Lexus GS VS Alpina B5
- Super-smooth V6
- Lots of interesting tech
- Lovely (if old-fashioned) interior
- Media system
- No Apple CarPlay/Android Auto
- Cleaning the wheels
- Room and storage space could be better
- Not the most engaging car to drive
Ah, yes, the Lexus GS. Toyota's luxury off-shoot had high hopes for the new big boy when I first saw it a few years ago. Not thousands-of-sales high hopes, but the company thought a rear-wheel drive luxury sedan stacked with gear you didn't even know you wanted would be a dead-set winner.
And to be fair, they were right. I ran a GS as a long-termer and it was impeccably-mannered. In hybrid form. It wasn't sparkling, but my goodness, it used barely any fuel; especially impressive given its size.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
The BMW Alpina B5 Bi-Turbo is not actually a BMW. Not according to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, at least.
Nope, the modifications applied by tuning house Alpina to the 5 Series are deemed so significant that if you open the bonnet and look inside the engine bay, you'll see that the BMW VIN has been struck through twice and an Alpina vehicle number stamped underneath it.
The B5 is not the first model to be recognised in this way, either; the German government has recognised Alpina as a seperate car manufacturer since 1983.
The B5 has other ‘B' siblings, too. There's the B3 S Bi-Turbo, which is based on the BMW 3 Series, the B4 S Bi-Turbo (the BMW 4 Series) and the B7 Bi-Turbo (I don't need to tell you what this is based on, right?) which I've reviewed, too.
So just what has Alpina done to this unsuspecting BMW 5 Series? Is it really worth the extra money? How does the B5 compare to an M5? Could it actually be superior? And did they really take the speed limiter off to let it warp-speed to beyond 300km/h?
Weirdly, given all the good things I've had to say about the GS F Sport, it doesn't quite hang together. It's missing that certain something the Europeans have in their chassis, particularly the BMW 5 Series, and with ageing interior tech, it's struggling to keep up.
It's a car built for specific tastes, and they're more California than Straya. And that's perfectly okay, but unfortunately, that doesn't translate to a stampede of buyers. Having said that, none of its German rivals (or its beleaguered Japanese counterpart, Infiniti) could claim wild sales success either.
The GS is a terrific car, underrated but also just not quite there for my taste. The GS F, though, that's another thing altogether.
Does Lexus even register on your big luxury sedan radar? If it does, what stops you from taking the plunge?
The Alpina B5 is a special car – more special than most people will ever give you credit for if you own one. Those that do know what an Alpina is will let you know; people will cross dangerously busy streets to talk to you about your car. Insanely fast, almost incomprehensibly comfortable and effortlessly powerful to drive.
Does the Alpina B5 make a BMW even better? Or do you think the M5? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
The GS is ageing well, but it's still a bit heavy-handed around the headlights and a little on the slabby side along the flanks. It doesn't look poised for action, even with the F Sport additions, but nor does it look frumpy, mostly due to the whopping blacked-out spindle grille, a Lexus signature.
The rear end is good looking but a bit bluff, again neither surprising or delighting.
Little has changed inside, but it's still a very nice cabin, and always will be apart from a couple of clangers (the gear shifter looks super-cheap).
What's more, it's welcoming, lots of very nice materials, comfortable, seats - it's exactly what it needs to be. Whatever you might think of the looks, one thing is absolutely certain - if anyone builds cars better than Lexus, it's a very, very short list.
Interesting is the right word for it, because while it might be questionable that Alpina's changes to the exterior are aesthetic pleasing, they are definitely intriguing to those who aren't familiar with the brand.
First, there are those 20-spoke wheels. Alpinas have worn this style of wheel forever and they've become the most famous outward sign that this is not just another BMW. So don't under any circumstances take them off and replace them with anything else. You'd be run out of town by the Alpina mafia.
