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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Great debate- Alpina B7 or Audi S8

Chismillionaire's vote is for the S8.

words: Stu Fowle

For the wealthy enthusiast, options for roomy and lavish top-end sports sedans are more plentiful than ever, with no signs of that trend reversing — both Porsche and Aston Martin will have sleek executive cruisers by the end of the decade. Exclusivity is just as important as performance for these buyers, because who wants to be driving the same sled as that no-good lawyer down the street? But what's the best buy? Maserati's Quattroporte might be the quick answer, but that may be a little too obvious. The Bentley Continental Flying Spur? Sure, if you want it to get egged on a daily basis. And so many people line up to buy Mercedes-Benz S-classes that the company offers a downright ridiculous three models churning out over 500 hp. That leaves two elite machines that fit the bill perfectly: the Audi S8 and the BMW Alpina B7. Both are spacious, both are luxurious, both are plenty powerful, and best of all, they're incredibly rare. BMW has cut Alpina imports off at 750 units total and Audi delivers less than 1000 S8s to U.S. dealerships each year. Lamborghini sold more cars here last year — 1001 to be exact.

The thing is, while B7 and S8 have so much in common, there's a larger gap between them than a few letters and one number. Getting the two together for a day's drive made us notice how Coke-versus-Pepsi these cars truly are.



One look at each sedan hints at the personality split between the two. The Alpina wears 21-inch rubber — staggered with 245/35ZR21s at the front and wide 285/30ZR21s at the rear — wrapping the largest-ever iteration of Alpina's classic radial spoke wheels. Our sport-package S8 wears smaller 20-inch tires measuring 275/35R20 at all four corners, and its alloys are less in-your-face than the B7's.

Further up from the pavement, the Audi follows the same rules of understatement. Only brushed mirror covers, a more prominent vertical-slat grille, and tiny V10 badges on the fenders differentiate our silver beast from its lesser stablemates. It fades into traffic as if it were nothing more than an oversized A4. But not even Paul Walker would call the B7 understated. Its integrated rear spoiler looks like something borrowed from the Batmobile and the front wears a similarly cartoonish lower valence. Paint those parts, along with the rest of the body, signature Alpina blue, and the result is as subtle as a Michael Bay movie.

Either cabin is a lovely place to spend an afternoon, but the S8's is a contemporary masterpiece awash in carbon fiber, brushed aluminum, chocolate-dyed leather, and soft Alcantara. If Rolls-Royce or Bentley weren't so stuck in tradition, their interiors would look like this. Small Bang & Olufsen tweeters that rise out of the dash when activated — part of a $6300 audio package — are the cherries atop this glamorous sundae. Still, the S8 is in need of a minor equipment update to get on par with the competition. Does Audi really expect us to go without cooled and massaging seats in this day and age?

The B7's seats have both of those functions, but the rest of the cabin is worse than the Audi's. Sure, the Myrtle wood trim, Alcantara headliner, and Lavalina leather-wrapped wheel are all nice, but operating anything electronic is, as has been stated about the current 7-series a thousand times, a nightmare. With 500 tire-shredding horsepower under the hood, digging through menus to deactivate stability control has never been so frustrating.


But those 500 horses are oh-so-rewarding. The Alpina swaps out the standard 750i's 4.8-liter V-8 for a smaller 4.4-liter (from the pre-facelift 745i) featuring a radial-style supercharger. A first for a passenger car, the radial blower eschews the familiar screws for a turbine compressor wheel — just like a turbocharger. Spun through a 17.6:1 gearset that's lubricated with the engine's supply of oil, the supercharger produces a maximum 11.6 pounds of boost. Along with the horsepower, the engine makes an even more impressive 516 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm, though it feels like 90 percent of that is available through the full rev range. That power's routed through a 6-speed automatic with Alpina's Switch-tronic tuning. The waste from the engine is let loose in a glorious growl that the S8's extra two cylinders can't match.


With 450 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque, the S8's V-10 can't match the Alpina's acceleration, either, especially with a 110-pound weight penalty versus the BMW's 4476 pounds. BMW and Audi quote 0-60 mph times of 4.8 and 4.9 seconds, respectively, but our uncorrected test on a 70-degree day in Chicago returned times of 5.1 seconds for the BMW and 5.5 for the Audi. The rear-drive B7 has a harder time laying power down initially, while the all-wheel-drive S8 leaps into motion but has to dig deeper to draw out the Lamborghini-sourced engine. The Alpina always has plenty on tap. To Audi's credit, engineers have done an excellent job integrating an aggressive throttle tip-in and eager downshifts into the car's gear-selector-based sport mode, making the engine seem more powerful than it is in this heavy car. Just don't leave "S" selected if you're trying to show off your smooth driving style — relaxed starts from stoplights are impossible.

b7s85_left.jpg The Alpina B7 reveals itself to be as a sport sedan all grown up, while the S8 feels more like a luxury sedan with sporting overtones. The Audi's throttle tip-in trickery is only the first sign of that. In contrast to the Alpina's natural and direct steering, the Audi's feels as overboosted as a vintage Cadillac's. Bumps from the road assert themselves through the wheel and it's sometimes hard to keep a steady line through a rough corner. Likewise, the brake pedal feels soft and sinks too far down before any real squeeze begins, despite the outrageously large 15.2-inch front calipers and 13.2-inch rear rotors. The Alpina's, borrowed from the V-12-powered 760i, split those numbers and deliver excellent feedback, wearing 14.7- and 14.6-inch rotors front and rear.

It's odd that there's so little similarity between the controls and dynamics of two cars that are so alike in size and price (each of our test cars came in at just around $115,000). Beyond their divergence in braking and steering feels, their handling characteristics are complete opposites: the Alpina is well-damped, sorting out larger dips, bumps, and side-to-side motions without transmitting the movement to the passengers, but small potholes, expansion joints, and that dime someone dropped in the road all send quick shocks through the car. The Audi soaks up that small stuff, but the ride goes Buick-y in those conditions where the Alpina is taut and composed.

We'd love to give the Alpina the win and call it a day. It has more power, better straight-line performance, better steering, better brakes, and a more compliant suspension. But getting out of the B7 and into the S8 isn't unlike coming home from work, throwing on some sweat pants, and enjoying a cold beer over a baseball game. The Audi's just such a comfortable, inviting car. It doesn't beg for attention the way the B7 does, and the controls — yes, those same ones we criticized for being too soft to warrant an "S" badge — are relaxed enough for the daily commute. The B7 begs to be pushed and it's easy to open up the floodgate of power. It's fun, sure, but not necessarily what we require in a daily cruiser. Which brings us to the question you've probably been thinking about for the last ten paragraphs or so: Do you want your big, ultra-rare sedan to behave like a sports car, or do you want a traditional big car that just happens to be surprisingly fast? We'll call the former a Type B7 personality. The latter, that's a Type S8. Either is rare and respectable.