BMW's Alpina is the luxury car more exclusive than a Rolls-Royce

Just when you thought there were enough luxury car brands on the market along comes another one.

Enter Alpina, a boutique German manufacturer that starts with a BMW and ends up with something that looks subtly different but is faster and more expensive – and much rarer.

Key to the Alpina look are 20-spoke alloy wheels, which set the foundations for a more muscular stance that hints at the under-bonnet tweaks and significant engineering work designed to separate the Alpina cars from regular BMWs.

Many of the spinning propeller badges – except for the ones on the bonnet and bootlid – have been dropped in favour of ones spruiking Alpina.

What is Alpina?

Alpina is a separate company to BMW but has a "friendly cooperation" that has been going for half a century.

It uses the German giant's cars as a base for modified performance machines.

Alpina cars roll off the German production lines "80 per cent finished" and are then trucked to Buchloe, about 80km west of BMW's Munich headquarters.

There, a small team of workers changes everything from engine components, brakes and suspension to the front bumper, leather and other trim items.

Meet the family

Alpina is offering a range of models in Australia, each with "B" as part of their alpha-numeric model names.

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Each uses "BiTurbo" in their names to signify a twin turbo engine configuration.

The B3 is based on the 3-Series sedan and the B4 the 4-Series Coupe. That B4 is also available as a Convertible.

Each uses a 3.0-litre engine, which is the same basic one used in the BMW 340i. But as part of the extensive mechanical modifications Alpina replaces the regular single turbo setup and replaces it with a twin-turbo system.

There's also a B7, which is based on the 7-Series limousine. It gets a 4.4-litre V8 with 447kW and 800Nm.

The neighbours won't have one

Exclusivity is key to the Alpina sales pitch.

The company produces fewer than 2000 cars globally each year and only about 15 or 20 of those are expected to come to Australia, a feat for which we can thank Ingo Reisch, the owner of one of BMW's largest dealers at Doncaster in Melbourne.

To put that in perspective, that's about one-tenth what Ferrari sells in Australia, and about half of Rolls-Royce.

So there's almost no chance your neighbours will have one – and a very real chance Alpina could be the most exclusive luxury brand on the market.

It's all in the details

Look closely at those distinctive 20-spoke wheels and you notice there's no valve for topping the tyres with air.

That's because the valve is hidden behind a cover in the centre of the wheel. Take that cover off and it a sole hollow spoke to feed air to the tyre.

It's a detailed engineering change but one that's indicative of the detail within an Alpina.

The seats have unique hand-stitched merino leather finishes and Alpina badges within their backs, while buyers can choose between various wood finishes.

Alpina v BMW M

Despite both chasing the booming performance car market Alpina says it is not a competitor to BMW's M cars (including the M3, M4 and M5) but rather a complement to them.

The Alpina sells from $155,900 whereas the BMW M3 is $139,615 (or $144,615 for the more powerful M3 Competition).

Both use a 3.0-litre six-cylinder twin turbo engine, but the turbos are unique to each.

The M3s often optimistic performance claim says it can reach 100km/h in 4.0 seconds, whereas the Alpina does it in 4.3 seconds.

Both get an automatic transmission, but the M3's is a track-focused seven-speed twin-clutch unit (effectively a slick computer controlled manual) while the B3's is an eight-speed auto similar to that used in the regular 340i.

Everyday comfort

The B3's eight-speed auto is a much nicer device in everyday traffic than the M3's twin-clutch unit. That means more relaxed motoring, but still with a lovely mid-rev surge from the free-revving turbocharged six-cylinder.

The Alpina also has more compliant suspension than an M3, which means a more comfy ride but still with excellent control, allowing you to push on with confidence.

That said, the grippy Michelin tyres have a very low profile, so can jar into sharp bumps.

Subtle but swift

What it lacks in the drama and theatre of an M3 the Alpina makes up for with easy access to big performance.

There's loads of pull from very low in the rev range – accompanied by a satisfying but subtle thrum from the exhaust – as well as the clean revving nature typical of BMWs.

The gearbox shifts cleanly and intuitively or you can take over using the gear shift domes on the back of the steering wheel; those domes are different to the paddles that are common these days, although I'm not convinced they're better.

The 330km/h speedo is a bit of grandstanding but the Alpina B3 is an easy performance car to live within traffic while still rising to the challenge of a snaking piece of bitumen.

Have you already given the Alpina a test run? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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