Renault revives a bygone brand to offers its own Cayman-fighting take on back to basics driving fun
IT’S NO REAL surprise the 2018 Alpine A110 drives like a Renaultdesigned Lotus given its development driver, Rudy Thomann, worked in Lotus’s ride and handling department during the inception of the original Elise.
However, what the new French mid-engine coupe has that the Lotus hasn’t is a surprising level of refinement, including a roomy and comfortable, if still simple, interior.
The Alpine A110 heralds the return of the French sports car brand after a 23-year hiatus. The new car’s finally being unleashed on-road after five years in gestation, opening a new chapter in Alpine history, the previous of which spanned 40 years from 1955 with numerous models and motorsport successes.
Getting the new rear-drive A110’s weight to a target of 1000-1100kg was an engineering challenge necessitating a chassis and body made almost entirely from aluminium (96 per cent), a lot of it bonded with special high-strength glue to save further weight from welds and rivets – part of a ‘gram-strategy’-esque approach that is noticeable all over the car.
With the Premiere Edition coming in at 1103kg the Alpine team – compromised mostly of Renault Sport engineers best known for their scintillating hot hatches – achieved their set-out goal.
It also meant a 1.8-litre turbocharged inline-four, sourced from within the Renault empire (sharing its fundamentals with the Espace engine, and also slated for the upcoming new Megane RS), could make a relatively modest 185kW and 320Nm and get away with it. Rated at 168kW/tonne, that’s the same powerto-weight as a VFII SS Commodore.
With launch control, rear 235/40R18 tyres (the excellent new Michelin Pilot Sport 4), the new A110 will hit 100km/h in a claimed 4.5sec and complete the quarter mile in 12.7sec. The Porsche 718 Cayman S does 0-100km/h in 4.6sec – although that’s an
admittedly conservative claim, especially given the numbers MOTOR recorded at PCOTY 2018.
The A110’s fairly blistering acceleration is despite the lack of a traditional limited slip differential, left off the car to save weight and cost. The Alpine instead distributes torque across the rear axle by individually braking any single-spinning wheel.
The car’s acceleration also benefits a lot from the new seven-speed EDC twin-clutch gearbox, a unit shared again with the Espace (but not the upcoming new Megane RS, which will have a different, and much beefier, EDC). However, it has been overhauled for sportscar use with bespoke ratios and significantly quickened shift speeds. There are fixed columnmounted metal shift paddles.
Excruciatingly for some would-be owners, the new A110 is not available with a manual gearbox. Alpine bosses claim there was not enough budget to successfully develop two transmission options to the desired standard, putting their entire focus into the auto instead given its better volume potential.
This is a shame as despite the A110’s new Getragdeveloped EDC being the best twin-clutch automatic we’ve used that’s not from Germany or Italy, a manual would absolutely suit the character of the new lightweight Alpine. This is a fast little car that offers a back-to-basics handling philosophy that channels the Mazda MX-5 – but with proper power.
To save further weight and cost, and also because the light weight permits, Alpine has spurned adaptive dampers and instead developed a fixed spring and shock set-up, one of the best-judged passive combinations of spring and damper rates we’ve experienced. For better handling the Alpine team also went with double A-arms at each corner in place of the more common MacPherson struts at the front – a packaging challenge, but well worthwhile.
With relatively soft spring rates the A110’s body feels light on its suspension, a unique feeling only found in a few new cars, all of them weighing around the 1000kg mark, the MX-5 being one of them. Flick from Normal to Sport to Track mode using the steering wheel-mounted red toggle button and the A110’s personality becomes noticeably more aggressive. It’s
Under full throttle the Alpine squats politely on its rear axle as it angrily unleashes its power
even a tiny bit feral. The bi-modal exhaust opens to reveal a loud and raucous note nearing the 6650rpm redline that reminds us – strangely, despite being half the engine – of a Ricardo V8-powered McLaren in its upper revs. It’s pretty special.
With a proud turbocharged personality there is very noticeably an engine behind you and nothing much in front of you, including the bonnet which disappears below the bottom of the windscreen. You sit low and back in the Alpine, your bum not quite on the road, but with the door sills at shoulder height and the dashboard rising up to envelope you in classic sportscar style. It’s a fantastic (and therefore very un-French) driving position with even more pleasing fixed-back lightweight Sabelt bucket seats. They’re attractive, supportive and generously padded – a real highlight of the car.
Despite the low-and-back driving position, forward and side visibility is excellent, while rear visibility is the bare minimum. Sadly there is no engine to peer over in the rear vision mirror through the narrow rear window, just a carpeted panel.
