This review originally appeared in Top Gear magazine issue 236 (2012)
It is neither one thing nor the other, this car. That’s not to say it’s bad, more that it’s likely to appeal to a very limited audience. An audience that likes racy hardcore cars, but likes certain aspects that are kept at bay. Like shifting gears. And noise.
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This means that it is not a rival of the M3 GTS. Despite being a limited edition model (99 GT3 vs. 150 GTS), it has track-tuned adjustable suspension and was produced to tie in with the GT series-winning B6 GT3. German last year; in fact, it’s half the price and half as tough as BMW’s most powerful M3.
It might have something to do with it not being based on an M3 in the first place. Alpina (a fully-fledged automaker, not just a tuner, according to the official German body that ratifies these things) takes standard BMW models as a starting point, and its USP is not of “out-M” M, if you know what I mean, more to enhance the car’s natural attributes than they, uh, enhance.
Usually we really like the results of this – Alpinas tend to be subtle, have more kudos, plus a bit more speed, smoothness and desirability. These are BMWs honed in a direction we approve of.
The B3 GT3 goes further. Based on a 335i coupe, this is Alpina’s most capable road car.
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A lot has been done: the twin-turbo straight-six (not the new single-turbo engine that’s badged TwinPower) has been given better breathing gear and an upgraded ECU, so it has 402 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque. Speed is not an issue here. The B3 runs through the rev range with resolute engagement, dispensing M3 gears with a secondary order of added accessibility.
But speed isn’t the only, or even the main focus here. No, handling is the key gain of this race-inspired coupe, and to that end Alpina installed adjustable suspension. Not the push button on the dash type, but the dealer visit and 45 minute wait type. Not only can you change the ride height and spring/damper settings, you can even change the camber angles. No wonder Alpina doesn’t want owners to get involved themselves. There are three recommended settings: road, track and James May. Sorry, Nürburgring.
The road is enough, to be honest. That’s not to say it’s harsh, as it rolls deftly, but you wouldn’t want it to be much stiffer if you regularly encounter potholes and the like. What you get through the suspension is a fabulous amount of surface information, brilliantly filtered so you only get the nice/necessary/useful stuff, not the jerks, crashes and knocks. In this regard, it offers better balance than the M3, offering all the good things of a stiff suspension with few drawbacks. It spins without fuss or body roll while feeling calm and relaxed.
But I’m talking exclusively about the suspension here, not the overall handling. The reason is that the direction is unchanged and therefore feels too slow a heartbeat. You end up having to add more locks than you think and getting less feedback than you hoped. It’s a sure sign that Alpina didn’t have the resources or the inclination to do a major top-to-bottom re-engineering job on the car.
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But the steering is a minor quirk – it’s still pleasant to use, not a fundamental issue that undermines the car, making you question its role and purpose. It’s the gearbox. Well, I’m playing the gallery a bit, but really, Alpina, an automatic, not even a double clutch? OK, so it’s one of the best six-speed motors out there and it has paddle shifters, but that’s still out of place here. You can just move around in the ride and let the gears and the on-foot software make decisions about which gears to choose. That’s not right in some trail runners, is it?
The problem is that it’s easy to leave the car to its own devices as it’s quite relaxing. Partly thanks to the gearbox, but perhaps more because of the lack of noise. Oh sure, it has an Akrapovic exhaust that saves 11kg, but you don’t notice it. What you notice is the lack of a clean, straight bark. Seriously, it’s a carbon-winged track-derived BMW that doesn’t make a sound.
Except visually. On the outside, there are 20-spoke wheels, blue brakes and questionably used extra fins and fenders. Inside, there are great seats and the feeling that the cabin is now half a generation outdated. And all the time you wonder who this car is for. But maybe that’s not the right question, because despite everything, it’s a great car to drive, which can both charge and chillax. The problem is that it does both at the same time. This is hardcore for the soft hearted.