• Alpina XB7

BMW’s New Model Showcase includes several worthy First Drives

Notable drives include the M440i Coupe, Mini JCW GP – and a North America-first track drive of the Alpina XB7.

Lesley Wimbush By: Lesley Wimbush November 4, 2020
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It was a Bavarian smorgasbord of sorts when BMW rolled out a selection of their new lineup at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. While it’s always nice to get some seat time in an M8 Gran Coupe Competition, or Mini Cooper S, more notable were our first drives of the M440i Coupe, Mini JCW GP – and a North America-first track drive of the Alpina XB7.

The new 4 series debuts a controversial redesign that includes one of the most garish grille treatments in recent memory, like doubling up on the old Edsel’s horse collar. While from the side the coupe bears more than passing resemblance to the sleek Mustang-like 8 Series, head-on its comically oversized nostrils are quite jarring in an otherwise pretty car.

The upgraded cabin is comfortable and swathed in yards of premium leather. Sport seats are sublimely comfortable and fit like a glove thanks to adjustable bolsters.

Although the coupe shares the same 112.2-inch wheelbase with the 3 series sedan, it’s lower, longer, and wider, and has a wider rear track. Gaining five inches in length over the previous model has given the 4 series enough room for an honest-to-goodness adult-size rear seat, but that space comes at the expense of weight. The M440i adds about 100 pounds, and 53.8 per cent of its nearly two-ton weight is placed over the front wheels – not an ideal ratio for a performance car.

Alpina XB7

It’s certainly fast though. The turbo-charged 3.0 inline six puts out 382 horsepower and 369 lb ft of torque, channeled to all four wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission. Since the M440i is only available with all wheel drive, enthusiasts looking for the rear-wheel drive experience will have to opt for the 430i. With only 255 hp the 430i may be less powerful, but it also trims nearly 400 pounds off the nose for better weight balance.

According to BMW, the M440i will hit 100 km/hr in 3.8 seconds, aided by a new 48-volt motor generator that supplies an over-boost of 11 horsepower to help mitigate turbo lag. An M Sport electronically controlled limited slip differential, M Sport adaptive suspension, upgraded brakes and variable steering assist are all standard on the M440i, but available as options on the 430i.

The M440i can certainly handle a fast and twisty course, but overcook a tight turn and you can feel the inevitable understeer of a heavy-nosed car before the electronics intervene.  Steering is sharp, but light and doesn’t offer a lot of feedback. Thanks to the competence of its all-wheel-drive system, the M440i not a car that could easily be induced into tail-happy rotation. This is good news for many, except for the purist looking for a raw sports car experience. More grand tourer than performance coupe, the $78,495 (as driven) M440i now resembles one of BMW’s premium luxury models.

Alpina XB7

Granted, a nearly-3-ton SUV wouldn’t be my first choice to tackle a tight and technical road course, but the $179,900 (as driven) Alpina XB7 acquits itself fairly well for such an enormous beast. What’s so special about this particular version of what’s currently BMW’s largest SUV you might ask? Unlike the M-badged vehicles produced by BMW’s in-house tuning department, Alpina, an independent customizer of high-performance BMWs features unique styling and colours and a special emphasis on luxury and torque. While BMW’s most powerful version of the X7, the M50i, produces 523hp – Alpina tweaks the 4.4L V8 even further by adding bigger turbos and bringing the power up to 612 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque. That’s more powerful than the W12-powered Bentley Bentayga.

Alpina XB7

But it wasn’t just the motor that underwent significant changes, Alpina also added a stainless steel exhaust, a revised ZF 8-speed transmission with Alpina paddle shifters, front and rear air suspension that can lower the body up to 1.6 -nches, Alpina blue Brembo 4-piston brakes, larger front intakes, optional 23-inch wheels, and an Alpina rear diffuser with integrated exhaust tips. The lower stance gives it a more aggressive appearance than the X7, drops 20 mm in Sport mode and an additional 20 mm in Sport++, or at speeds over 250 km/hr. The driver can also opt to raise it by 20 mm for extra clearance.

The big V8 burbles and barks delightfully at speed, and while a vehicle this big can’t be expected to behave like a sports sedan, it does exhibit outstanding body control. Speed arrives in a quick and linear fashion, and long before redlining thanks to the prodigious amount of torque, and the rapid-shifting 8-speed transmission.  Rear axle steering and active anti-roll system contribute to a feeling of stability even while cornering, and steering is sharp and precise. Yet even in Sport++ mode, the suspension remained supple and compliant. The first Alpina-tuned SUV to reach North American shores, the XB7 has already sold out its entire production run for this year.

First introduced in 2006, the Mini John Cooper Works GP is the hard-core performance star of Mini’s lineup, with a frolicking character that works as well on the road as it does on-track. It’s easily identified by the red-rimmed front splitter, hood induction, large air ducts, muscular wheel arches and roof spoiler. Inside are bolstered sport buckets, and a cross brace replacing the rear seats.

Alpina XB7

Underhood is the same BMW-sourced 2.0 litre engine found in the regular 236 hp/236 lb-ft. JCW and Cooper variants, but tweaked to produce 301 hp and 332 lb-ft. The power is channelled through an eight-speed transmission to the front wheels, where its managed by a mechanical front differential.

It’s certainly quick–zero to 100 km is achieved in five seconds – but with the extra power and refinement comes a loss of character. Granted, the Aisin eight-speed shifts faster than any human could hope to, but I couldn’t help compare it to the delightful gearbox of the previously driven Cooper S. Steering delivers less feedback than expected from a track-focused vehicle. The GP delivered blistering speed on the straights, but exhibited more squirm than anticipated in the corners, as if the front wheels were overwhelmed by the huge wallop of torque, and it required smooth and careful throttle inputs to keep it neutral.

At only 2,855 lbs, the GP feels tight and quite tossable thanks to the aforementioned rear brace, front strut tower brace, and underbody plate.  The firm suspension, wide stance, and sticky tires coupled with the mechanical limited slip differential help manage the torque steer inherent with channeling that much power through the front wheels.

While it lacks the joyous engagement of some of the lesser but manually equipped minis, the $51,990 JCW GP is still a formidable track day performer.

The writer attended this event as a guest of the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.

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