The many talents of the performance estate

Performane Car Estates 2021

Is the performance estate the best all-round car you can buy? Mark Smyth grabs the latest Alpina B3 Touring to find out.

Estate cars have always been about practicality, space for 2.4 kids, the dog and the occasional piece of furniture. They’re trustworthy, unemotional and sometimes just a bit boring. Boring? Heck no.

Now if this was a TV intro then this is the point when a performance estate would come charging into the shot, probably sideways because that’s how estate cars are generally driven to Tesco and while making a loud noise. But this isn’t TV so you’ll have to use your imagination.

From race cars to raw power

It didn’t take much did it? Because the performance estate has been with us for some time in varying degrees of raucousness. Think back to the image-changing Volvo 850R, the ability of the Subaru GT wagon to out-corner most Italian sports cars and then there’s the raw power that seems to come from somewhere deep in the belly of the earth, of the mighty Mercedes-AMG models. Performance estate cars are the best cars.

Those who own a BMW X6M, Audi SQ8 or Porsche Cayenne Turbo probably think otherwise, but generally people who buy performance SUVs don’t do so because they’re keen to make the most of the performance, but rather because they can and because they think they look cool on the school run. People who buy performance estates, now they know stuff.

There are flashy ones of course, such as the Audi RS6 Avant or the Mercedes-AMG E63S. There are understated ones like the Volvo V90 T6 plug-in hybrid and the brilliant BMW M340d and then there are ones that are not so obviously estates, like the Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo, which also happens to be pure electric.

Masters of the estate

If it seems like there’s a performance estate to suit every taste and need, you’re probably right, but what if you want something a bit different? There are plenty of specialist tuners that have created some awesome estate cars, but we decided to start at the beginning, of the alphabet that is and go with one of the most respected of them all, Alpina.

The German tuner has been around since the 1960s and has created versions of everything from the E28 5 Series to the rare Z8 roadster and today even sprinkles its magic on SUVs. They’re all BMWs of course and the relationship is so intertwined that some Alpina models are actually built on BMW production lines.

In the UK, Alpina is looked after by the Sytner Group, so we headed over to their base in Nottingham to get our paws on the B3 Touring. 

Its looks are slightly understated in the same way as the BMW M340i on which it is based. There are tell-tale signs though that this is no ordinary Touring. The badges are obvious ones of course but those who know will immediately spot the 20-inch multi-spoke forged Alpina Classic rims. There are a few other details too, such as the Alpina rear spoiler and black high-gloss treatment on some components, but otherwise it’s all very wolf in sheep’s clothing and as we all know, a wolf has some sharp teeth.

BMW heart massaged by Alpina 

In this case those teeth are a bi-turbo 3.0 litre straight-six petrol engine producing 462hp and 700Nm. It’s not the same straight-six from the M340i though, Alpina has snuck off to BMW’s M division and snatched the S58 engine from the M3. What makes this choice even more interesting is that BMW is busy developing its first M3 Touring, which will go on sale in 2022, at which point the two models will be direct competitors for the first time - fight! 

The B3 will hit 62mph in 3.9 seconds, a tenth slower than the saloon version and top out at 186mph. Keeping everything in check is BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive system, a rear axle limited slip differential and a host of electronic nannies, most of which will quite happily have a bit of a nap if you ask them to via the Driving Experience Control.

There’s a wide range of settings from Comfort and Comfort+ through to Sport and Sport+, all of which alter anything from how much the nannies are sleeping to the variable suspension damping, throttle response and steering. 

Inside, it’s pleasantly BMW-ville, but again it’s about the details, such as the badge in the hand-stitched Alpina steering wheel, the emblems in the seats and floor mats, the Alpina door sills, a model number production plaque and the Alpina digital instrumentation. What the interior also is, is very comfortable. There’s loads of space, a great driving position and of course, enough room for the kitchen sink in the boot. If you want to load the whole kitchen, then you can fold down the seats and cram in up to 1,510 litres. We’re not sure how many litres of kitchen that is, but put it this way, you’ll get plenty of flat-pack furniture in there.

Alpina B3T Performance Car Estate
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Heading for the hills

We had no plans to visit Ikea and verify this statistic though, instead we were heading for the hills, more specifically the Peak District. Sadly, the weather was a bit rubbish, grey, cold and a bit drizzly, possibly great for hiking the peaks, not so great for getting the most out of an Alpina B3 Touring.

Heading out of Nottingham provided a great opportunity to get to know the B3 a bit. The steering wheel is meaty, the seats supportive and the the ride comfortable enough in regular Comfort mode to make breezing along wide A-roads a relaxing experience. Also, despite an Alpina-specific exhaust system, the B3 is not loud and boisterous while gently cruising, in fact it’s rather sedate. 

That’s a good thing, because the best performance estates are the ones that will gently take the kids to school, or let them sleep on a long trip. They won’t wake the neighbours if you leave early in the morning or make someone drop their shopping when you start them in the supermarket car park. 

But then, when you get to the Snake Pass, or interestingly named Devil’s Arse, you push the button for Sport mode, wiggle your backside to make sure you’re properly in your seat, pull on one of the specially machined paddle shifters and go for it. Within seconds you are forgetting you are in the same car you dropped the kids off to school in as you explore the grip while the revs climb through the maximum torque point of 4,500 rpm. Then you keep going, into the maximum power band between 5,500 and 7,000 where you change up and keep going. 

If you do happen to be on the Snake Pass then you’ll probably only get to do this between first and third before coming across something slower or someone driving like a bit of a muppet - there are plenty of them on that road. Choose a less popular road and you’ll have much more fun, even in miserable weather where the B3 showed a superb amount of control and grip through the combination of its specially made Pirelli P Zero tyres, xDrive and the LSD working hard in the corners. 

It wasn’t all hard corners and point and shoot action. We cruised through Glossop, Bakewell, where of course we stopped for a tart and plenty of beautiful villages, all of which showed the ability of the Touring to, tour, before returning it to Nottingham. 

So, are performance estate cars the best cars?

In spite of the inclement weather, we bonded with the £67,950 B3 (£81,825 with options) which not only proved itself to be a great piece of machinery, but it further bolstered our opinion that performance estate cars really are the best cars. Why on earth would you need anything else.