Yes, they're more painful to clean than a cheese grater (trust me, I know. And if you look closely at these images you can see the dirty bits I've missed), but if you really don't like them then perhaps it's a sign this car isn't for you.
Then there's the boot-lid spoiler. It's square and 1980s'-looking, it also appears a bit like it's been bought online and installed by a teenager, but again, this is another Alpina tradition and it suits the car's character perfectly.
All right, those pinstripes; they're known as the Deco-Set and are a hat-tip to the Alpina racecars of the 1970s and '80s. Again, don't take these off, your Alpina will drop through the centre of the Earth in value. These are also part-and-parcel of owning one of these cars. I'm not a massive fan of them.
But I'm all about that front spoiler, with the floating Alpina lettering that you can option in silver, high-gloss black or gold.
Inside, there are fewer Alpina additions, but they're nonetheless unmissable. There's the Alpina-badged steering wheel, and a new virtual instrument cluster, embossed headrests and illuminated door sills.
There's also the little numbered plaque on the centre console which proves its authenticity, ours was number 49. Out of how many? I don't know. But I do know Alpina produces only about 1700 cars globally a year. Rolls Royce does about 4000. So, you can rest assured your B5 is exclusive.
At almost 5m long, 1.9m wide and 1.5m tall, the B5 is a large saloon, but having recently reviewed the Alpina B7 it feels small in comparison. How does it drive? We're getting there.
Being a big car, there's plenty of room inside. Four passengers will be very comfortable although rear legroom was a bit on the skinny side given the car's size.
The cabin contains a good-sized console bin, four cupholders and each door pocket into which you could conceivably slot a bottle.
The 520-litre boot is a useful shape, with a sensible load height and a space-saver spare under the floor. The 5 Series and E Class both best the Lexus by 10 litres, so the GS isn't far off the norm.
Practicality is not really a BMW strong point no matter which model you pick. See, BMW mostly makes the car equivalent of uber-stylish and skin-tight active wear which looks good and performs brilliantly, but sometimes you just want pockets and a bit of room for your… um… bits and pieces.
So while there are two cup holders up front and two in the back, the bottle holders in the doors aren't huge, the centre console bin is on the small side, there's a hidy-hole in front of the shifter, the glove box is just a box for little more than gloves and there's no other great cabin storage options.
Legroom in the rear is good but not great, too - I'm 191cm tall and have about 30mm between my knees and the seat back in my driving position. Middle-seat passengers will also have to straddle the drive shaft hump in the floor. Headroom is restricted in the back, too (you could blame the sunroof) with my hair just skimming the headlining (I do have big hair).
Under that power tailgate, the B5's boot capacity is 530 litres which is 15L more than its big sister, the B7. There are two plastic storage areas either side of the luggage space for wet things. While there is one USB outlet in the front there aren't any in the rear.
Price and features
We had the pleasure of the GS 350 F Sport for the week, which is well over $10,000 cheaper than the Luxury and is therefore the 'default. If you're not sure what F Sport means, it's Lexus' answer to an M Sport or AMG pack, without all the high-powered engine shenanigans to go with it. If that's what you're after, the V8-powered Lexus GS F is definitely for you.
Starting at $95,300, the F Sport has a spectacular standard features list - 17-speaker stereo, 19-inch alloys, variable-geared four-wheel steer (!), adaptive suspension, dual-zone climate control (with moisturising function), hectares of leather trim, head-up display, electrically-operated heated and ventilated front seats, rear sunshade, F Sport instrument screen, auto LED headlights, keyless entry and start, sat nav, front and rear parking sensors with around-view cameras and a space-saver spare.
The media system is run from Lexus' 12.3-inch screen embedded in the dashboard and controlled from an infuriating console-mounted mouse-clicker with a couple of shortcut buttons. It really is spectacularly irritating and made worse by the rotary dial stationed next to it that acts as the drive mode selector. Why not use that instead?
As ever, the system is mildly baffling to use and hard to look at, but the sound is absolutely lovely from the Mark Levinson-branded speakers. Lexus is persisting with a DVD player but it also has DAB+.
