How BMW uses its mystifying Alpina brand to capture ultra-wealthy buyers who want the 'ultimate Ultimate Driving Machine'
- The Alpina B7 is a special kind of BMW, a luxury ride that springs from 0 to 100 km/h in 3 seconds.
- The Alpina brand seems an odd fit in BMW's broader business, but it's a clever tool for attracting very wealthy buyers who might otherwise head for a higher-end automaker.
- These consumers buy Alpina because they're looking for a little more elegance, sophistication and a more luxurious experience.
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The BMW Alpina B7 is a $143,000 (R2.3 million), ultra-luxurious, highly-tuned four-door. It features a special version of BMW's 4.4-liter V8 behind its flared nostril grille, one outfitted with a host of Alpina-branded performance upgrades, that cause it to produce a walloping 600 horsepower. In the US it costs around
With all-wheel-drive providing prodigious grip, it can blast from 0 to 100 km/h in just over three seconds on its way to a top speed of330 km/h, making it among the fastest sedans in the world. Lined with upgraded leathers and woods, featuring a full boatload of power-operated conveniences, and hosting a specially calibrated air suspension that uses cameras to spot and mitigate upcoming road imperfections, it is also a remarkably docile and pleasant place to watch the time and kilometres go by: composed and cosseting, even at speed.
The B7 is, in fact, superior in every way to BMW's flagship 7-Series, the 12-cylinder M760.
All of which begs a few questions. What is an Alpina? Why is it part of the BMW product portfolio? Why do BMW dealers sell it? And most of all: Why does it exist?
"In the Alpina brand profile, the centre is pleasure," says Andy Bovensiepen, CEO of Alpina, the company his father Burkard founded. "An Alpina is very fast, but also very easy to drive. Easy to control — not like a race car. If you make a mistake, you will not lose your calm and go out of control. It's very refined, with a good symbiosis between sporty and comfort."
The Alpina brand was founded as an aftermarket upfitter in the mid-60s, when Burkard Bovensiepen developed a dual carburetor kit to increase the power output in his newly purchased BMW 1500 sedan (it lacked the oomph of the Porsche 911 he'd had to part with when he had kids). Wanting an official imprimatur of the quality of his components, Burkard presented these kits to BMW sales director Paul Hahnemann. Hahnemann passed them on to the brand's technical director, who tested them and said they were factory quality and wouldn't violate the warranty.
"This started the ball rolling with this close association with the brand," says Jackie Jouret, an automotive writer and analyst who has written six books on BMW, and was the editor of the BMW-specific magazine Bimmer for 18 years. Alpina went on to develop other aftermarket add-ons for BMW, then fashioned a string of winning race cars from BMW products. Starting in the 80s, it moved away from crafting bolt-on high performance parts to focus on building officially-sanctioned versions of the brand's sports coupes and sedans.
"Alpina was always going, right from the start, for refinement. That's the key word," says Jouret. "Better performance, yes, but also increased reliability, and increased cornering capacity, with greater comfort."
This places Alpina in an interesting position within the BMW product universe, as the Bavarian marque has also crafted a reputation for its ur-brand that is based around the refined intersection of sport and comfort, as communicated in its iconic tagline The Ultimate Driving Machine.
Moreover, BMW, like many high-end automakers, already has an in-house go-fast tuner, BMW M, which outfits nearly every one of its models with mechanical and aerodynamic performance upgrades. It even has a division, BMW Individual, that will customize a vehicle for a client, providing special paint, interior or exterior materials, or trim details across the product range.
But Alpina caters to a still different and specific clientele.
"Demographically, the M cars and the Alpina cars have a lot of overlap. But these cars can be complementary without competing with each other," says Matt Russell, spokesperson for the Alpina brand in the Americas. "You have this emphasis shift from pure canyon-carving driving machine, to a luxurious, incredibly poised, composed machine, with stability from 0 to 205 mph. But its composure and presence is almost stately." Alpinas also have wonderful curb presence, with custom add-ons like the signature oversized multi-spoked wheels, aerodynamic kits, graphics, and colors.
Jouret concurs. "BMW Individual and BMW M together approach what an Alpina is, but you'd have to combine those two things, and while there would be some overlap, an Alpina is more mature, less track-oriented, more about high speed autobahn performance or on-road performance."
Bovensiepen summarizes this in a slightly different way. "People buy Alpina cars because they deliver a lot of understatement," he says. "An M car is, 'I like to show what I have.' But an Alpina is, 'I have an expensive car, but it is not necessarily to be seen on the outside."
There is also a clear, internal BMW business case for this vehicle. "The Alpina models extend the role of the 7-Series throughout its life cycle., expanding the portfolio for BMW," Russell says. Cars like the B7 allow BMW to identify customer groups underserved by its current offerings, and find opportunities to expand its product lineup without risking dilution. "This lets us reach different psychographics within a demographic segment."
Thus, the core reason for the existence of the Alpina brand in the BMW portfolio is to provide a very unique, upscale option to consumers, while keeping them in the BMW universe. "When it comes to Alpina, the sense of exclusivity is up high on the list of criteria for that customer in the US," Russell says, noting that the brand sells only several hundred cars here annually, and that this year's allotment is already spoken for. "It's for people who are looking to differentiate themselves from the BMW brand," but from the inside, out.
The data underscores this assertion. According to Strategic Vision, an automotive consulting firm that conducts an annual in depth survey of hundreds of thousands of new car buyers, BMW owners earn more than other luxury car buyers, and BMW M buyers earn even more.
But, according to Strategic Vision president Alexander Edwards, "Alpina owners are in a different class altogether. Their average household income is $517,000 (R8.4 million)." The data says that these consumers buy Alpina because they're looking for a little more elegance, sophistication and a more luxurious experience. "In brief," Edwards says, "Alpina owners want, and believe that they get, the Ultimate Ultimate Driving Machine. It is the paragon example of what a BMW is supposed to be."