What makes an automobile luxurious? Is it a six-figure-plus price? Loads of leather? A seat that tilts, vibrates, and blows hot and cold air? The answer is subjective, a posit predicated on perspective: We know luxury when we see (and feel) it. Luxury imparts specialness through touch, feel and aesthetics. And since a vehicle’s primary purpose is to get us from point A to B, it must also translate that exclusive feeling kinetically, allowing great, free, and easy movement in a world which often conspires against those things.
I recently spent a week with the BMW Alpina B7 xDrive, which inspired my meditation on this subject. The B7 is a special variant of BMW’s already-excellent 7 Series. And while the Alpina doesn’t aspire to the over-the-top amenities of a Rolls-Royce, it comes delightfully close to the best tenets of luxury.
First, a note about Alpina. Located near Munich in the town of Buchloe, Germany, the family-owned company has been in business since 1965. It works exclusively with BMW, enhancing existing models. But unlike BMW’s in-house performance division, M, Alpina remains independent.
The upside is that you can buy the Alpina B7 from a BMW dealership with a full warranty. But since Alpina produces fewer than 2,000 cars a year, its attention to detail is equivalent to that of a bespoke carmaker. Alpina’s co-owner, Andreas Bovensiepen, told me years ago that the B7’s purpose was to be more luxurious and compliant than the regular 7 Series, but also quicker off the line and better at handling the curves.
The new generation B7, which was introduced last year in Geneva, serves those purposes marvelously. When it comes to moving about freely, the B7 achieves 60 mph in 3.6 seconds and is capable of a boggling top speed of 205 mph. (In Europe, anyhow. In the States, it is governed to 192 mph.)
Alpina modifies BMW’s 4.4-liter V-8 with its own twin turbochargers, pushing the hp to 600 and the torque to 590 ft lbs. All-wheel-drive is standard, but in Alpina guise the torque is pushed more rearward and the rear-wheel steering is tweaked to make it even sportier.
Make no mistake, power equals luxury. I often have to negotiate a particular highway onramp that is dangerous and poorly designed. It usually demands that you merge into a stream of fast-moving semitrucks. The Alpina allowed me to jump out into a tiny gap in traffic, right in front of a large truck which was coming down the freeway like a steamroller. One brief surge of power and I was not only out of peril, I’d already overtaken others.
I’ve driven Alpina’s B6 model on Germany’s Autobahn. (The B6 is based on the 6 Series Gran Coupe, and isn’t offered in the U.S.) It was alarming how quickly the car allows you to get comfortable cruising at 140 mph for extended periods of time. The B7 is longer and gets the active steering, and the front and rear fascias lend extra downforce. It would be extraordinary on the Autobahn.
Pricing for the B7 starts at $137,000. With add-ons, my test vehicle came in at $153,845. But despite what some people believe, luxury is not strictly related to price. Just because something is expensive doesn’t make it great, or even worthwhile.
In this, a luxury car is analogous to a very good hotel. Forget the room rate. I often define a great property by its ability to anticipate its guests needs. Sure, a good experience includes good lighting, great room service, and linen with high thread counts, but it’s also dependent on smart design—like not having to figure out where the light is when you’re going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And, of course, the happy surprises—like returning to your room to find a midday snack waiting for you.
Alpina takes the already great 7 Series design and amps it up with happy surprises. On the exterior, the car is particularly distinctive with the revised front and aft spoilers. I adore the available Alpina blue metallic, reserved for Alpina alone, and the classic Alpina 20-spoke aluminum wheels.
The Alpina-specific delights extend to the gauges on the digital display, presenting a gorgeous hue of blue. It’s one of the best looking (and sophisticated) digital gauges in the business. And the steering wheel, coated in Lavalina leather, has green and blue hand-stitching. The showstopper, however, is the LED sunroof. At night, the optional Panoramic Sky Lounge LED roof projects colored pins of light onto the overhead glass, a BMW-specific feature available for all 7 Series examples. On this model, of course, it was set to glow Alpina blue—just another mindful accent on an automobile that already drives my own definition of luxury.