PERHAPS IT’S a little premature, but an apology is required for the conclusion of this comparison. It’s deeply unsatisfactory given that here are two of the very finest sports coupes that halfway sensible money can buy. The Alpine A110 and the BMW M2 Competition represent wildly divergent means to a common end and their differences are so profound that pronouncing a winner seems invidious. At the moment it also seems unnecessary because we’re about to drive both cars off a cliff.
It’s a fair old way down. There’s a moment to speculate just how far as the car skates towards the visible horizon, about 20 metres distant. Beyond that are treetops and then blue. In the foreground, the Alpine A110 is understeering towards the unprotected precipice. The BMW M2 Competition is, predictably, doing something different, namely oversteering, but is otherwise in lockstep. Flagging that the Great Alpine Road from Harrietville to Hotham would turn from bitumen to a carpet of freshly laid grit just before an unprotected hard right would have been helpful.
Dan Gardner’s up front in the A110, and he’s relying on the good offices of his electronic stability control. The M Dynamic Mode of the BMW has yet to register any incipient danger, just a modest slew of opposite lock. Titanic-like, the prow of the French coupe starts deviating a few degrees from the straight-ahead, but then it grips and goes. The M2’s rear boots nerf the built-up berm of gravel on the outside of the corner, there’s a nip of brake from the inside rear and around it scuttles. We park up, ashen-faced. Having just witnessed the depth of this pair’s brilliance when provoked to an extreme degree, we’re not overly keen to experience it again.
It’s a shame the middle third of the climb is plastered in loose chippings because it’s an otherwise excellent road. A local explains how the oil content in the bitumen was misjudged and that the surface was melting, and that it’ll be a month or so before the gravel is absorbed into the surface. Bikers arrive at The General bar atop Hotham, shaking their heads and cursing, one BMW S 1000 RR now bearing an exhaust that’s a medley of cratered dents and ragged swarf. If you’re thinking of visiting, give it until May, just to be on the safe side.
While an Alpine on the Great Alpine seemed a neat premise, bringing the cars here for a head-to-head conforms to a tried and tested road-test trope. Great cars on brilliant roads, or at least those sections without the frictional coefficient of a rug on waxed laminate, is a formula that never really gets old. And make no mistake, both of these coupes are liberally daubed with greatness. Both will run you a breath over $100K, the Alpine being a mid-engined lightweight that’s all about delicacy and doing more with less. The M2 Competition, on the other hand, uses a tactical nuclear device to crack a nut. One fronts up with 185kW and suspension components that look as if they’ve come off a kid’s toy, while the other packs the 302kW straight-six twin-turbo lump from a BMW M3 and front tyres that are wider than the Alpine’s rears.
Because of this fundamental variance in engineering focus, the way the two cars dissect a challenging piece of road is instructive. Everything prepares you for the fact that the M2 will bludgeon the A110 to a pulpy mess, and in a straight line the Bavarian is the marginally quicker car (4.4 vs 4.5sec to 100km/h). Throw some challenging corners into the mix and its advantage isn’t anything like so clear. Viewed from behind, the Alpine seems to almost float from corner to corner, breathing with the cambers and ruts, all sympathetic weight transfers and high-definition feedback loops. The M2, by comparison, appears to be smashing the road into submission just to keep pace. Delicate it is not. The engine yowls, the rear suspension careens into surface changes with a thunderous boom, and underlaying all of that is the bassline provided by 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sports.
Drive the Alpine hard on road and it’s all about managing the front end into corners. The M2 Competition requires managing torque to the rear on corner exit. In other words, in both cars you need to be conscious of the end where the engine isn’t. On track, with the electronic assistance switched off, the A110 can be hilariously taily, but it instils some welcome discipline to its rear with the single-stage stability control switched on. Its yaw response is matched well to its roll stiffness, so when you feel the car gently transition to its outside rear, it feels as if it’s just smudging its skinny 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4s.
The M2 undoubtedly feels quicker because you’re working harder and the engine is more melodic in the upper registers. The Alpine is probably louder in the cabin, the M5PT Samsung-built lump lacking any great musicality but delivering an addictively elastic muscularity.
