► New Alpine A110 coupe review
► On track, on road, in the UK and Europe
► 'Alpine has absolutely delivered'
We meet again, Alpine A110. The baby metallic blue Premiere Editions have been and gone, finding enthusiastic owners in the process. Now, buyers have a choice of pared-back Pure or dolled-up Legende, the latter of which we've most recently gotten our hands on.
Should you consider one instead of the default German choices? Would you really sacrifice a 718 Cayman order at the altar of French style?
We've now driven the A110 in Europe and on UK roads - and it's passed through numerous members of the CAR magazine team. Read on for our updated Alpine A110 review, as we pass judgment on one of the hottest sports cars on sale today.
Alpine A110: a history lesson
Alpine was founded by Jean Rédélé in 1955. He’d raced a Renault 4 CV and scored class wins on the Mille Miglia and Critérium des Alpes. It’s the latter that inspired the company name, and the philosophy behind his cars: cars that weren’t necessarily the most powerful, but punched above their weight because they were so light and agile.
In a way, the A110 is the Mini recipe applied to a mid-engined sports car. No coincidence, then, that both won the Monte Carlo rally. In fact, Alpine won the WRC title in 1973, and went on to win Le Mans in 1978. This car has provenance, alright. And that bantamweight mass pays dividends on a cross-country road.
That’s also why the new A110 has been one of the most eagerly-awaited production cars of the past couple of years. Not only does it mark the return of the Renault-owned Alpine brand for the first time since production ended in 1995, but has been built from the ground up to be as close to its forebear as it can. The earlier A110, produced between 1962 and 1971, is the brand’s most iconic model, and inspiration for the new car.
The new-look equivalent wears the same badge and has been developed by a dedicated team at RenaultSport in Dieppe. What, they wondered, would an A110 look and feel like if it had never left production, but instead evolved over generations? They didn’t mention a 911, but you get the idea.
So, what are the specs then?
The spec sounds as promising as those evocative new Alpine looks: a mid-engined aluminium sports car that’s a little over four metres long, produces 249bhp and weighs just 1100kg.
Its most obvious rivals include the Porsche 718 Cayman, Alfa 4C, Lotus Elise/Exige and the four-cylinder Jaguar F-type. But Alpine has also taken a look at the Toyota GT86 and toppy Audi TTs during development.
The Alpine gets an all-new, bonded and riveted aluminium platform, a mid-mounted 1.8-litre turbocharged engine shared with the latest Renaultsport Megane and a seven-speed Getrag dual-clutch gearbox too. The latter is a wet-clutch unit with – unusually – bespoke ratios, and it’s different to both the disappointing dry-clutch unit in the Clio, and the wet clutch unit in that new Megane RS hot hatch.
If you’re thinking that a manual gearbox would be lighter, chief engineer David Twohig argues that isn’t necessarily the case – having no clutch pedal and being able to engineer a floating centre console that didn’t need to house a manual transmission clawed back the kilos. It means this A110 will never be offered with a manual gearbox.
Once you've driven it, you'll realise the DCT (dual-clutch transmission) suits this lithe two-seater well. The changes are near-instant, never leaving you waiting for the cogs to mesh. And the ability to relax and drive it in Auto about town only adds to the breadth of talents.
A mechanical limited-slip differential isn’t included. Instead, the ESC-based braking helps to juggle torque between the rear wheels. Four-piston Brembo calipers take care of stopping duties.
The suspension is by aluminium double wishbones all round, which keeps the Michelin Pilot Sport 4s in better contact with the road – in fact, Renault says the harder you go, the better the grip. This is why the springs can be relatively soft, and the anti-roll bars not particularly chunky – there’s no need to resist the roll of the car in the same way you do with a heavier car using strut-type front suspension.
The space required by double wishbones at the rear also means that only a four-cylinder engine will fit. Dreaming of a Clio V6 style multi-cylinder A110? Dream on...
There are no adaptive dampers, but you do have Normal, Sport and Track modes. These adjust the weight of the – electrically assisted – steering, throttle response, stability control settings, engine sound and gear shifts. You can turn the stability control all the way off and the instrument pack changes colour and design as you crank through the different modes.
