If you are not at fan of preppy land yachts that pound back gasoline like it’s pale lager at an Oktoberfest beer garden, that’s totally understandable, but you may want to look away now.
The truth is, despite all the big talk about electrification, a great many drivers still love big, gas-powered SUVs, as evidenced by booming sales. Machines like the new BMW Alpina XB7 are a hot ticket right now, even more than they have been. Through the first quarter of 2021, sales of large luxury SUVs rose by 61 per cent compared with this time last year, according to market research firm DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. In fact, of all the different types of vehicles out there, large luxury SUVs posted the highest year-over-year sales growth by a huge margin.
By the time the first 2021 BMW Alpina XB7 rolled off the production line last summer, that whole year’s (admittedly limited) run was already sold out globally. It’s not hard to see why; big, fast, leather-stuffed SUVs don’t get much more special than this.
Alpina is a small, family-run operation with headquarters in Buchloe, Germany, about an hour west of BMW’s head office in Munich. In 1965, Alpina began as a manufacturer of go-fast parts for BMWs, but is now officially a car manufacturer in its own right. The two companies have a symbiotic relationship. BMW supplies Alpina with cars to modify; Alpina supplies BMW dealerships with rarified products to satisfy rich drivers.
Only a handful of Alpina models make it to North America, which is a shame. In Japan and Europe, lucky drivers can choose rare gems like the Alpina B3 S, a compact sedan packing over 500 lb-ft of torque. Or, drivers can opt for the mid-size Alpina B5 Touring, a station wagon with supercar-like power, which the company describes as a “business athlete” – whatever that means. Worldwide, the brand makes fewer than 2,000 cars annually, which makes an Alpina more rare than a Ferrari.
Here in Canada, Alpina sells only its largest, most expensive models: the B7 full-size sedan, based on the BMW 7 Series, and the fastback B8 Gran Coupé, based on the 8 Series Gran Coupé, which will join the lineup this summer. They’re sold and serviced through BMW dealers and covered by a BMW warranty.
The 2021 XB7 is the first Alpina SUV to land on our shores. It’s for those who feel BMW’s palatial X7 M50i SUV – which costs $130,000 and makes 523 horsepower – is simply too cheap or too slow.
The Alpina’s twin-turbo V8 engine makes 612 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque from 2,000 rpm, numbers that are mainly useful for bragging rights. A new stainless-steel exhaust system gives the motor a more audible burble to better match this juggernaut’s visual drama.
Taking the XB7 around a racetrack only underscores the difference between it and BMW’s track-ready M cars. Even riding on a heavily upgraded chassis, the XB7 can’t hide its 2.6-tonne weight. It’s a bit like trying to pilot a hippopotamus through an obstacle course. It might make it around but it’s clearly out of its element.
The XB7 is, however, much more at home on public roads than any M car. The motor is built for low-end grunt, a common Alpina trait, that makes it feel more powerful in stop-and-go driving than any BMW. Alpina also has a spooky ability to make cars that are plush and comfortable, despite the fact they ride on big wheels and low-profile tires. The XB7 is as exotic and sublime as a three-row SUV can get, which is as it should be considering the price, but there’s a little catch.
It’s hard not to be jealous of the Europeans who get the full Alpina experience; their XB7s can be ordered with Alpina’s signature pinstripe graphics, and cabins trimmed top to bottom in the brand’s silky, hand-stitched Lavalina leather. It feels as if the XB7 has been slightly watered down for North America.
While $165,900 is certainly a lot of money, it’s also significantly less than you’ll pay for other exclusive SUVs like the Mercedes-Maybach GLS, or Mercedes-AMG G-Wagon, or Lamborghini Urus. Surprisingly, despite the Alpina’s twin-turbo V8 engine, it’s not as much of a gas-guzzler as those rivals. In fact, in that context, you could almost convince yourself this posh land yacht is a practical choice – before snapping back to reality.
2021 BMW Alpina XB7
Base price/as tested: $165,900/$179,900
Engine: 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8
Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 15.7 city/11.5 highway
Alternatives: Bentley Bentayga, Mercedes-Maybach GLS, Mercedes G-Class, Tesla Model X, a fully-loaded Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator
All Alpina cars have a look: blue or green paint, silver Alpina-designed wheels, new front bumper, and a good hunkered-down stance over huge wheels. (Beautiful 23-inch wheels are standard, but our test car was fitted with 21s.)
Alpina logos replace the BMW ones in the cabin, but not on the hood. A chunky new steering wheel features hidden buttons on the back, rather than paddles, for when you want to change gears manually. Two-tone leather and the panoramic glass roof are optional extras.
It takes 4.2 seconds to accelerate from zero to 100 kilometres an hour, which is half a second quicker than the next-fastest BMW X7, but don’t fool yourself. This is no sport car; it’s a fast, comfy family hauler. As with most BMWs, it has a ridiculous number of different driving modes to choose from.
Alpina has done serious work under the hood of the regular X7. The engine is reworked with bigger turbochargers and new intercoolers, and the SUV rides lower on revised air suspension with added chassis bracing. The infotainment system is at the top of its class.
The third row is best for children or gymnasts. A button in the trunk lowers the XB7 on its suspension to make loading easier, but it’s not the biggest three-row SUV out there.
It’s the largest, most exotic SUV you’ll find in a BMW showroom, but not quite the full Alpina experience.