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First drive: Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.

First drive: Alpine A110
Alpine's back after 22 years, to seriously mess up the lives of other performance car manufacturers...

 



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Alpine A110

5 5 5 5 5

If all you want from a car is for it to look good and to turn every drive into a quasi-epiphanic experience, then don't even bother checking out anything else. This is the car you need. It's the Alpine A110 and it might just very well be the best road-based sports machine you'll ever encounter.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Alpine A110 Premiere Edition
Pricing: A110 range from £46,905; Premiere Edition as tested £51,805
Engine: 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: seven-speed 'wet' dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Body style: two-door mid-engined coupe
CO2 emissions: 138g/km* (VED Band 131-150: £205 in year one, then £450 per annum years two-six of ownership, then £140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 46mpg*
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
0-62mph: 4.5 seconds
Power: 252hp at 6,000rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 2,000-5,000rpm
Boot space: 196 litres (100 litres front boot, 96 litres rear boot)
* figures quoted are NEDC

What's this?

An Alpine. And, if you're thinking we're talking about either the brand associated with making luxurious, ultra-rapid versions of BMWs, or the company which does questionable in-car entertainment systems, then you're wrong. This is Alpine (pronounced 'Al-peen'), a marque we last saw in 1995. It's French, hence the slightly unusual pronunciation of the word you would otherwise think was the adjective to describe anything above the timber line on mountains, and it is closely associated with Renault. Its founder, a man called Jean Rédélé, set it up in the mid-1950s in Dieppe, on the Normandy coast of France, after he'd achieved motorsport success competing in a Renault 4CV - and, as he began to modify the 4CV with his own upgrades, eventually it got to the point where he could start making his own cars, based on 4CV mechanicals, under the brand Alpine. The first model was 1955's A106.

Renault liked Rédélé's subsequent work so much that, in 1973, the carmaker began moves to bring Alpine officially under its wing (a deal completed in 1976), whereupon it continued to make unusual road-going sports cars for the next two decades. And possibly the most famous creation to emerge from Alpine's Dieppe factory, in the first 40 years of the company's existence, was the A110 Berlinette, based on a Renault 8 and launched in 1961. This thing, in a guise known as the A110 1600, became a rally legend. It won the 1971 Monte Carlo Rally, and then locked out the podium for the 1973 edition of the same prestigious event. That latter, sweep-the-board triumph at the Monte Carlo was also part of the inaugural FIA World Rally Championship season... which Alpine won, convincingly, with victories in six of the 13 rallies securing it the first-ever manufacturers' title for the WRC. It also had a season to remember in the 1971 International Championship for Manufacturers - the forerunner to the WRC - where it won five out of the nine events and the overall crown.

So strong was this A110 1600 rally racer, and so good was Alpine at making impressive competition machines (its sports car prototypes would go on to enjoy success at Le Mans, later in the 1970s), and so fond of Alpine was Renault, that - to this day - the French brand's hottest models, sold under the Renault Sport badging, are built at the same factory in Dieppe that used to knock out Alpines. But what of Alpine itself? Well, the road-going A110 morphed into the A310 in 1971, but - despite having six headlights (at first) and the adoption of a PRV V6 engine subsequently - it was slow-selling and never universally loved. Ditto its successor, the fantastic Renault Alpine GTA, which went on to become the stunning Alpine A610 in the 1990s. By this point, with a turbocharged 250hp 3.0-litre V6 in its backside (all Alpines were rear-engined), the A610 was an offbeat French competitor to the Porsche 911, but it never achieved massive sales success. And so, in 1995, Renault decided that Alpine should stop making cars, handing the factory over to production of its own Spider model and sowing the early seeds of the Renault Sport era.

But now Alpine's back. And, if any of the above has interested you and you've Googled 'Alpine A110', then you'll know why this 2017-launched sports car looks the way it does. It's a modern reinterpretation of the original Berlinette/1600 classic, with a few minor changes (it's mid-engined now, rather than having its motor slung out beyond the back axle) but generally the same ethos: keep it light, give it moderately powerful engines, make it glorious to drive. Its layout and pricing will inevitably see it compared to a whole phalanx of performance coupes that have roughly the same sort of power and intent, like the Audi TTS, BMW's brilliant M2 Competition and Toyota's similarly-revived-after-a-long-layoff, forthcoming Supra.

However, strictly speaking, its particular mid-engined layout and lightweight ethos will see it battling two of the dynamic greats of the modern age. One is the Lotus Elise, which admittedly is a roadster that dates back to about the very same year when Alpine stopped making cars the first time around, but to drive one of these things - even today - is to understand why the Norfolk company is so revered for its chassis set-ups. Meanwhile, the other competitor the A110 must face down is a titan of the modern age: it's the Porsche 718 Cayman. Some bemoan its 'neutering' to a choice of four-cylinder engines with the introduction of the 718 badging, but it's still a terrifically engaging, hugely beguiling sports car.

Luckily, for a prestige performance vehicle, the Alpine passes the first acid test, which is aesthetic appeal. Outside, it's gorgeous; more attractive than any of its rivals, thanks to taking the original Berlinette's basic shape and updating it for the 21st century. There's not an angle from which the 2017-version A110 doesn't look sensational, not a detail about it we would change. It's beautifully wrought and a lovely homage to the marque's history, without being a slavish retro pastiche devoid of its own character. Same thumbs-up for the cabin, which - while it features one or two Renault details that ever-so-slightly undo the general upmarket feel of everything (column stalks and infotainment graphics being the main offenders) - is nevertheless replete with some wonderful touches, such as the snazzy digital instrument cluster, the superbly-sized steering wheel, the interesting two-tier transmission tunnel with the button-pad gear selector, little tricolore details in various places and some quilted leather finishing.