Under full throttle the Alpine squats politely on its rear axle as it angrily unleashes its power. Traction is strong in a straight line and the EDC satisfyingly quick going up gears with a loud brap as the engine transitions from a Clio RS-like grumble at low rpm to a buzzing, baby supercar-esque bark at higher rpm. This is a loud car from the outside, with plenty of theatrical burbles on the exhaust overrun as well.
For anybody who’s experienced a supercar the Alpine is not scary fast, but plenty exciting as it pushes you back into the seat. You would absolutely describe it as fast, with enough grunt to make it a car not to be taken lightly in numerous conditions.
With suspension on the soft side, the Alpine likes a smooth driver. The nose dips visibly as you transition from full throttle to full braking, the body moving through big curves and settling at the end of relatively long arcs during hard cornering – and the body getting a tiny bit ragged with binary inputs. The Alpine seems to revel in being grabbed by its scruff and ordered around, but any aggression still must be smooth.
Mix this handling dynamic with the frenetic power, and good lateral grip, and you have one very delightfully fun car to drive fast. The lightweight body and suspension also breath with the road, offering excellent compliance on what is again a remarkably well-judged fixed spring/damper set-up.
There will be some people, however, who just don’t like the extra body movement of the soft suspension and crave less of it, particularly on track. But while it would be possible to fit a firmer and lower spring, damper and anti-roll bar set-up, from the aftermarket
and perhaps with grippier tyres, to do so with the same amount of polish and expertise-bordering-ongenius as the current set-up, would be extremely difficult. Your suspension guy might ruin the car.
With its short wheelbase, fast and precise steering, responsive EDC (which will let you grab two lower gears in quick and crisp succession) and sweetly stacked gear ratios, the Alpine loves a tight and twisty back road. The turbocharged engine supplies enough low-down torque to punch out of tight corners, while the ESC in Track mode is also lenient enough to permit a quarter-turn corrective lock when powering out of second-gear bends in the dry. If you obey the principles of smoothness, this is an easy and fun car to drive fast, even on faster flowing roads where you can short-shift and surf the turbocharged torque as the engine hisses under boost right behind your head. It is a mega little thing.
Some of the controls are quite light just because they don’t have much work to do on a 1103kg car, and this might take a little bit of getting used to for some. The steering and brakes don’t require much physical effort to do an excellent job and are certainly not meaty and masculine like heavier rival cars. The throttle, however, falls short of excellence. It’s far from razorsharp in terms of response, with the most minuscule doughiness and laziness owing presumably to the simple physics of its exhaust-powered intake pump needing to catch up. Turbo boost is 1.1 bar (16psi).
This car would also be improved by a proper limited slip differential. It works quite well with the open diff and braking software, but the feeling of a limited slip differential would be a subtle extra ingredient that improves the recipe.
Aside from luggage space, with a shallow front boot and cute little rear boot, both with no chance of dealing with a golf bag (96L and 100L respectively), the interior is where the owner is asked to make the biggest sacrifices for the Alpine’s cause. While surprisingly roomy for two large adults, cramped in no way, it is a simple, minimalist, almost functional space to be – and a part of the car Renault clearly used to save some cost on the project.
There is a curious contrast of materials, nice soft leathers used directly next to hard, scratchy plastic – and there is a lot of that. Aside from the seats, which
The Alpine A110 seems to revel in being grabbed by its scruff and ordered around
look and feel like no expense was spared, the interior almost feels like it was splashed in small panels of leather and Dinamica (microfibre) to jazz it up. The indicator and wiper stalks, and air-con controls, look straight out of a base Clio. There is an almost inexplicable lack of storage space, no glovebox or door pockets, just a space beside the seats big enough for a phone and wallet, and enough space behind the seats for a soft laptop bag (unless you’re very tall). There is only one cup holder.
Plainly, the interior was used to save a bit of money and has nothing on a Porsche Cayman, BMW M2 or Audi TT. That said, the Alpine interior is still a nice place to be with its aforementioned rockstar seats, two large TFT screens including instruments, and general refinement including low noise and good aroundtown ride. If you read enough into Alpine’s history, the slightly budget interior is kind of ‘on brand’.
Quite aside from the lack a manual gearbox, which there’s no point moping over, that’s really all you can objectively fault the Alpine for. While this author wishes the production car got the lower offset wheels of the latest concept, the funky and retro styling seems popular. To drive, it has a refreshingly original handling philosophy, is fast and fantastic fun. It’s honestly more of a rival to a Lotus Elise than a Porsche 718 Cayman, but pick an Alpine A110 over either and you’ll be a very happy chappy.
The Alpine A110 arrives in Australia in June 2018. Final pricing is yet to be confirmed, but expect to pay between $90K-$100K
Helping the A110’s weight distribution is the placement of the fuel tank – which is immediately behind the front axle, giving a 44:56 balance front to rear