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BMW Alpina B4


McLaren 540C

Summary

BMW Alpina B4

If you're looking for a sleek, two-door coupe with a sparkling chassis, rear-wheel drive and a charismatic turbo straight-six, BMW has you covered with about eight choices. That should be that, then. But wait. There's more. 

Since 1965, Alpina - the name of a resurrected a typewriter company - has collaborated closely with BMW to produce distinct, high performance Alpina-badged cars. It actually started with a Weber dual-carburettor unofficial conversion for the BMW 1500 in 1962 and over the years built into a racing operation winning championships and races like the Spa 24 Hours.

Alpina returned to Australian shores in 2017 after a long hiatus with a new range including the BMW 4 Series based B4. Not long after, BMW updated the 4 in what it calls LCI (Lifecycle Impulse), so Alpina followed suit with a price drop, new gear and called it the B4 S.

Safety rating
Engine Type3.0L turbo
Fuel TypePremium Unleaded Petrol
Fuel Efficiency7.6L/100km
Seating4 seats

McLaren 540C

Believe it or not, the McLaren 540C is an entry-level model. But you won't find anything remotely resembling rubber floor mats, steel wheels, or cloth seats here. This is a 'base' car like few others.

Revealed in 2015, it's actually the cornerstone of McLaren's three-tier supercar pyramid, being the most affordable member of the Sport Series, with the properly exotic Super Series (650S, 675LT and now 720S), and pretty much insane Ultimate Series (where the P1 hypercar briefly lived) rising above it.

Only a few years ago, McLaren meant nothing to anyone outside the octane-infused world of motorsport. But in 2017, it's right up there with aspirational sports car big guns like Ferrari and Porsche, both of which have been producing road cars for close to 70 years.

So, how has this British upstart managed to build a world-beating supercar brand so quickly?

Everything you need to know to answer that question resides inside the stunning McLaren 540C.

Safety rating
Engine Type3.8L
Fuel TypePremium Unleaded Petrol
Fuel Efficiency25.5L/100km
Seating2 seats

Verdict

BMW Alpina B47.4/10

You could almost call the B4 S the anti-M4. It's still fast and practical but from a completely different perspective. It's much more a grand tourer than the M4 and even with the Akrapovic exhaust (usually a byword for joyous, anti-social racket), subtle.

For some, the price won't matter because the Alpina delivers what they want - M4-like straight line performance without the histrionics or the uncompromising chassis. And there's also a bit of that perverse exclusivity of the styling that you won't get anywhere else.

Is Peter right? Is it the anti-M4? Or just a tarted up 4 with a bit of extra grunt?


McLaren 540C8.3/10

The 540C is desirable on so many levels. Its dynamic ability, blistering performance, and stunning design make the cost of entry a value-for-money ticket. And the refreshing thing is, choosing a McLaren, with its focus on function and pure engineering, sidesteps the wankery that so often goes with ownership of an 'established' exotic brand. We absolutely love it.

Do you think McLaren is a genuine competitor for the usual supercar suspects? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Design

BMW Alpina B47/10

Alpina has always had a particular aesthetic that could uncharitably be termed as mid-'80s West German - all set square angles and body graphics. Think David Hasselhoff's Berlin Wall look. The company has never really deviated from adding squared-off body bits to the various BMWs it has rebadged under its long-running agreement.

For the B4S, Alpina adds the signature billion-spoke alloy wheels (only a slight exaggeration), a new front splitter complete with Alpina lettering, a weirdly proportioned boot lid lip spoiler and - not even joking - pinstripes. Like I said, mid-'80s West German. You can still recognise the sleek 4 Series Coupe but perhaps the worst of it is the super-sized, wonky-looking ALPINA B4S on the boot.

Inside is rather more restrained apart from the ill-fitting Alpina plaque under the climate control. Again, it's all 4 Series in here, with the lovely Merino leather liberally applied across the cabin. Less lovely is the wood on the door pulls and console but the door cards have an oddly appealing woven leather which looks and feels good.

Sadly the standard 4 Series steering wheel is along for the ride. There's nothing wrong with it - although the Alpina logo does look out of place - but if I were a product planner, I'd beg for the lovelier M wheel.


McLaren 540C9/10

In 2010 the recent rise (and rise) of McLaren Automotive really began, when its design director, the hugely respected Frank Stephenson, started to send things in a compelling direction.

He says McLarens are 'designed by air' and that intricately sculpted, wind-tunnel-driven approach to supercar beauty is clear in the 540C's shape.