The BMW Alpina B5 lists for $210,000, making it only $10K more the BMW M5 which comes with almost identical features apart from the Alpina engineering to the engine and chassis.
Arriving standard is leather upholstery, four-zone climate control, nav, the Alpina embossed-headrests, a 10.25-inch display, digital radio, Alpina door sills, sunroof, proximity key, power front seats, 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo, head-up display, Alpina virtual instrument cluster, heated front and rear seats, and the 20-inch Alpina wheels.
The test car I drove had been optioned with a limited-slip differential ($5923), steering-wheel heating ($449); soft-close function for doors ($1150); sunblinds ($1059); TV function ($2065) ambient air package ($575), and front-seat ventilation ($1454).
Engine & trans
The Alpina B5 uses the same 4.4-litre V8 engine found in the BMW M5 (and also the B7). But, and it's a big but, the M5 makes 441kW and 750Nm, while the B5 outdoes it with 447kW and 800Nm. Admittedly, the B5's torque arrives at the 3000rpm mark, while the M5's is all there from 1800rpm.
How does the B5 beat it? Alpina installed its specially developed twin turbochargers and intercoolers, a high-performance cooling system, a reconfigured air intake set up and a different exhaust system.
The B5, though, is a tenth of a second slower to 100km/h compared to the M5 with a time of 3.5 seconds, but it will blast on to a top speed of 330km/h while the M5 is limited to 250km/h in regular form and 305km/h with the optional M Driver's package.
Both uses the same ZF eight-speed automatic transmission with identical gear ratios, and both are all-wheel drive.
A real world 13.7L/100km is a solid miss of the claimed 9.3L/100km, which itself is hardly earth-shattering. It's a big heavy car and that's the penalty. It drinks fuel fast, so the 66-litre fuel tank does drain quickly and it's worth knowing you have to fill it with the 95 RON or better.
The Alpina B5 needs petrol. By that, I mean it needs quite a lot of it if you want to enjoy it properly. What type of mileage does it get? Officially, it should use 11.1L/100km after a combination of urban and open roads, where as the M5 is set to 10.5L/100km.
That makes sense, the B5 produces more power and torque, and it's 85kg heavier than the M5 at 2015kg.
Our test car's trip computer was reporting 13.2L/100km after flying low over country roads and slow city piloting. The more time spent in the urban warfare that is the daily peak hour commute, the more that figure crept and hovered around the 15L/100km mark.
There are things you expect in a Lexus. Quietness. Composure. Smoothness. The GS delivers all three of those things effortlessly. But it has a few extra things in its bag that I can't say I was expecting.
For a start, the 3.5-litre V6 moves the car without any carry-on and in doing so, I was constantly amazed at how quickly the speed in the head-up display reached the posted limit. It just doesn't feel or sound like a six second car, but there you are. The transmission is virtually faultless, the engine sound distant and refined, the power impressive.
It's a heavy car, no question, but two things work to make it feel much lighter. First - and it doesn't matter which mode you choose - the adaptive suspension somehow knocks about 200kg out of how heavy the car feels. The brakes, while a little soft on pedal feel when you first step on them, are very effective and again help to make the car feel lighter than it is.
The four driving modes are quite distinct. As usual, Eco makes everything soft and doughy or as I prefer to say, unpleasant. Normal is great for every day, with just the right throttle response and steering weight.
Moving to sport ups the aggro slightly while Sport+, while never harsh, firms everything up to the point where it starts to feel like a different car. Sport+ makes the car feel race-car pointy, the suspension holds the body in check and the power seems readily available without jerky progression
The all-wheel steer is a big part of the change in feel. It's is especially sharp in Sport+ mode. The steering's gearing changes up quite a bit, meaning a lot less steering lock required for your favourite hairpin bend. Of course, at real speed it all calms down because neither you nor Lexus are fond of sneezy lane-changes or Armco-swiping. At first I thought it just made the big car feel a bit too nervous but as I got used to it (and was able to dial it down by switching back into a less racy mode) I found it fun but a little bit out of character with the car itself.