Power-to-weight ratios aren’t too far apart, the BMW registering 192kW/tonne and the Alpine, which tips the scales around 500kg lighter, 171kW/tonne. Both drive through seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions, but the BMW enjoys the advantage of a proper mechanical limited-slip differential which certainly helps when scruffing the thing out of hairpins.
If there’s one relatively disappointing thing about the M2 Competition it’s the 3.0-litre S55 engine. It’s a gutsy motor but whereas the suspension refinements make this model feel far better resolved than the endearingly wayward old car, the engine isn’t a night and day improvement. In fact, when a 55kg weight gain is factored in, the power-to-weight ratio of the M2 Competition hasn’t taken a massive step on from the original M2.
Park both of the cars on the moonscape car park atop Hotham and it’s as if one is wearing a cloaking device. Everybody wants to know about the Alpine, roundly ignoring the German car. “Al-peen? Are you European?” asks one puzzled grey nomad. The M2’s launch colour of Long Beach Blue probably isn’t doing it too many favours here, the similarity to the Alpine Blue of the A110 making the wide-hipped M2 look like its slightly frumpier friend playing matchy-matchy.
Whenever Gardner sets off in the Alpine, it’s hard to resist the M2’s chase reflex. Yes, you can assign favourite drive modes to the M1 and M2 tabs on the steering wheel, but there’s just some delightful tension about that click-click-click of powertrain and steering to Sport Plus and ESC to M Dynamic. It’s like that moment in Jaws when the reel starts clicking as the shark nibbles the bait. You enjoy that anticipation of all hell about to break loose.
Of course, you don’t need to dial the M2 to 11 to appreciate it. The cabin is a testament to pragmatic design and the fitment of the seats with the illuminated inset M logos adds a much-needed touch of glamour. It still feels a bit mass market compared to the A110, though. Hunker down in the Sabelt seats of the Alpine and your gaze will be drawn to the custom architecture of the dash and the cool metallic highlights. It’s an ergonomic catastrophe if you want to carry any oddments, though, and you’ll also get the world’s most inaccessible USB ports and a vast footrest that features one raised Allen-head bolt that’s inexplicably positioned right beneath the ball of your foot.
What you don’t get are autonomous emergency braking or side airbags, the latter omission meaning that its importer, Renault, is observing a voluntary agreement with the FCAI and only bringing in a maximum of 100 cars per year. The reason cited for a lack of lateral inflatables is weight, although that seems a wholly idiosyncratic decision.
One of these cars is an extremely good sports coupe but the other is tinged with genius. Every time you drive a BMW M2 Competition, the grin on your face will always be tempered by the fact that the Alpine A110 is a more magical thing, a vehicle that, on the whole, works its dynamic compromises more smartly and which reaps the full benefit of the virtuous circle of weight reduction. Simply put, it negotiates a road more adeptly.
Perhaps we have dullard hearts of shabby brown coal but we wouldn’t buy one over a BMW M2 Competition. While its highs are stratospheric, the Alpine A110 can be high maintenance. At those times you’ll pine for the no-nonsense German car, where you can fling a hefty bag of gear into the boot, mirror your smartphone, plonk a bottle into the door bins, cart two or three friends and feel slightly reassured that should you find yourself in the regrettable position where driving off a cliff is in your immediate future, you’d be in something with a five-star ANCAP rating.
Should these prosaic considerations sway your decision from the fantastic Alpine? We could certainly make a case for the French coupe if it’s a second or third car and you can’t or won’t manoeuvre yourself across the sills of a Lotus Elise, but that seems but the tiniest sliver of the Venn diagram. The M2 Competition has broader appeal now and will have when the time comes to sell it. Practicality might not be a word we associate readily with performance cars but once the initial novelty has worn off, the easier a car is to use, the more you’ll get from it. Or, to put it another way, this isn’t Hollywood and the handsome stranger doesn’t always win. Once again, sorry about that.