It's aimed at so-called everyday supercars like the Audi R8, and Porsche 911 Turbo, yet it incorporates all the subtle aero tricks that define the brand's dynamic personality.

A serious front spoiler and a mix of large intakes low in the nose create a delicate balance between downforce and corridors for cooling air.

Broad strakes down the side, standing proud of the main bodywork, are reminiscent of a formula one car's turbulence reducing barge boards, and giant intake ducts channel air through to the radiators in the cleanest, most efficient way possible.

And the look is suitably spectacular. You could hang the dramatically carved doors in a contemporary art museum.

Barely noticeable flying buttresses extending from the rear of the main roofline make a big contribution to downforce, cooling and stability with a minimal drag penalty.

There's a delicate lip spoiler on the trailing edge of the main deck, and a giant multi-channel diffuser proves air flow under the car is just as carefully managed as that going over it.

But the 540C doesn't lack traditional supercar drama. The dihedral design doors swinging up to their fully open position is a camera phone attracting, jaw dropping, traffic-stopper.

The interior is simple, striking and single-mindedly driver-focused. The chunky wheel is completely unadorned, the digital instruments are crystal clear, and the seats are the perfect combination of support and comfort.

The vertical 7.0-inch 'IRIS' touchscreen is cool to the point of minimalism, managing everything from audio and nav, to media streaming and air-con, with low-key efficiency.

Practicality

BMW Alpina B46/10

If you're in the front, you're in luck - it's a comfortable place to be, with plenty of leg and headroom. Down back isn't terrible despite the coupe roofline. The two seats are nicely shaped for maximum comfort and separated by an odd plastic tray. The fold-down armrest has two cupholders.

Front seat passengers score a pair of cupholders (bring the total to four for the car) and the long doors will hold a bottle each.

The boot swallows a reasonable 445 litres, which isn't at all bad.


McLaren 540C6/10

There are some cursory concessions to practicality… like a glovebox, a single cupholder under the dash at the leading edge of the centre console, a small bin between the seats, housing multiple USB outlets, and other storage options here and there.

The latter includes a shelf at the top of the bulkhead behind the seats, marked with a specific label saying (words to the effect of) 'don't put stuff here', but that's more about objects flying forward in a high-G deceleration, which in this car is more likely to be the result of hitting the brakes, rather than a crash.

But the 'big' surprise is the 144-litre boot in the nose, complete with light and 12 volt power outlet. It easily swallowed the CarsGuide medium sized, 68-litre hard shell suitcase.

In terms of getting in and out, make sure you've done you warm-ups because frankly it's an athletic challenge to maintain composure and get the job done either way. Despite best efforts, I hit my head a couple of times, and aside from the pain it's worth pointing out that being a follicularly-challenged person I'm forced to display abrasions in full public view.

Price and features

BMW Alpina B47/10

If you thought BMW don't mess about when pricing up its cars, you best strap yourself in. The 440i-based B4S starts at a solid $149,900. That's $48,000 more than the 440i and significantly more than an M4 Pure. But there's plenty of gear on offer and some genuine, bespoke Alpina additions.

Standard are 20-inch signature Alpina alloys, 16-speaker harmon kardon-branded stereo with DAB, super-soft Merino leather everywhere, dual-zone climate control, around-view cameras, reversing camera, sat nav, keyless entry and start, front and rear parking sensors, active cruise control, heated and electric front seats, head-up display, auto headlights and active LED headlights, LED taillights and electric sunroof.

The stereo and sat nav are run by BMW's iDrive. It's a cracker of a system and almost gets away without Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The absence of such simple pleasures at this price point is a bit lame, but here we are.


McLaren 540C9/10

At $331,500, we reckon the McLaren 540C is a supercar bargain. For just on $140k less than a Ferrari 488 GTB it delivers equivalent visual drama, and isn't far behind on speed and dynamic ability.

Standard kit runs to climate control air con, an alarm system, cruise control, remote central locking, LED headlights, tail-lights and DRLs, keyless entry and drive, a limited-slip differential, leather steering wheel, power folding mirrors, four-speaker audio, and a multi-function trip computer.

'Our' car featured close to $30,000 worth of options; headline items being the 'Elite - McLaren Orange' paint finish ($3620), a 'Sport Exhaust' system ($8500), and the 'Security Pack' ($10,520) which includes front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, alarm upgrade and a vehicle lifter that raises the front of the car an extra 40mm at the push of a column stalk. Very handy.

