Legendary French brand re-launches and instantly creates convincing alternative to a Porsche Cayman
What we liked:
• Involving drive
• Surprisingly comfortable
Not so much:
• Not cheap
• You’ll struggle for luggage space
• No manual gearbox option
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Alpine. After all, the French brand never sold its quirky rear-engine creations Down Under but over in Europe its motorsport heritage is the stuff of legends. Plucky Alpine won against bigger, better-funded teams like Porsche in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Reborn for 2018, Alpine will once again return to making cars. Better yet, its first road car in more than two decades, the A110, lands in Australia this June. True to its roots, it’s once again gunning for its old German sparring partner, specifically the sublime Porsche 718 Cayman. Read on to find out why, against all odds, the new A110 is once again victorious.
Alpine’s first car since the mid-1990s, Porsche 911-rivalling A610 could have ended up as one giant cynical marketing exercise. We’re talking re-badged Clio or Megane RS.
Instead, the famous Alpine name returns on a stunning compact, lightweight, mid-engined, rear-wheel drive coupe that’s based on a bespoke all-aluminium architecture.
Drawing from the wealth of talent within Renault Sport, its parent company’s performance division responsible for some of the best hot hatches of all time, the A110 straight of the box feels the finished article.
Inspired by the iconic A110 Berlinette, the giant-slaying coupe that helped win the 1973 World Rally Championship, the latest coupe pays tribute to the original’s gorgeous curves without looking, or feeling, like a retro re-hash.
It features advanced aerodynamics under the skin (there’s a flat floor and huge rear diffuser) and, in the metal, the spoiler-less Alpine looks exotic beside its more familiar rivals.
But the most important aspect of the A110 is its weight, or lack thereof.
Measuring in at 4.18m long, 1.25m high and 1.80m wide, the compact Alpine tips the scale at just 1080kg (with fluids) without options and only 1103kg with every box ticked.
That’s around 260kg less than an equivalent Cayman — an astonishing result, not least down to its innovative full aluminium architecture (that uses rivets, glues and new bonding adhesives, instead of welding) as well as the fanatical way the A110 engineers have gone about their work.
The specially developed Sabelt seats, for example, offer both comfort and a vice-like grip but weigh just 13.1kg. The rear brakes cleverly incorporate an electronic handbrake mechanism within the calliper, saving another 8.5kg. Even the speakers were developed to weigh just 470g – a fraction of what they normally would.
Engineers say the A110 is available with either 17- or 18-inch wheels, but figured more customers would opt for the larger rim so made those in a lighter alloy.
With a clean-sheet design and new platform that mounts the fuel tank ahead of the driver, weight distribution is 44/56 front/rear — impressive for a mid-engine coupe.
Alpine also refused to compromise when it came to suspension. Somehow, engineers managed to package optimum race car-like double-wishbone suspension all round — no mean feat in a car this compact.
Alpine says it will not offer adaptive dampers (too heavy), but has developed nifty hydraulic bump stops for its coil-over dampers.
Not all good news
Not that the little Alpine hasn’t been tarnished by compromise.
The electric power steering, for example, is column-mounted because to incorporate it within the rack (for best steering feel) it would rob three litres from the already-diminutive 45-litre fuel tank.
Then there are the side airbags – there aren’t any. The Alpine was originally designed to include them, but they were dropped for the ultra-lightweight seats and this has repercussions for our market.
Under Australian Design Rules homologation regulations, Renault Australia can only import 100 cars annually.
The next gripe concerns the engine and transmission.
The 185kW/320Nm 1.8-litre turbo four-cylinder can trace its origins to the Renault-owned Korean Samsung brand.
Although Alpine did carry out extensive updates and revisions that included changing the turbo, the donk — disappointingly — isn’t purpose-built.
We’ll next see it again under the bonnet of the Megane RS.
For purists, the next upset concerns the lack of a conventional manual transmission that, ironically, would have helped the car-maker save a huge amount of weight.
A traditional six-speed DIY box was considered, very early on, but shelved because of the cost of packaging the linkages in the tight aluminium structure — that, and concerns nobody would buy it.
Interestingly, the Getrag-sourced dual-clutch tranny isn’t related to the Clio RS ‘box. Developed to be both compact and lightweight, and with bespoke ratios, it will be limited to the A110 as it can’t cope with the next Megane RS’s more muscular torque peak.
Alpine says it has spent significant resources ensuring it is a match for the A110’s character, capitalising on the little 1.8-litre turbo engine’s performance.
The real deal
Against the clock the little coupe is fast, hitting 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds and topping out at 250km/h, That makes it about as quick as the Cayman S, but up to 0.4sec slower than the circa-$175K Cayman GTS with PDK and the Porsche has a higher 290km/h top speed too.