A flat underfloor and rear diffuser removes the need for a rear spoiler, and even the cooling vents at the rear are neatly hidden away next to the rear side windows and at the bottom of the rear screen.
Weight has been chased away wherever possible. Sabelt seats weigh 13kg each – half those of the outgoing Megane RS – clips for the ABS sensor cables are made from aluminium, and the parking brake element of the rear brake caliper has been integrated into the main calliper. We applaud the anal attention to detail of the diet.
Give me the list of versions
At first, all you could get your hands on was a Première Edition: a high spec with 18-inch wheels, 320mm discs all round (unusually), part-leather seats, sat-nav and a sports exhaust. Just 1955 were made at the start of Alpine’s production in late 2017 and were all sold out at £51,805 a pop in just five days. A Premiere Edition weighs 1103kg, providing quite a clue to what makes the A110 tick.
The Pure model is the base A110, and comes on 17-inch alloys with smaller discs but the same four-piston calipers. It gets no nav, no sports exhaust and a headline weight figure of 1080kg. Yours for £46,905.
Finally, the Legende (pictured here in dark blue) is a slightly more comfort-focussed spec with full leather, fully adjustable seats (the others have a choice of three seat heights, that are spannered into place), but are still not quite as well equipped as a Première Edition. They’re the fattest versions of the A110, but still not exactly unfit – priced at £50,805 each.
What's the A110 like to drive?
In a word, fantastic. This is an unintimidating yet thrilling sports car to chuck down a sinuous road, and the best possible advertisement for reducing weight instead of increasing power. You sit very low down in bucket seats with high levels of both comfort and support; those well over six-feet tall have both ample legroom, and headroom, even when wearing a helmet on track.
Early on, you notice how eagerly and precisely the nose responds to steering inputs, much like a Toyota GT86. The brake pedal is firm and easy to modulate, the steering quick-witted and nicely weighted with decent feel, throttle response is keen, and there’s a fruity burble from the exhaust that in itself suggests a certain playfulness. So straight away there’s an energy to the way the A110 goes about its business.
It also rides nicely, its body staying spookily flat on even rougher surfaces as it soaks up bumps with a great deal of sophistication. This isn’t a complete magic carpet ride experience and tyre roar gets intrusive on harsher tarmac surfaces, but the overwhelming feeling is one of calm composure, of a car that doesn’t tug around on cambers – like the Alfa 4C – nor threaten to bounce you off a bumpy road when you press on. And yet it feels intimately connected to the surface all the same.
You could drive everywhere at quite modest speed in the A110 and still get a lot of enjoyment out of what is a very tactile sports car. It's like a more grown-up, more serious MX-5 in that respect.
What about on track?
We did, at Circuit du Grand Sambuc. Up the pace and the A110 really starts to shine. It’s perhaps not as fast as you might expect given its fairly healthy 249bhp and very modest 1100kg, but it’s plenty quick enough, flexible from low revs, and feels willing to rev out beyond 6000rpm.
In Sport and Track modes, the gearshifts are also impressively snappy, and add to the frisky soundtrack with a lovely little slap of engagement. It’s a positive, mechanical kind of feeling - and the soundtrack is mega, with a well tuned exhaust note.
We drove in slippery conditions, but that gave us a great chance to play with the A110’s balance. This is where it gets really good, and the 44/56 weight distribution comes into its own. On a steady throttle, the A110 will gradually push into understeer, while very clearly communicating what’s going on to the driver. But it’s also extremely throttle adjustable, so if you snap shut the throttle mid-bend the nose will tuck into the apex and the Alpine will adopt a bit of sideways attitude. At this point, if you’ve got everything switched off, you can blip the responsive throttle and have the A110 hanging at all sorts of daft angles.
A proper limited-slip diff would make it even more precise but, in the wet at least, it still felt nicely controllable. Most impressive is what a progressive, communicative and benign machine this is, so that neither edging up to its limits nor going beyond them feels particularly scary.