And the signature orange shade follows through with orange brake calipers peeking out through the standard 'Club Cast' alloy rims, and similarly coloured seatbelts inside.

Engine & trans

BMW Alpina B49/10

A lot of your extra money turns up under the bonnet. These days the 440i packs BMW's slick B58 turbo straight six and the B4S does likewise. The boys from Buchloe in Bavaria (there are certain to be women there, too, I just liked the alliteration) added a pair of Alpina-spec turbos to generate a whopping 324kW and, more importantly, 660Nm. Alpina says 600Nm (the max torque figure of the brilliant M4 CS) is available from 2000-5000rpm, while the full 660Nm is available from 3000 to 4500rpm.

The M4 Pure has 317kW and 550Nm from the S55 straight-six. Just so you know.

Like the 440i but unlike the M4, the B4S employs the dependably brilliant eight-speed ZF automatic found throughout the BMW range.


McLaren 540C9/10

Aside from you and a passenger, the most important thing sitting between the 540C's axles is the 3.8-litre (M838TE) twin-turbo V8.

Developed in collaboration with British high-tech engineering specialist, Ricardo, McLaren's used it in various states of tune across different models, including the P1, and even in this 'entry-level' spec it produces enough power to light up a small town.

In 540C trim, the all-alloy unit delivers 397kW (540 metric horsepower, hence the model designation) at 7500rpm, and 540Nm from 3500-6500rpm. It uses race-derived dry sump lubrication, and a compact flat plane crank design, favoured by Ferrari and others in high-performance engines.

While vibration damping can be an issue with this configuration, it allows a much higher rev ceiling relative to the more common cross plane arrangement, and this engine screams up to 8500rpm, a stratospheric number for a road-going turbo.

The seven-speed 'Seamless-Shift' dual-clutch transmission sends drive exclusively to the rear wheels and comes from Italian gearbox gurus Oerlikon Graziano. It's been progressively refined and upgraded since its first appearance in the MP4-12C in 2011.

Fuel consumption

BMW Alpina B47/10

Alpina quotes 7.9L/100km on the combined cycle and we went through the premium unleaded at the rate of 11.7L/100km. I enjoyed myself, so that's not a terrible result.


McLaren 540C8/10

McLaren claims 10.7L/100km for the combined (urban/extra urban) fuel economy cycle, emitting 249g/km of CO2 at the same time.

For the record, that's six per cent better than the Ferrari 488 GTB (11.4L/100km – 260g/km), and if you take it easy on a constant freeway cruise, you can lower it even further.

But most of the time, we, ahem, didn't do better than that, averaging 14.5L/100km via the trip computer in just over 300km of city, suburban and freeway running.

Driving

BMW Alpina B49/10

One of the key differences between the B4 and M4 is the ride. While the M4 can crash over bumps and generally be a little hard to live with, the crew in Buchloe have gone after a much more plush ride. And in that they have succeeded because the B4 S is a mighty fine cruiser. Bumps are dismissed with a haughty disdain, even Sport + silliness doesn't completely write-off ride quality.

Very impressive too, is the steering. While still not at Lotus Elise levels of feel (few cars are), the Alpina tweaks connect the your palms to the road with more clarity than what you'll find in the 440i or M4. Where the M4 particularly adds too much weight, the 440i is a bit more circumspect in that regard.

And then we come to the engine. The B58 six is a belter, better even than the N55 that preceded it. It's still a 3.0-litre straight six but is part of BMW's modular engine family that starts with a 1.5-litre triple in the Mini and 1 Series. The Alpina-spec turbos are noisier, the Akrapovic exhaust lighter and also noisier. It doesn't have the all-out crackle and pop of an Audi or Merc (perish the thought), but when you're on it, the B4 means business. The 660Nm of torque, available over a wide rev range, delivers a steel fist wrapped in a velvet glove and bubble wrap - the speed builds rapidly but smoothly. 

The approach to the chassis tune seems to be based on the driving talents of mere mortals on normal roads, which is kind of like the 440i. It's terrific fun to drive hard but it's very forgiving and patient. The great thing about it is that you wouldn't think twice about jumping in it for the long haul, so comfortable and quiet is the cabin. The M4 will leave it for dead on a winding road, but that's perfectly fine.

