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The Alpine A110 is one of the most eagerly awaited production cars of 2017/18. It marks the return of the Renault-owned Alpine brand for the first time since production ended in 1995. But it’s the A110, produced between 1962 and 1971, that’s the brand’s most iconic model, and inspiration for the new car.
The 2017 A110 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.
The spec sounds as promising as the 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.
We’re driving it on road in the south of France, and on track too.
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, it’s 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.
The Alpine gets an all-new, bonded and riveted aluminium platform, a mid-mounted 1.8-litre turbocharged engine shared with the incoming 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 we’re yet to drive.
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.
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 front suspension. The space required by double wishbones at the rear also means that only a four cylinder engine will fit.
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.
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 that 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 caliper
It’s a little fuzzy at the moment. The first 1955 cars are all Premiere Editions, which get a high spec, including 18-inch wheels, 320mm discs all round (unusually), part-leather seats, sat-nav and a sports exhaust. This is the car we’re driving, but they’re all sold out even though the price remains TBC. Expect £50-52k, with first UK deliveries in Q2 2018. A Premiere Edition weighs 1103kg.
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 will cost ‘mid- to late £40k’. That’s the headline 1080kg figure.
Finally, the Legende 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 Premiere Edition. They’ll be a little under £50k, and weigh a little more than a Premiere Edition.
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.
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, 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.
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 gear shifts 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.
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, pretty average infotainment, and some cheap plastics placed prominently on display.
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. But it is expensive and some might find parts of the interior a little underwhelming. If CAR did half stars, I’d drop it to a 4.5 for that. But the fact is we don’t, and the A110 is just too much fun for a 4. Smashed it, Alpine. Absolutely smashed it.