The brakes too feel strong on track, with a nicely judged progression as the feedback builds under your foot.
A minimum of mid-£40k is pretty steep, and you’ll get a Cayman with 50bhp more for a chunk less cash – though Alpine will argue you get a higher spec on the A110.
Then there’s the interior, which probably won’t wash with anyone cross-shopping a car from Stuttgart. The overall look and feel is sporty and purposeful, but there’s regular Renault switchgear like air-con controls from a Clio, Renault’s persistently irritating two-location cruise control buttons and a volume stalk that the brand has used since the 90s.
The infotainment system is the same one that Suzuki uses in the likes of the Swift and other models. This is not a thing to be proud of – the screen is woeful in Suzukis, so it’s even moreso in a £50k sports car; it’s slow to respond to inputs, has low-rent graphics and looks ugly with a thick black bezel around the edge. Why didn’t Alpine ‘do an Audi’ and kill off the central screen for a more detailed version of its already-gorgeous digital instrument display like the TT and R8?
Alpine A110: verdict
There’s been a huge amount of pressure on the Alpine team to get the A110 right, and they’ve absolutely delivered.
It looks as desirable as any TT, Cayman, 4C or F-type, and in terms of dynamics and driving enjoyment there’s no doubt this is a five-star car. The price and interior niggles would lump this down to 4.5 in our book, but CAR doesn’t do half stars, and the A110 is just too much of a sports car dream to be rated a 4. Smashed it, Alpine. Absolutely smashed it.
By Keith Adams and Jake Groves
Read on for our first ride in the Alpine A110
Our first experience of the Alpine A110: a ride in the passenger seat (July 2017)
► Early ride in Alpine A110
► It's the Cayman from France
► Lotus-like chassis, 4cyl power
Talk about a tease. Ok, so the resurrection of a defunct marque isn’t the work of a moment, but the wait to get our hands on Alpine’s gorgeous, aluminium-intensive re-interpretation of the classic A110 has been a painfully long one.
Finally unveiled in production form at the Geneva motor show earlier in 2017, the new A110 is set to be launched late in 2017, with the 1955 Premier Edition cars (€58,500) now all but spoken for.
We travelled to Renault’s research and development centre between Paris and Alpine’s base in Dieppe for a ride in the new A110. Here’s what we learned.
1) This is dreamy, Chapman-esque engineering
If, like us, you’ve been wandering around for the past 20 years telling anyone who’ll listen that cars have grown too big, too complicated and too heavy, the new A110 is the sports car you’ve been waiting for. Its dedication to Colin Chapman’s ‘light is right’ mantra is laudably thorough, with an absence of complexity, compromise and unnecessary mass or bulk informing every aspect of its engineering.
The tub is a bonded and riveted aluminium affair not unlike the one that’s underpinned every Lotus since the first Elise. Behind you sits a four-cylinder turbo with Alpine-specific intake, exhaust and control systems. Despite the packaging compromises, suspension is by double wishbones all round, though the car’s featherweight mass means the springs and anti-roll bars are ludicrously slight, like chief engineer David Twohig has made a terrible miscalculation.
‘Look at the springs – they’re like a motorcycle’s,’ says Twohig. ‘The anti-roll bar at the front is 17mm, with a 2mm wall thickness – in modern terms that’s nothing. But if you’ve no weight, you don’t need firm springs and you don’t need thick anti-roll bars. So, the car is lighter again, and it rides better. We could have gone for wider tyres – guys love the look of the fat rear boots – but we calculated the optimum width for traction off the line and stopped there. This is the ideal.’
Get moving and you sense the lack of resistance in every moment, every change of direction, and the lunge of acceleration that accompanies every twitch of the throttle. For a car with 249bhp and 236lb ft of torque – not even decent hot hatch figures these days – the new Alpine A110 launches with breakfast-heaving alacrity (Alpine reckons 4.5sec to 62mph). More impressive still is the braking. The brakes are, according to Twohig, ‘nothing special’ – the front discs are shared with the Clio RS Trophy, with A110-specific Brembo calipers – but the way the Alpine slows is proof that the weight obsession has paid off – 1103kg (Premier Edition) doesn’t take much stopping.
