Alpine is the best sports car maker most people have never heard of.
The Renault-owned brand hasn’t produced a car since 1995, but now it’s back with the Alpine A110. It’s a tactile, thrilling thing to drive, a 1100kg bundle of energy that takes the best principles of Lotus and Porsche and remixes them with the Renaultsport knowhow that makes the Megane RS such a weapon.
That this newcomer is simultaneously so usable, comfortable and unintimidating to throw around only underlines its appeal. But then, that’s what Alpines always were about – cars to rip over a mountain pass, not destroy the quarter mile.
Alpine was founded by Frenchman Jean Rédélé in 1955, won the inaugural World Rally Championship and Le Mans during the 1970s, and was snapped up by Renault in the same period. Alpines were never officially sold in Australia, but a number eventually came here, and a loyal following endures to this day.
“There’s a really active scene in Australia and the new car got a great reaction, so we decided we had to be there,” says MD Michael van der Sande.
The first cars land in spring 2018, supported by a network of just three dealers (existing Renault, but specially trained). Prices and dealer locations are still to be confirmed, but its European list price makes it a direct competitor for a base Porsche Cayman. It would be a pity if pricing proved the car’s undoing.
The name refers back to Alpine’s most iconic model, the rear-engined, fibreglass-bodied A110 Berlinette that was produced from 1962 to 1977 and took a 1-2-3 on the Monte Carlo rally. Design boss Antony Villain asked his team to imagine how that car might look had it never left production, but evolved gently through the generations, much like a Porsche 911 or Mini. The two are parked side-by-side when we arrive at the launch in the south of France, and it’s clear they’ve nailed the brief.
The spine running over the bonnet, the headlights that peer from the front end like an amphibian from a pond, the shoulder line that flows like an archer’s bow, and the heavily scalloped body sides – all of it instantly evokes the 56-year-old original without appearing a backwards-looking pastiche. The new car dwarfs the old car, but it still looks small: at 4.1 metres long, it’s 200mm more compact than a Cayman, and its roof lines up with a six-footer’s belly.
Inside, though, even those somewhere north of six feet will have more than enough space. The sports seats are set low on the floor, squish comfortably but hug firmly, and leave generous room for legs and even crash-helmeted heads (the boss is 6’6”).
An output of 185kW won’t elicit any double takes in the pub and it doesn’t feel rapid as the power-to-weight calculations suggest when you pin your foot to the floor, but there’s a frisky energy to the 1.8-litre turbo four’s delivery, with an eager whoosh of torque low-down, punchy throttle response and very little turbo lag. It’s certainly enough to have fun – and beat that Cayman to 100km/h. Fitted with our Premiere Edition launch model’s sports exhaust, there’s even an engagingly burbly soundtrack right up to the 6000rpm power peak, not the strangled-mog hiss of the last Renaultsport Megane.
But the engine isn’t the heart of the A110. That’s the chassis. The bespoke underpinnings mostly consist of bonded and riveted aluminium extrusions much like a Lotus, the engine is mid-mounted behind the driver (not rear-engined like its namesake, note) and the fuel tank positioned up front for a 44/56 weight distribution.
Crucially, there’s also double-wishbone suspension with hydraulic bump stops on all four corners where rivals typically use cheaper struts. Adjustment allows each car’s suspension to be precisely aligned at the factory and dial out any small tolerances in the build process. Brembo four-piston brake calipers borrowed from a Clio 3 RS grip cast-iron discs on aluminium hubs.
Weight has been chased away wherever possible: the forged Otto Fuchs 18s save 2kg over conventional alloys, the rear calipers incorporate the parking brake to save 8.5kg and score an industry first, and the Sabelt seats (13kg each, half a Megane RS’s) are adjusted for height with spanners rather than levers to save weight – select one of three seat heights like you might adjust a racecar’s rear spoiler. Cable clips are even made from aluminium rather than steel, because they save 7g each.
The lowest kerbweight of 1080kg (with fluids) for the entry-level Pure spec – 17-inch rims, smaller brakes, no nav, no sports exhaust – is more than 200kg lighter than a Cayman, if a chunky 100kg or so above the carbonfibre Alfa 4C (895kg dry). But even better-equipped A110s go little beyond 1100kg, and by today’s standards that’s a very light car.
The A110 feels good even trickling along at the national speed limit. The electric steering is quick-witted, builds its relatively modest weighting with linearity and precision, and self-centres gently and naturally. Much like a Toyota 86, every twist of the leather rim is met with instant, slop-free response from the front end. It’s like a dog that’s getting impatient for you to actually throw the stick, alert to your every twitch. It’s an immediacy that’s complemented by the crisp, firm feel of the powerful brakes, the finger-click shifts of the dual-clutch gearbox, and the awareness that the centre of gravity is low and the car eager to pivot around your hips.
Ramp up through Normal, Sport and Track modes and the sensations intensify – meatier steering, louder exhaust, more positive shifts – but it still feels beautifully judged for the road, not the harder and less satisfying settings that so often result.
That’s partly because no matter what you press, the suspension carries on regardless – no adaptive dampers here. It’s incredibly supple and composed, somehow managing to both detach itself from the worst cambers and imperfections, while still feeling intimately keyed-in to the stuff that matters – a compromise the writhing Alfa 4C miserably fails to strike. The Alpine’s springing is quite soft, the anti-roll bars modest in diameter, so you feel the A110 leaning more like sports cars used to, but it’s all well contained and the double-wishbone set-up means the Michelin Pilot Sports maintain their contact patch on the road. The harder you go, say the engineers, the better it presses into the surface.
After a trip through winding, narrow French hillsides with an appropriate dusting of snow, we find ourselves at Circuit du Grand Sambuc. It’s a short track with a long start/finish straight, a series of tricky left-right flicks and a blind tumble into a heavy braking zone and hairpin. It’s raining lightly and the surface is slick and greasy, providing ideal conditions to play with the A110’s balance.
On a steady throttle, you can hold the Alpine right on the edge of understeer, steering clearly telegraphing that the tyres are just starting to slip. Be patient and hold that line if you like, but you can also snap shut the throttle, sense the weight transfer pivot around the driver’s seat, and swap understeer for satisfying oversteer.
You’ll get that in Track mode with its more lenient stability control setting, but the Alpine’s balance feels so benign and playful – and the ESC still a bit too keen – that there’s little intimidation to switching everything off. Only then can you truly appreciate just how throttle adjustable the Alpine is, hanging at huge angles while the driver taps out tunes on the responsive throttle. A proper limited-slip diff would make it more precise still, but that would’ve added weight and cost and, more problematically, was apparently tough to package with the dual-clutch gearbox. Besides, it’s no deal-breaker – the A110 still feels intuitive and obedient to drift when you want it to.
Judged on driving dynamics alone, there’s no doubt the A110 is right up there with a Cayman or Elise. The case against starts with the interior. It’s purposefully sporty and far from poorly built, but there are also switches shared with much cheaper Renaults, clacky plastics on prominent display, and a fairly average infotainment system.
Potential customers might argue that a Porsche 718 Cayman looks and drives similarly well, produces more power and has a far more sophisticated cabin. That the Porsche does all of the above for similar money means they have a point.
But if the price for such exotic engineering is a few hard plastics here and there, well, who cares? We certainly don’t. Because even had it come from a long-established maker, we’d have still been blown away by the A110.
Never mind that it’s landed out of the blue, perfectly formed and sublime to drive. Spring 2018 can’t come soon enough.