Garda Lake

Riviera Bimmers Alpina B3s Cabriolet vs E46 M3 Cabriolet

In Italy, the so-called “phase 2” has just begun and people are slowly coming back to life. Steadily and with fresh memories of the hardest moments of the Covid 19 epidemic, everyone is beginning to finally smell the fragrance of spring. Petrolheads and motorcyclists are starts to make plans for their drives/rides on that favourite mountain pass and collectors are scanning the web for their next purchase. 

Nobody expected this situation. For 2 months, we stayed in quarantine hearing the news announcing every evening a shocking bulletin of how many departed this world in the past 24 hours. Not a situation that you’ll be fond remembering anytime soon: plans, events, jobs and much more got cancelled. In mid-May the air has a smell that only happens in this time of the year. It’s fresh, inviting and charged with positivity. For us, these days mean the happiest time of the year: the spring mixes with the smell and the sound of the cars of the Mille Miglia and Villa d’Este. 

But 2020 won’t see the usual calendar. For good reasons, all events have been postponed to the Fall and (luckily) all we have to do is wait. However, when given chance to go out and enjoy the first, proper drive of the year, we surely didn’t say no. In the days of the Mille Miglia, when Viale Venezia is filled with all sorts of expensive and collectible machinery, we took two special Bimmers and head out towards one of our “joyride test tracks”, the Gardesana road on the Lake Garda. With one BMW Alpina B3 S and a mint-condition M3 E46, both manual cabriolets, we got a shot of life back to our veins.

Be aware of this: the E46 3 series is perhaps one of the prettiest BMW’s ever produced. From the base to the top-tier variants, its design is a contemporary interpretation of the classic and remarkable harmonious proportions that have always distinguished a BMW from the rest. The E46 has a sort of classicism that is almost reminiscent of 1960ies Alfa Romeo’s: a fresh and still-actual interpretation of the classic 3-volumes saloons that define the idea of “daily-sportiness”. In this case, we took two very different interpretations of the same car. What should’ve we expected from such combo? Simply, this pair is like different twins: they look very similar, but they’re so different in their nature. The pleasure of driving these cars is, 20 years after they were introduced on the market, of another time. Nostalgia here runs deep… and it’s accentuated by the early 2000’s hits compilation present in the CD charger of the M3. These cars are a good mix between analog and digital: these cars combine the best of both worlds.

Yet, from our point of view they’re perfect for EoW first post-quarantine proper escape: wind in our hair, six cylinder engines and a lovely manual. Perhaps, the real unicorn here is the B3 S Cabriolet: powered by Alpina’s 305hp E4/4 straight six engine, which was developed from BMW’s 330i, it’s a celebration of silky smoothness. Torquey enough for you to stay in sixth gear most of the time and lively enough to make you smile, the B3.3 is a driver’s car. Introduced 20 years ago on the shores of Gardone Riviera, it has always been a car destined to people of taste and who demand more from a regular Bmw. The steering is heavier than the M3 and between 3 and 5.000 rpm, using only 3/4 of the throttle, this car is at its happiest. Not rev-hungry as its sibling but still consistent as a proper Alpina should be, it gives you a sensation of an elegant sportiness and dynamism. The gearshift is long and works magnificently with the torque, making you savor every time you have to down or upshift. The suspension set up is very soft but not wobbly: despite the large wheels, you feel hardly the bumps in the road. The B3 S is set up for neutral handling and privileges a progressive and reassuring understeer when you drive it through the corners. There’s a slight resistance and delay on the steering when you corner, but it’s reassuring: once you get to the apex, the car follows the line diligently without you making any corrections at all.  Not an Audi by all means, but you can feel that it’s not a car meant to be chucked violently into a turn and to clip apexes. Instead, it’s the car you drive privileging the pace and the sportiness of it: it’s a driver’s car by all means. The B3 S is for those who enjoy themselves more driving grand turismos than all-out track machines: it’s a proper man’s car and the perfect conveyance for taking out your fiancée for dinner.

On the roads of the one going from Salò to Tignale, it’s simply outstanding: more lively than a Mercedes yet refined enough to make you feel accomplished and satisfied. It’s a different animal to the M3 and to some extent you cannot compare them. The Alpina is a tribute to taste and well-manners: consider it as sporty and charismatic as Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig as James Bond. Despite its silky smoothness, the Alpina’s heavy steering and clutch make it slightly less effortless as it should be. The B3S has no problems in keeping up with the M3, but when we took the road towards the mountains it became a different story. Its relaxed sportiness struggles to keep up with rapid direction changes and while you’re hardly short on power, the Alpina becomes less precise when you force the pace.

The M3 is the legend here. Despite its race-derived gizmos and greater aggression, it’s a almost-perfect contemporary high-performance GT. Frankly, it’s a car that comes close to absolute perfection: the ride is perfectly calibrated for the road with ideal bump and rebound and amount of damping, yet it’s immediate and confidence inspiring. The handing immediately feels more involving and less under-steery than the Alpina: as soon as you’re in the corner, it immediately reacts to your inputs and only wants to swing its tail out. It takes a little while to adjust but, the M3 immediately forces you to focus more on your driving. It involves the driver like a classic M Division car and it offers more performance. As soon as you sit in the cockpit, you immediately feel the difference: the thicker and profiled steering wheel inspires confidence, while the cabin layout is as functional as you would expect. And then… there’s the sound. A glorious and wonderful metallic snarl which will never be replicated by any other Bimmer. At 4000rpm the valves open and you’re rewarded by a vigorous progression. The S54B32 3.3 litre six is just magnificent: at speed, going through the six speed gearbox is just sublime. Always precise and confidence inspiring, the M3 is one of the best interpretation of the E46 chassis ever. Snubbed for years and regarded as a “lesser” M, the M3 Cabrio is one of the ultimate accomplishments in sheer driving pleasure. Top down, a nice road… frankly, lap times go out of the window! When you want, it becomes an excellent cruiser, offering more body control than the Alpina but not less comfort. 

So, which one would we take in our garage: both, simply because we need both cars for different purposes. The Alpina belongs to every day enjoyment, while the M3 is for proper week-end driving. So… despite this spring we won’t see any Mille or any Villa d’Este, it was still great to smell the fresh air of May, mixing with the leather of two fine Bavarian creations.

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