Finally. Where the established players are locked into an escalating power war, someone in the car biz has twigged that sometimes, yes, less is more. The engineers have defeated the marketing people.
If the Alpine name and badge is unfamiliar, then that’s because it’s been absent from the market for more than two decades, and was likely never even a factor further afield. But if you know your cars, French ones in particular, you’ll remember Alpine as the maker of funky little mid- or rear-engined sports cars, many of which excelled in world rallying. Founded by a chap called Jean Redele in 1955, and named after the sort of mountain roads he most enjoyed driving on, Alpine was eventually absorbed into Renault, and put into cryogenic suspension back in 1995. Now it’s being reactivated, with the same sort of semi-retro ambition and sweetly judged aesthetic appeal that powered BMW’s globe-slaying resurrection of Mini.
Except that the all-new A110 is a mid-engined, all-aluminium, two-seater sports car, so it’s mining a relatively rare groove that puts it head-to-head with, gulp, Porsche’s Cayman. Is this where ambition turns into hubris?
God no. The key here is the Alpine’s weight, or lack of it. Modern cars have ballooned, which is why the mega-horsepower trend, as amusing as it is, is fighting a rear-guard action against auto obesity. The Alpine A110 weighs just 1080kg, in its Pure-spec form (1103kg in its launch Premiere edition), and makes just shy of 250bhp, resulting in a power-to-weight ratio of 232bhp-per-tonne. This is the metric you need to remember.
“At no point in the suspension stroke does the camber suddenly do something bizarre. In layman’s terms, it’s predictable, progressive, friendly…”
The numbers are underpinned by an all-new bonded and riveted aluminium chassis, and the heaviest bits – engine, fuel tank and passengers – are located centrally for a low polar moment of inertia. Even the fuel tank is mounted up-front, to optimise weight distribution, and the centre of gravity is almost exactly midway between the occupant’s hips.
‘Mass management,’ chief engineer David Twohig says emphatically. ‘From day one, we thought we’ve got to make a breakthrough on this. Four of us could easily lift this chassis.’ The suspension uses double wishbones at either end, and Twohig and his team are proud of the kinematics they’ve delivered, and the way they’ve circumvented the packaging problems this layout can create. ‘With a blank sheet we could place the hard points where we wanted,’ Twohig tells me. ‘The set-up we have here is rare on a car at this level, but it gives us tremendous linearity in the camber angle, and means that the tyres’ contact patch on the road is perfect. Because you don’t have to fight the roll, you don’t have to fit stiff springs. At no point in the suspension stroke does the camber suddenly do something bizarre. In layman’s terms, it’s predictable, progressive, friendly…’
Power comes from a Renault-Nissan 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, there’s a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the brakes are supplied by racing specialist Brembo, and the A110 uses Michelin Pilot Sport tyres (205 on the front, 235 at the rear, on 17 or 18in alloys – no need for anything bigger). The Alpine is just 4.1m long, 1.7m wide, and 1.2m tall; normally, I wouldn’t bother quoting dimensions, but in this case it’s all relevant. Note, though, that Alpine’s boss, Dutchman Michael van der Sande, stands more than two metres tall, so the packaging is clearly clever. Although the project taps into the giant corporate Renault mainframe, the Alpine core crew numbers barely 25 people; the car is a testament to clear thinking and quick decision-making.
Inside, the A110 is adrift of Audi or Porsche perceived quality, but much less than you might expect. A small central touchscreen handles infotainment, and a central spar – not dissimilar to the sort found in the Ferrari 488 – houses the powertrain mode and start/stop button. There’s tougher, more brittle plastic in the door trims, but the bits your eyes settle on or your hands touch are all easily good enough. And the seats, designed and made by Italian specialist Sabelt, are fantastic. They weigh 13.1kg each, half the weight of the racy chairs in the Megane RS.
Point the Alpine down a tricky road, and the whole Colin Chapman/Gordon Murray ‘add lightness’ philosophy is unarguable. Almost immediately you find yourself thinking, ‘why don’t all cars feel this way?’ That clever suspension uses passive dampers, and with less mass actually suspended on each corner, the A110 moves with an instant, easy flow. Its engineers don’t regard body roll as an enemy, because it helps telegraph what the car is up to. Then again, there isn’t a whole lot of roll to worry about. The Alpine is just perfectly contained, its dynamics expertly calibrated, its lightness allowing for a more supple, longer-travel spring and damper set-up which in turn releases extra fluency from the chassis. It’s a proper little science lesson, this car, and one that elucidates the dynamic virtuous circle that results from intelligent weight reduction.
Is it fast? Fast enough. OK, it doesn’t have that sense of ballistic forward motion you get with, say, 500bhp under your right foot, but a 0-62mph time of 4.5 seconds is impressive, and it doesn’t tail off thereafter. Besides, this is one of those cars which majors on maintaining momentum, rather than gunning for that eyes-wide, palm-moistening rocket run. The drive mode button on the wheel takes you from normal to Sport – more steering weight, sharper gearbox and throttle response – through to Track, which permits more generous slip angles without dumping you in the scenery. Or you can relinquish the ESP of its burden altogether, at which point the A110’s low polar moment physics mean you need to be reasonably on your game. But no more so than in a Porsche Cayman. On the road, it stays well within itself, with a tendency to understeer a little if you push it or over-cook your entry on a tight corner. It’s beautifully engineered.
Issues? The steering and ’box are slightly less impressive than the rest of the package, and there’s a lurking feeling that this thing would have been truly sublime with a manual transmission. But I guess that’s one for the old folks to ponder. The younger generation probably prefer a flappy paddle, and besides, a manual would haven’t fitted, even if Alpine had decided to go that route.
“What we want to measure is, how much fun did you have?”
‘Someone asked me what our target time around the Nürburgring was and I replied, “we don’t care”,’ David Twohig tells me. ‘This guy was so dumbfounded he asked me again. So I said, “we don’t care”. What we want to measure is, how much fun did you have? It’s a hard sell, we know that. But that’s our target. How much fun did you have?’
Now we know the answer.
Price: £50,000 (in UK)
Engine: 4cylinder, 1.8-litre, turbo, 249bhp at 6,000rpm, torque 239lb ft at 2,000rpm, gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Top speed: 155mph (limited) 0-62mph 4.5sec
Fuel economy: 46.3mpg (combined)