To help tailor its character to driving styles, the A110 comes with three driving modes — Normal, Sport and Track — that adjust the weight of the steering, throttle response, gearshift speed and engine sound. Alpine also offers an ESC-off mode.
The latter is something we’re wary to try this morning as the mercury barely struggles to keep its head above freezing.
With news of black ice on the narrow, single track road, the little Alpine suddenly feels as intimidating as a 450kW supercar.
From inside the cabin of the near-identical spec A110 to the cars we’ll be getting, the Alpine is instantly impressive and then, shortly after, a bit disappointing.
Starting with the good bits, we’ve already mentioned how fantastic the seats are and same goes for the small steering wheel and quilted leather on metal doors.
There are even ‘real’ carbon-fibre highlights and the virtual instrument panel is both clear and cool as you cycle between the different modes.
What lets the side down, beside something like a Porsche or the more luxurious still Audi TT, is the Clio-spec plastics that lurk under the windscreen, reflecting light on the screen.
The infotainment system, meanwhile, isn’t worthy of a near-$100K car either and the less said about the ancient Renault satellite stalk that brushes the knee of tall drivers the better.
Keen to please
Luckily, these gripes evaporate as you stab the Ferrari-style ‘D’ button and select drive.
Reducing the weight has done wonders for the way the little Alpine drives. With less weight, the suspension has less of a fight on its hands controlling body movements. This has enabled engineers to fit softer springs.
The result is a small coupe that feels like it’s been made specifically for our terrible roads. Bumps, ruts, nasty ridges, poor repairs and even railway crossings … the Alpine attacks them all without being thrown off course.
In fact, most of the time you don’t even notice the nastiness the double-wishbone suspension is dealing with.
Strangely, despite the soft, compliant spring rates, the A110 corners with little roll.
The steering, meanwhile, is fast and precise, accurately guiding the Alpine on narrow country roads without getting distracted by the surface or camber changes.
Even with limited grip it’s possible to cover ground quickly; the only gripe with the experience is the uncouth noises the little 1.8-litre turbo makes.
‘Gargling’ best describes it at low revs. And it’s neither sonorous nor rewarding at high revs, despite the sports exhaust.
No one-track pony
Arriving at a small nearby circuit that’s still mostly frozen, we get the opportunity to push a little harder.
At the limit and beyond the Alpine feels friendly and confidence-inspiring and, most of all, lots of fun.
Beginning in Sport mode, the dual-clutch ‘box shifts so quickly that not a kiloWatt is wasted in the pursuit of lap times.
The brakes are powerful too, the firm pedal showing no sign of wilting even after repeatedly braking from 200km/h. The pedal is also easy to modulate right up to the ABS intervention, much like a Cayman.
As the track temps warm our confidence increases and we switch to ‘Track’ mode, which loosens the stability control to allow some slip. The small, controllable drifts that follow need less than half a turn of steering lock to correct.
Occasionally, instead of entertaining oversteer, it’s possible to detect an inside rear wheel spinning up on slower corners, but the way the A110 reacts to the throttle is hugely involving.
Speaking to an engineer, adding a limited-slip differential would improve the Alpine’s traction, and its propensity to drift in these slippery conditions, but it also would add weight, upset the weight balance front to rear and likely add unwanted understeer.
We’re told to try again with ESC off but a lack of time/bravery made us decide to save it for another day on a track with less visible frost.
Back on the road, the Alpine remains no less an intoxicating experience at a fraction of the speed we were covering moments before.
The Renault Sport team said they focused on fun and they’ve succeeded. The A110 is one of the most enjoyable cars money can buy, even at a price tag approaching six figures.
We’d certainly pick it over the flawed Alfa 4C that would have proved miserable over the challenging roads we drove and it’s far faster and more involving than a Jaguar F-TYPE with four cylinders.
Pricing, of course, will remain a sticking point alongside the 718 Cayman that defines the segment and is priced from $115,300. The Porsche simply looks and feels far more expensive behind the wheel.
Alpine hopes new buyers will overlook that and be snared by both the A110’s individuality, drive and the incredible amount of engineering that has gone into its creation.
From where we sit we have to agree, but it would sweeten the deal further if the A110 commands a price tag at least $20,000 lower than the standard Cayman.
That said, the A110 will be more exclusive, more exotic and at least $50,000 cheaper than the equivalent Cayman S — before the poor Porsche buyer has even glanced at the options list.
2018 Alpine A110 pricing and specifications:
On sale: June 2018
Price: $95,000 (estimated)
Engine: 1.8-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel: 6.1L/100km (NEDC)
CO2: 138g/km (NEDC)
Safety rating: TBC