BMW Alpina B4 VS Mercedes-Benz SL-Class
BMW Alpina B4
- Ride and handling
- Brilliant engine
- The price
- No Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
- Some dodgy styling features
- Amazing ride
- Brilliant engine
- Unparalleled presence
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.
|Engine Type||3.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the 2016 Mercedes-AMG SL63 with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.
Well. They don't make cars like this anymore, do they? Time was, a big coupe or convertible were de rigeur for the well-heeled banker, with 12 cylinders almost a given and fuel consumption measured in super tankers, or more likely just not talked about at all.
The world has changed but Mercedes’ SL hasn't. That's not strictly true, of course. The SL63 may drop four of the SL65's 12 cylinders, but at just half a litre smaller and still with twin-turbos it generates the enormous thrust a luxo-barge like this needs. The things that made it an icon are indeed still there - lots of tech, a style all its own and a name everyone recognises.
|Engine Type||5.5L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
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?
The SL's overall score is somewhat skewed by everyday concerns, and rules are rules - an average punter will find the price of this car somewhat confusing and the devil-may-care attitude to fuel consumption bewildering.
If neither of these things are a problem, then the SL63 makes plenty of - well, not sense, because it's not a particularly clever or considered car - but it fills a niche that not so long ago we all thought would go the way of the dodo.
The fact it sells so few examples is betrayed by some of the cabin amenities and the fact that Mercedes hasn't put much effort into reducing the car's weight to improve its consumption or sharpen up the handling.
The fact it still exists at all is pretty damn cool, though, and for certain people an SL63 purchase is the culmination of a lot of hard work.
If it is your dream car, the SL63 won't disappoint. Everyone who rode with me said it was mightily impressive, but you've got to really want it. When you're not far off buying a Ferrari California T or Aston Martin V12 Vantage S for the money, you'll need a real yearning for the three-pointed star to go this way. And if you do, good luck to you - you've probably worked quite hard to get here.
Would you consider the SL63 over a Ferrari or Aston-Martin? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
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.
The SL has always been completely unapologetic about its size and seems to be designed to accentuate rather than hide its length and width. The long bonnet screams power and prestige, and get out of my way, and is reminiscent of the little-loved McLaren SLR project of some years ago.
The size of the Mercedes logo on the huge front grille leaves you in little doubt about the brand of car that’s about to pass you at speed and some might say (okay, I would) that its large surface area is a little vulgar.
Like the SLR, the design doesn't seem to have a particularly cohesive strategy, with a number of Mercedes elements from around the traps that climb over each other. Roof up it looks awkward because of the gigantic posterior while with the roof down it looks overly long and, again, tail-heavy.
Folding hardtops are notoriously cumbersome and need a lot of room to hide them, but the silent operation is something to behold.
Elements that are worth deleting if possible are the dodgy 'Biturbo' badges. It's that kind of bling that gets people raising their little finger at you.
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.
“Practicality” is about as relevant to this car as a code of ethics is to a drug dealer or a contract killer, because the SL63 buyer is hardly worried about cupholders and boot space. For what it's worth, there are four cupholders in the two-seater cabin (which might explain why owners aren't worried about their liquid carrying prospects) and a minimum boot space of 364 litres and a maximum - with roof up - of 504, which is actually not bad.
Cleverly, there's a little robot-operated luggage cover inside the deep boot that stops your gear from being crushed when the roof goes down.
There's also space in the long doors where you might secrete a bottle of wine that would get a NSW Premier fired if he thanks you for it, and a bin in the console to hide your phone.
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.
It’s difficult to ponder the idea of value when a car is already approaching $400,000 at a rapid rate even before you start piling on the options. On the plus side, for a list price of $368,715 you do get an extremely long list of standard equipment.
Edited highlights include leather on almost every available surface, heated and cooled electric seats with a fan heater for your neck, a B&O stereo that will shatter the windscreen on request, aluminium trim that's real aluminium (mostly), Active Ride suspension, sat nav, dual-zone climate control, active cruise, LED headlights and a huge swag of safety gear.
The 12-speaker stereo also has DVD, limited smartphone integration via Mercedes' COMAND system, a seven-inch screen and, of course, Bluetooth.
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.
The SL63 is powered by Mercedes’ increasingly famous V8, with two turbos along for the ride to add oomph and cut the car's famous consumption, at least slightly. The 5.5-litre unit produces a massive 430kW and a scarcely believable 900Nm of torque.
All of that heads rearward via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that helps sling the 4.6m, 1848kg machine to 100km/h in 4.1 seconds.
Much as is the case with the price, there's no real way to soften the blow here - the SL63 drinks like a footballer on Mad Monday, except it does it every day. The official combined cycle figure of 10.2L/100km is quite easy to double, as we did, averaging 21L/100km in mostly flowing suburban traffic. In the car’s defence, the accelerator pedal spent a good deal of time near the firewall.
The SL does have stop-start to help reduce its considerable environmental impact.
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.
There are a number of impressive things about the way the SL drives. Firstly, astronauts will be familiar with the galactic thrust of the V8. It seems endless, seamless and ready to sling the big coupe into the outer atmosphere. Few engines of any kind can match the relentless go on offer in the SL and much of the credit should go to the seven-speed twin-clutch transmission.
Containing a torque figure like the twin-turbo V8's requires a lot of electro-trickery to stop you from being launched off the road. The great thing about all that stuff is that it works unobtrusively and smoothly.
Mashing the carpet in an SL without traction control would create much sound and smoke but little forward progress, such is the twist on tap. The SL has a range of modes from full-nanny (which is meant to keep you on the slippery Alpine road you've chosen to get you to some Swiss ski resort) while turning the dial all the way around to Race loosens the bonds.
It's in this mode you'll have the most fun and it does seem that the intermediate settings are a bit of a waste of time. Race mode does little to diminish the amazing ride quality provided by the active suspension setup, but relaxes the reins on the huge rear tyres. Exiting roundabouts is suddenly a huge laugh, with the tail cheerfully breaking traction and the two-mode exhaust thundering in a most pleasant way.
Better still is that when you jump on the brakes and shift down, the exhaust keeps the show going with angry crackles and pops, with more on the way when you lift off. There's little to match the aural pleasures of a properly tuned V8 and Mercedes has resisted the temptation to quieten it down on the outside and generate a fake noise for the inside. Although that would be stupid in a convertible, if you think about it.
The SL63, despite its AMG badge, isn't about all-out handling, of course. The Ferrari California would definitely show it how it’s done on a winding country road. The SL is more about flow, building momentum and rarely shifting down to second gear. The monstrous torque is enough to keep things rolling but should you wish for a bit more of the exhaust bellow, second is there for the taking.
Hustling the big convertible feels wrong, not because it can't do it, but because it's not really what it's for. Having said that, it offers a kind of fun that nothing else on Earth will provide, not even a Bentley GTC.
With the roof up, the SL63 is a quiet place but not remarkably so. The huge sticky tyres do the cabin's hush no favours, with an annoying roar on a wider range of surfaces than you might expect.
Roof down, it's hardly a paragon of virtue. A lot of wind noise reaches the cabin, even well below the huge speeds the SL can reach. So if you want to talk, it's windows up you'll need to deploy the mesh screen that bridges the roll hoops.