One irritant is the replacement of the admittedly cheap BMW gearshift paddles with weirdly non-tactile buttons. They're not particularly easy to use and, probably worse for a sporty car, unsatisfying. It's an odd detail with which to go off the reservation. Cheeringly, the eight-speed ZF is its usual perfect self, so you don't have to worry too much about manual mode or go old school and use the shifter.


McLaren 540C9/10

The best word to describe driving this McLaren is orchestration. The 540C's dynamic elements flow seamlessly together to transform its operator into a conductor guiding a well-honed mechanical orchestra through an energetic concerto.

And slipping (carefully) over the carpeted bulkhead into the driver's seat is like dropping into an ergonomic masterclass. It feels like you're putting the car on, rather than getting into it.

Like all other current McLarens, the 540C is constructed around a one-piece, carbon-fibre tub, which it calls MonoCell II. It's super stiff, and just as importantly, light.

McLaren quotes a dry weight (no fuel, lubricants, or coolant) for the 540C of 1311kg, with the kerb weight a stated 1525kg (including a 75kg passenger). Not featherweight, but with this kind of power sitting a few centimetres behind your head, it's not a lot.

A sophisticated launch control system means zero to licence loss is achieved in a flash (0-100km/h – 3.5sec), with jail time lurking if you ever decide to explore the 540C's 320km/h maximum velocity. And in case you're wondering, it'll blast from 0-200km/h, in just 10.5sec.

The engine sounds brilliantly guttural, with lots of exhaust roar managing to find a way past the turbos. Maximum torque is available across a flat plateau from 3500-6500rpm, and mid-range punch is strong. However, the 540C is anything but a one-trick pony, or is that 540 ponies?

The double wishbone suspension, complete with the adaptive 'Active Dynamics Control' system lets you channel all that forward thrust into huge cornering speed.

The switch from Normal, through Sport to Track progressively buttons everything down harder, and an ideal weight distribution (42f/58r) delivers fantastic agility.

Feel from the electro-hydraulic steering is amazing, the fat Pirelli P Zero rubber (225/35 x 19 front / 285/35 x 20 rear), developed specifically for this car, grips like a Mr T handshake, and the standard 'Brake Steer' torque vectoring system, which applies braking force to optimise drive and minimise understeer, is undetectable in the best possible way.

A console switchable 'Powertrain Control System' also offers three settings, and in the upper modes, shifts from the seven speed dual clutch 'box are eye-blink rapid.

The steering wheel paddles come in the form of a genuine rocker, so you're able to change up and down ratios on either side of the wheel, or one-handed.

Hammer towards a quick corner and the reassuringly progressive steel rotor brakes bleed off speed with complete authority. Flick down a couple of gears, then turn in and the front end sweeps towards the apex without a hint of drama. Squeeze in the power and the fat rear rubber keeps the car planted, and perfectly neutral mid-corner. Then pin the throttle and the 540C rockets towards the next bend… which can't come quickly enough. Repeat, and enjoy.

But slotting everything into 'Normal' mode transforms this dramatic wedge into a compliant daily driver. Smooth throttle response, surprisingly good vision and excellent ride comfort make the McLaren a pleasure to steer around town.

You'll love catching a glimpse of the heat haze shimmering up off the engine in the rear-view mirror at the lights, and the (optional) nose-lift system makes traversing awkward driveways and speed bumps manageable.

Safety

BMW Alpina B48/10

The Alpina ships with six airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward collision warning, forward AEB, road sign recognition and active cruise control.

There are also two ISOFIX points in the rear. Neither the Alpina nor the 4 Series has an ANCAP safety rating.


McLaren 540C8/10

In terms of active safety, the car's dynamic ability is one giant safeguard against a collision, and that's backed up by tech features including ABS and brake assist (no AEB, though), as well as stability and traction controls.

But if a crunching-type incident is unavoidable, the carbon-composite chassis offers exceptional crash protection with dual front airbags in support (no side or curtain airbags).

Not a huge surprise that ANCAP (or Euro NCAP, for that matter) hasn't assessed this particular vehicle.

Ownership

BMW Alpina B46/10

Alpina offers a two-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty which is a bit behind the times and not in keeping with the price point. Servicing is another matter altogether and you're subject to your dealer's standard charges for servicing.


McLaren 540C8/10

McLaren offers a three year/unlimited km warranty on the 540C, and servicing is recommended every 15,000 km or two years, whichever comes first. No capped price servicing program is offered.

That's a lot of kays for a premium exotic like this, and some may not see 15,000km on the odometer… ever.