And just because it's the F Sport, that doesn't mean it can't do all the things you'd expect from a Lexus. You can still waft, you can still creep up on people and it's really very comfortable when you're cruising or stuck in traffic.
Ok, stay with me here. For this next bit you'll need a fresh egg, a lounge chair, and it might be a good idea to have some plastic bags and carpet cleaner on hand.
First, in front of the lounge chair flatten out the plastic bag and place the egg on it. Next, sit down on the chair and very carefully rest the ball of your foot on the egg with as little pressure as humanly possible.
This is exactly how little force you need to apply to the go-pedal of the B5 to accelerate from a standstill to 60km/h in about five seconds.
If anything sums up the driving experience of the B5, it's that sense of effortlessness.
Stomp on that accelerator, and you'll be shot to 100km/h in 3.5 seconds, without a hint of broken traction thanks to the all-wheel-drive system.
The ride should have been terrible on 20-inch wheels shod in low-profile rubber (Pirelli P Zero 255/35 front, and 295/30 rear), but the Alpina-tuned air suspension is close to miraculous in the way it cushioned and censored the potholes out of Sydney's worst roads. Yes, it can be a touch floaty, particularly in the Comfort Plus setting, but this is benchmark-setting stuff for a comfortable ride.
Don't expect this beast to roar. Unlike the M5, the B5 gets its work done without deafening everybody around it. Sure, the B5's V8 sounds amazing when you push it, but it's not brash, not loud and not lairy. Buy an M5 or Mercedes-AMG E63s if you want to be heard half a block before you get home, but you won't get that with the B5 and its exhaust system.
The B5 also handles well, but I have to say the engagement factor is low. I piloted it effortlessly through the twists and turns of my country test circuit and roads which normally have me grinning like a maniac behind the wheel had me feeling a bit disconnected in the B5. That air suspension, the numb steering and pedal actions make it difficult to ‘feel' the road.
It's highways where the B5 is a king, but even at 110km/h there's the sense that this car is still fast asleep and won't get out of bed for anything less than 150km/h - making it perfect for Germany's autobahns, but maybe not for here in Australia.
The GS scores 10 airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, forward AEB, active cruise, auto high beams and lane departure warning with lane keep assist.
The GS doesn't have an ANCAP or Euro NCAP rating while the USA's IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) rating is good for each key crash-worthiness measure. The IIHS suite of tests is quite rigorous but differ from our ANCAP/Euro NCAP standards.
The Alpina B5 is based on the BMW 5 Series which had a five-star ANCAP rating awarded to it in 2017.
Along with the comprehensive suite of airbags, traction and stability control, there's an impressive array of advanced safety equipment. Coming standard is AEB (front and rear), evasive steering, front and rear cross-traffic warning, blind-spot alert and lane-keep assist. The Alpina B5 also comes with BMW's emergency call function.
For child seats you'll find two ISOFIX mounts and three top tether points across the rear row.
If you're unfortunate enough to get a flat tyre, there's a puncture repair kit in the boot which works provided the hole isn't giant, as I've experience in the past with these systems.
There's one area where Lexus smashes the Germans and that's after-sales. While the warranty is hardly ground-breaking at four years/100,000km and service intervals are reasonable at 12 months/15,000km, it's how it all comes together.
For the duration of the warranty, when the car needs a service, Lexus will either come and get it then return it to you, or give you a loan car. Anecdotal evidence suggests this continues long after the warranty runs out. Like, 10 years after the warranty runs out.
This is a small thing, but if there's one thing I hate about car ownership, it's the servicing experience. If I was a betting man, I'd dare you to find someone who genuinely has a problem with Lexus after-sales care.
On top of that, you get a generous roadside assist package for four years.