Nostalgia, ultra

The new Alpine A110, driven


Let’s start by the conclusion. I think this Alpine is the best sports car of the year. I think it is one of the most fun cars I have ever driven. And I think it is the best sports car built in France since Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur back in 1770.

I love it because it belongs to a new generation of sport cars, one that leaves the race for the best Nürburgring laptime to the few idiots who aren’t yet completely bored of it.. There are faster cars than the A110, and that even includes the new Renault Megane RS, which for some reason has more horsepower despite having the same engine. But does it really matter ? The A110 serves one aim: having fun behind the wheel. Consider it as a mid-engined über-Toyota GT86. A car built to make you grin, even if you have the driving skills of a potato, but equally capable of being properly fast when driven by someone who knows what he’s doing.

All this has a lot to do with Alpine’s obsession for minimizing curb weight. And by that I mean they hunted down the last gram. EVERY single piece has been optimised. Even the 8 grams rivets have been specifically picked, according to the specific constraints they had to deal with. The chassis is a real piece of art, and it turns into a masterpiece when considered the extreme compactness of the car, despite all round double wishbone suspension, a transversal engine and a front mounted oil tank (for a near-perfect weight balance). It’s all aluminium and its magnificent.

So, the first surprise comes from the size of the car. It’s so small you can hug the rear of the A110, and the way its slopes down to the ground – something that can only be achieved thanks to it’s downforce inducing underpinnings – makes it even more delicate. As for the design, there are no flaws here either. References to the past are subtle, the blue colour is magnificent and, in the flesh, the A110 has something of the apparent solidity of a 911 in its rear. And due to some clever graphics, the design of the rear light cluster looks less Audi than the concept’s ones did.

The interior is a nice place to sit. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic at all, visibility is excellent for a modern car, especially frontwards, as it would be in a McLaren for instance. The Alpine is also very comfortable, even if the bucket seats on this First Edition are non adjustable – you can only side them closer or further away from the steering wheel. Regular fully adjustable seats will be available on the soon to come Legend version.

Quality is good in all the places the hand can touch. It’s a rather flattering interior, a bit overstyled in some places, but still OK. Door panels are fantastic. If you look further, you’ll find some poorer quality plastic, but lightweight comes at this price – and so does the relatively affordable price tag. Since nothing is ever absolutely perfect, let’s mention the Renault radio controller mounted on the steering column which is, as ever, hideous (both in style and in function). The touch screen can also quickly ruin the whole experience and the center console can get painfully in the way of your knees.

But let’s forget about petty details and discuss weight once again. 1 103 kg is quite an achievement. The sort that can outshadow the dodgy plastic. 1 103 kg is only 25 kg more than a MX-5 RF, but also 144 kg less than a GT86, 307 kg less than a Cayman 718 and 312 kg less than a light-is-right Evora 400.

The people from Alpine are very proud of the fact they were able to design a chassis from a blank page, allowing them to create an optimal suspension geometry with the exact pivot points they needed. That enabled them to achieve the perfect negative camber angle once in a curve. Admittedly, I may have been brainwashed by the press conference, but I can assure you that when you throw the car a bit too quickly into a curve, you get the strange feeling the wheels suddenly catch an invisible set of rails, and suddenly the corner is mastered with great ease. Once again, this trick reminds me of McLarens and their almighty handling.

The engine note is fun, a soft growl interrupted by joyful sputtering when you lift off the throttle. Bang bang bang vroooooooo bang bang bang vrooo. There is a rather annoying noise that comes from the alternator, fitted right behind the passenger’s ears, but I’m told they’re working on it.

Everything is so easy. The steering is light, but firm enough. The paddles for the gearbox could be a tad quicker, but they’re still all right. The ESP keeps you from doing stupid things without being a pain (but it’s best to turn it off on track). Crucially, this is a car you can drive extremely fast without it ever frightening you.

Now let us make some meaningful comparisons. The Alpine A110 costs 58 500 €. An Alfa Romeo 4C costs 14 500 € more. It has a nice carbon body and weighs 104 kg less, but all the rest lets it down terribly. The interior is Lotus Elise-like spartan, but with Fiat build-quality. The engine is more akin to a stick of dynamite – fun for the first hour or so, rather annoying after that. It also has one of the worst steerings ever fitted to a sport car, doubled with hazardous handling. Park it side to side with the Alpine, and the 4C looks like a kit-car, a Caterham from the Mezzogiorno.

Porsche’s cheapest Cayman is actually 3 500 € cheaper than the Alpine, but if you want to have the same equipment as what the French car offers as standard, then you’ll be spending 10 000 € more than the A110’s sticker price. Granted, that will get you proper quality equipment, and not Renault’s clumsy R-Link II infotainment system. I must also admit I have not yet driven the 4 cylinder Cayman, but my experience with the previous 6 cylinder models has taught me the less horsepower this car has, the more fun it is to drive. So I guess the 718 is probably a good car. Good, though a bit boring on the boring side, and more importantly, it’s carrying a 300 kg excess burden.

Since the Lotus Evora now only exist in its 400 hp version, it doesn’t really make sense to mention it. Plus, prices start at 96 800 €, which makes even less sens. You can find some uprated Elises for the price of the Alpine, but you can’t really compares these cars either. In its less powerful versions, the Evora could have been a suitable competitor, but it’s a considerably older car, far more delicate to drive (a specialist car, as they say) and less comfortable. The Evora S was an extraordinary car, but it was also the kind you could easily scare yourself shitless with when pushing on hard down B-roads. Great fun if you have the skill to keep it between the lines, but I’m not sure I would choose it as an everyday car.

I loved the Evora because it was the cool alternative to the Cayman (cool is not a word you can use to depict a modern Porsche) but time has moved on. If you were to give me 50 000 €, I wouldn’t hesitate a second: I’d go with the Alpine.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced the new A110 is the first “real” car produced by Alpine. A car not only conceived to be quick and fun, but also comfortable, practical and usable on a daily basis. A car that will put a smile on its owner’s face every minute of every day, and not only when chasing apexes on the Turini. Not bad for a come back.