All extremely promising, then, but the big question the Alpine has to answer is the one just below this sentence...

How does it drive?

In a case of Renault Sport giving something back to Alpine, having taken up residence in the brand's former home in Dieppe, the A110 uses the 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine as employed in the latest Megane RS, rated at 252hp and 320Nm - some way down on the hot hatch's figures of 280hp and 390Nm (and there's a 300hp/420Nm Trophy Megane already confirmed as being in the pipeline).

Despite the on-paper deficits, the A110 sends its power to the rear wheels through a seven-speed 'wet' dual-clutch transmission. Suspension is double-wishbones all round, the structure is 96 per cent aluminium, the tyres are Michelin Pilot Sport 4s and the brakes are 320mm discs gripped by Brembo callipers all round, with four-pot items up front. It also weighs 1,103kg, with fluids, which is why its 0-62mph stat looks well up to snuff in an age when there are versions of the 718 with 365hp. And it has a suspension set-up that veers well towards the softer side of things.

Even with a spec-sheet as tantalising as this, we're still wondering what the heck they've put in the water on the northern French coast. Because the A110 is thoroughly sublime. In the initial stages of getting to know the car, it has a delicacy and lightness of touch that borders on the ethereal, as if the Alpine is segueing out of this reality and into another, better realm altogether. And yet, for all this magical lightness-of-touch, conversely you also feel so much of what is going on mechanically - in a wholly good way - that the A110 is richer in detail than any road-based car we can think of.

It doesn't rely on heft to get any of its vital messages across. The steering is a delight; maybe not unassisted-Elise levels of integrity, perhaps, but with deft accuracy, faultless consistency and just the right amount of weighting. The dual-clutch 'box, too, eradicates any moans you might have about the A110 lacking for three pedals (yet...), because it's one of the best of its type we've ever sampled, whether it's in full auto 'D' mode or locked into manual and operated via the well-judged, column-mounted paddle shifts. The brakes bite cleanly and have lovely modulation, while the 1.8-litre engine sounds tremendous; much better than it does in the RS Megane Cup, with the Alpine boasting some excellent induction notes to overlay the whooshes and chattering of the turbo. Yes, there might be some trace augmentation going on, but if it's there, it's next to imperceptible. Oh, and the Alpine is plenty fast enough, thank you very much, because 228hp-per-tonne will do that for a car, y'know.

There are more positives, like the spot-on driving position and the decent visibility out in all directions, save through the rear-view mirror, where there's a narrow vista of the traffic behind through that raked screen. But, even amongst all this glittering dynamic treasure, it's the suspension - and specifically the Champions' League damping - which stands out as the Alpine's pièce de résistance. It's magnificent. Otherworldly. Godlike. Beyond superlatives. Never has a car breathed so naturally and smoothly with whatever road surface comes its way like this one does. With perfect levels of pitch, yaw and dive all transmitted to the driver, via both the back and base of the seat and the steering wheel, it's like you have a telekinetic link to what each and every wheel is doing, how much suspension travel you've got to play with, when the tyres' limit of grip is about to be breached. And the graceful way the A110 moves about under braking, acceleration, during mid-bend adjustments of the throttle and deliberately unsettling steering inputs (purely to test the dynamic boundaries, you understand) is just so fluid and supple and wondrous that you simply cannot fail to be seduced completely by it. It also firmly but politely reminds you it's mid-engined, if you start trying to take diabolical liberties with it.

All of this startling revelation, by the way, came from less than an hour and a mere 25 miles behind the Alpine's wheel. And we wouldn't dare say we knew everything about its full repertoire of tricks from this brief encounter, either, because this feels like a vehicle that will keep blessing its driver with new nuggets of information on each and every drive, which will reward and thrill and cajole its lucky, lucky owners with ever-more dazzling displays of handling and road-holding. Oh, sure, you can drive it gently and it's remarkably civilised and comfortable, making it as adept at being a daily driver as it is at being a back-road demon... but you don't want to do that. Not when it can entertain you in such a marvellous fashion. The A110 is the sheer, unadulterated joy of driving, coalesced into one small, French coupe. Class-leading? Industry-leading, more like.

Verdict

Somehow, into an almost infinitesimally small engineering gap between the everyday majesty of a 718 Cayman and the raw, unfettered purity of an Elise, Alpine has managed to shoehorn in the phenomenal, sensational A110. And what the French car appears to do, on this limited first acquaintance with it, is take all the urbane smoothness of the Porsche and all the thrilling on-the-edge handling of the Lotus, and blend them together into one heavenly sports car package. The A110 is mesmerising. Bewitching. Utopian. Divine. As a road car, it really couldn't be any better than this.

We waited 22 years for Alpine to come back and, now that it has, everyone else might as well pack up their stuff and go home. We've driven a number of things in 2018 that have had us using the 'p'-word (with either of the qualifiers 'near' or 'almost' slapped in front of it) to describe just how close the engineering teams, which have delivered each and every one, have got to achieving what must surely seem impossible. But here it is: road-going sports car perfection. The Alpine A110 is a celestial creation and the peak automotive achievement of this century so far, without doubt. And one of the greatest road cars ever fashioned, we'd say. Yes, it's THAT good.

5 5 5 5 5 Exterior Design

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Interior Ambience

4 4 4 4 4 Passenger Space

3 3 3 3 3 Luggage Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Safety

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Comfort

5 5 5 5 5 Driving Dynamics

5 5 5 5 5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 12 Oct 2018









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2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.

2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.2018 Alpine A110. Image by Alpine.








 

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