2) The chassis looks to be as sweet as a nut
On Michelin Pilot Sport 4s (235/40 R18 rear, 205/40 R18 front) and with Laurent Hurgon at the helm, the man who tamed blizzards of lift-off oversteer to punt a Megane RS Trophy-R around the ’Ring in 7:54.36sec, the A110 serenely laps Renault’s outrageously good test circuit like a natural track car.
Laurent is silver of hair, tanned of skin and alive with that lean natural energy that all really talented drivers seem to share. Sure, so he’s lapped this place more times than a lab rat running the extremities of his matchbox cage, but still the A110’s composure, agility and playfulness are hugely impressive. Through one tight right, which transitions from one surface to another, we slide through at outrageous speed with such precision that the outside front tyre pushes the same daisy’s head aside lap after lap.
The A110’s cake-and-eat-it balance puts itself up in lights through an endless third or fourth gear (the turbo four is generous with torque and gear options). Laurent turns in with no modest amount of corner speed and – he claims – very little trailed brake.
The Alpine faithfully follows his single Button-esque input at the wheel, no scrub. Once in, he holds a fast, tight line, the Alpine’s sheer grip and mild roll – enough for your inner ear to understand and not a degree more – in full effect. Then he calmly eases back the throttle, adds a little more lock and, as the rear end breaks free with mesmeric grace, loses the extra lock immediately and takes up a tune on the throttle, working the loud pedal to keep our modest, Fangio-esque angle of attack going. Fabulous.
3) The new Alpine A110 is surprisingly pliant
Alpine’s engineers love to talk of the original A110’s relatively soft, forgiving set-up – it was first and foremost a rally car in competition, after all. The new car stays true to this philosophy. Back on the test track, a long section of rough undulations leave the two of us in the car unshaken and barely stirred. Then, as the rough stuff comes to an end, a giant ridge in the road marks the entry to a corkscrewing downhill right-hander.
We’re doing 85mph. I fear the ridge will knock us off course and into the deciduous foliage. Instead the A110 rides it like it’s barely there and arrows into the bend like a bird wheeling in flight.
4) The powertrain doesn’t let the side down
The engine is what it is: a turbocharged four-cylinder 1.8 that’s keen rather than killer. It sounds fine, with a burbling idle, an angry four-cylinder bwarp through the mid-range, overlaid with a little turbo whoosh and whistle. But as you’d expect of a blown four, there’s an undeniable sense of anti-climax at the redline (7000rpm – peak power is at 6000rpm, and peak torque between 2000 and 5250rpm).
In the cockpit it’s loud in the more committed drive modes, almost intrusively so, but the engine’s compact size and decent torque suit the A110’s giant-killer vibe. The gearbox is good too. No, you can’t have a manual: Alpine reckon it’d have added weight and complexity for little real benefit, since DCT, or PDK in Porsche-speak, is most people’s preferred option. The seven-speed twin-clutcher shifts quickly and cleanly and won’t force upshifts through if you nudge the limiter in Track mode.
5) The A110 is no Porsche Cayman
Comparisons with the similar-on-paper (ish) Porsche Cayman are inevitable but a little wide of the mark. While we rode in pre-production cars, noise and vibration levels were higher than you’d experience in the Porsche and the interior quality from a grade below.
While the Alpine’s gossamer-light Sabelt seats are very comfortable and its access ergonomics nothing like as testing as those of a Lotus, the A110 feels more like a weekend car, whereas the Cayman is a viable everyday conveyance, not least because of its bigger and more practical front and rear stowage bays.
But the Alpine is significantly lighter than the Porsche and feels just as special, just in a different way. The A110 is alive, lithe, elegant and likeably focussed. It feels like a real work of passion, and a knowing, very French alternative to a Stuttgart two-seater. We’ll know just how good it really is by the end of the year.
By Ben Miller
More on the Alpine A110