As proof that Germans have a sense of humor, Alpina invited us to drive the new X7-based Alpina XB7 exclusively on a racetrack. And the track Alpina chose wasn't even big and spacious; it was the tight Bilster Berg circuit near Paderborn, a course that been likened to a miniaturized Nürburgring Nordschliefe. There are 19 corners and more than 650 feet of elevation change in only 2.6 miles. It's not the most obvious place to make acquaintance with a 5900-pound SUV. There was supposed to be a road-driving part of the program, but global pandemic restrictions meant cars couldn't be readied in time.
Alpina remains independent from BMW, but the relationship is sort of like the one between a remora and a shark. Alpina began as a manufacturer of office equipment, diversifying into tuning parts for BMWs in the 1960s. The corporate friendship has deepened over the decades, to the extent Alpina sees BMW's future plans well before they become public and has official sanction to produce its own versions of the larger company's models complete with a BMW warranty. To avoid overlap with M-division products, Alpinas are usually softer-edged and more luxurious than the M cars. Or, as with the XB7, they are aimed at niches BMW doesn't think are right for M.
To distinguish the XB7 from the 535-hp X7 M50i required a significant power upgrade. Both cars share the same base twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8, but the Alpina adds larger twin-scroll turbos, additional cooling, and a freer-flowing exhaust with switchable acoustic flaps. Output shoots up to a mighty 612 horsepower. Impressive as that number is, Alpina's engineers are prouder of the 590 pound-feet of torque that's available from 2000 rpm to 5000 rpm. Alpina claims a 4.0-second punch to 60 mph. Our long-term BMW X7 M50i reached the mark in 4.1 seconds, so expect the XB7 to land somewhere in the mid-3s. Should you feel the need to hurl nearly three tons of SUV down the road at 180 mph, the optional Pirelli P Zero summer tires meet such needs. The XB7 comes with 21-inch wheels, but buyers will be able to upgrade to 23-inch wheels with Alpina's classic narrow spokes for $2600.
Considering its $142,295 price, the XB7 is a subtle beast, certainly when compared to showier seven-seat ultra-luxe SUVs like the three-row Bentley Bentayga and both AMG and Maybach variants of the Mercedes GLS. The Alpina gets new bumpers, with the front incorporating the company's name in capitalized letters and the rear featuring four large exhaust pipes. Buyers in some markets will be able to add the intricate pinstriping that has been one of the brand's visual hallmarks since the 1970s, but this won't be offered in North America, sadly.
The cabin is predictably close to the interior of any other high-end X7. The noticeable changes are the arrival of a thick-rimmed steering wheel that bears Alpina's logo instead of the BMW roundel, Alpina branding on the circular iDrive controller and digital instrument pack, a plate giving the car's number on the center console, and a smattering of other Alpina logos. Buyers will be able to choose between a six-seat layout with second-row captain chairs or a bench and room for seven passengers. Beyond the special bits, the cabin is, of course, as spacious and comfortable as any other X7.
On the tight track, the big SUV is every bit as quick as its official numbers claim. Bilster Berg's modest straights are devoured to the beat of a muscular V-8 soundtrack. But the combination of huge torque and a smart-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission means there's no need to work the engine to 6500 rpm to experience uncomfortable levels of acceleration.
The Alpina also corners well for something so big and heavy, turning keenly, biting its way to apexes, and finding impeccable traction even in tighter bends. A number of dynamic aids work to make this assault on physics seem effortless. There's an active anti-roll system and rear-axle steering to sharpen low-speed responses. But from the lofty perch of the driver's seat, it all felt stable, secure, and calm.
The XB7's standard air springs drop it by 0.8 inch in Sport mode, with Sport Plus taking it another 0.8 inch closer to the ground. It automatically drops the full 1.6 inches at speeds above 155 mph, regardless of the mode it is in. Even as low as it will go and with the dampers in their firmest setting, the ride remains compliant in Sport Plus, a point proved by some strategic use of Bilster Berg's serrated curbing. Alpina models have always prioritized comfort and high-speed stability over the rock-hard suspension German automakers often associate with sporting aspirations, and although we will need to get the XB7 on road to confirm, we suspect it will cope well with the real world.
One thing Bilster Berg did demonstrate, to little surprise, is that the XB7's brakes struggle with racetrack use. Despite being fitted with the optional upgrade of drilled rotors and higher-performance pads, and having to follow a pace car, our XB7's brakes were clearly suffering at the end of a stint on track. The pedal stayed firm, but stopping distances began creeping up and pungent smells started entering the cabin. It's an issue we suspect very few owners are likely to encounter under everyday use.
With no prospect of an X7 M, the XB7 effectively represents the top of the X7 range. The XB7 will be produced alongside the regular-grade X7s at the Spartanburg plant in South Carolina and sold alongside the existing B7 sedan by BMW dealers in the United States and Canada. Few will have actual need of the increase in performance over the already potent M50i version, yet the $28,000 supplement doesn't look outrageous for the extra urge, top-dog status, and exclusivity of the Alpina badge.
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