into the driver’s seat. Our tester came upholstered in ivory Merino leather with Alpina-specific Myrtle Wood trim that’s roughly the color of Mars. There’s another Alpina logo etched into the trim on the passenger’s side of the dash as well as on the iDrive wheel interface, plus a metal plaque affixed to the cover of the cubby containing the cupholders below the center stack. Our vehicle featured second-row captain’s chairs and the LED panoramic “Sky Lounge” roof that gives it an ambient, digital starlight look at night. It looks classy, not saucy.
But the visual changes are truly secondary to what really defines the XB7’s personality. The most important work Alpina performs is mechanical. For the XB7, it took BMW’s 4.4-liter V8 and tuned it to an impressive 612 horsepower peaking from 5,500-6,500 rpm, and 590 pound-feet of max torque available from 2,000-5,000 rpm. Remember, much like the 7 Series, there is no M version of the X7: the Alpina is the most performance-oriented version available. Alpinas have always been less hardcore than M cars, more about Autobahn road trips than Nurbürgring track days, which definitely seems appropriate for a three-row SUV.
Alpina also applies its own “Switch-Tronic” tuning to the eight-speed automatic to manage that power in quick, smooth shifts. That goes to all four wheels via an Alpina-calibrated version of BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Alpina also tuned the two-axle air suspension for a smoother ride with sportier handling, plus a lower ride height in the Alpina-exclusive Sport mode.
You’re probably wondering what all this costs, and you might not be surprised to learn that it’s a lot. The Alpina XB7 starts at $142,295, which includes BMW’s relatively reasonable $995 destination fee. For that princely sum, though, you get a lot. The upgraded powertrain, suspension, exhaust, brakes and extra-special comfort features like heated armrests, massaging front seats, remote start, the hands-free traffic jam assistant, head-up display and heated and cooled cupholders are baked in as standard. Our tester’s sticker price totaled $156,345, which included an upcharge for the Ametrin Metallic paint ($1,950), the white Merino leather ($1,500), a rear-seat entertainment system ($2,200), a Bowers & Wilkins sound system ($3,400), five-zone climate control ($800), those captain’s chairs ($500), the trick LED sunroof ($750), and the 23-inch wheels ($2,600) that are probably sitting in a garage somewhere until late spring.
I didn’t tread gingerly with the XB7 in the snow — this big boy felt as confident as you’d expect an X7 to feel in inclement weather — but I didn’t exactly flog the thing, either. The high ride and all-wheel drive handle the powder just fine, and the winter tires helped this 5,860-pound behemoth tread solidly and brake quickly on the packed snow. In fact, much of our driving, done within the bounds of sanity and prudence on public roads, was uneventful. In casual, everyday driving, little of the Alpina personality shines through. If you pay close attention, you begin to notice what you don’t notice; things like noise, vibration and body roll are kept in check brilliantly. Kudos to the adaptive suspension in particular. When running errands, we could easily forget about the 612 horsepower and the gearshifts happening quietly in the background.
A well-timed green light on the right road or a highway on-ramp may help you remember, though, that this is the sportiest version of the X7 you can get, by far. When asked, the Alpina XB7 springs to life, hurling forward with a brappy growl issuing from the exhaust. Oh yeah, it reminded me as the roads began to clear up later in the week, this thing can party.
Eventually, there was enough dry pavement on some decent roads to wake up this sleeping giant. After putting it into Sport mode at a stoplight, watching the body settle down onto its haunches helps set the tone for what’s about to happen. Slam the gas, and the XB7 leaps to life, with the twin-turbo V8 kicking you back into your seat. BMW claims a 0-60-mph time of 4.0 seconds, which, for something weighing almost three tons, is a testament to Alpina’s powertrain tuning chops. It pulls hard from the get-go and through the mid-range, just tapering off subtly high in the rev range. The transmission manages swift shifts without interrupting the feeling of utter speed. It’s smooth, refined, even polite as it pulls your scalp rearward. The exhaust note — aggressive, but not overly intrusive — is the final ingredient to this rich reward.