THE DRIVE

Evo - - ALPINE A110 v PORSCHE 718 CAY MANS v AUDI TT RS -

THE PORSCHE AND THE AUDI ARE AL­READY parked, side-by-side, wait­ing for the Alpine to show. In bold colours, sit­ting on 20-inch wheels, they look solid and well made, con­fi­dently hewn. When the A110 ar­rives and swings in next to them, I’m shocked at how small and low it is. It’s the first time I’ve seen one in the metal and it never oc­curred to me that one of the rea­sons it’s so light is that it’s small, with small wheels – 17s as stan­dard, 18s on this, the launch edi­tion. Feed­back from the A110 launch was highly com­pli­men­tary, with many ex­pe­ri­enced testers, in­clud­ing our own Steve Sut­cliffe ( evo 244), claim­ing that the Cayman’s dom­i­nance was un­der threat. Well, this is where we find out just how cred­i­ble the Alpine is. The price of this A110 Première Édi­tion is strong at £51,805 (though all 1955 ex­am­ples were snapped up in days) and the top-line pro­duc­tion ver­sion, the ‘Le­gende’, won’t be far off £50k, so the ri­vals here to meet it are the Cayman S ( base price £51,853) and the TT RS (£52,480).

The A110 was al­ways go­ing to be a hard sell: a new and un­proven mid-en­gined sports coupe pow­ered by a 1.8-litre, four-cylin­der turbo en­gine. Or, for the same money, the Cayman: charis­matic, pol­ished and dy­nam­i­cally peer­less. So I imag­ine the man­age­ment at Alpine couldn’t be­lieve their luck when Porsche an­nounced it would be scrap­ping the silky, flat-six en­gines of the Boxster and Cayman and re­plac­ing them with tur­bocharged flat-fours. That’s one ob­jec­tion of the po­ten­tial Alpine cus­tomer scotched.

There’s a lot more to the Cayman than just the en­gine though, as the three-hour jour­ney to this café in pic­ture-post­card pretty Hut­ton-le-hole in the North York Moors has re­it­er­ated. The 718 Cayman S looked fab­u­lous on my drive­way, bet­ter than any pre­vi­ous ver­sion, and it swal­lowed both my lug­gage and – more im­pres­sively – the gear of pho­tog­ra­pher Matt How­ell. It rides beau­ti­fully, too, sup­ple yet con­trolled, and show it any sort of cor­ner and it will show you some flair, with in­ci­sive but calm steer­ing and nat­u­ral bal­ance and agility – it seems to ro­tate around a point be­tween the seats. Boy, it’s good.

‘It sounds aw­ful,’ says How­ell. ‘When you started it up I didn’t re­alise it was a four, but now…’ I have to agree. I had hoped it would be bet­ter, this be­ing a heav­ily re­vised ver­sion. The orig­i­nal flat-four in­stal­la­tion was jaw-drop­pingly bad with, amongst other au­ral mal­adies, a mid-range coarse­ness that was worse on the over­run and a num­ber of whooshes and sighs that would have been deemed turbo char­ac­ter if they re­lated to the de­mand be­ing made of the en­gine, but in­stead seemed ran­dom. Two years on and all that noise has gone or been sup­pressed, and it

is 100 per cent bet­ter, but what’s left is a mourn­ful, mono­tone, mid-range drone.

The tragedy is that in most other re­spects, there’s never been a bet­ter Cayman. There’s no ques­tion that the 2.5-litre flat-four de­liv­ers the claimed 345bhp, and it works in a su­perb close har­mony with the (op­tional) seven-speed PDK gear­box, and dy­nam­i­cally the car is as sweet as. So when you’ve just threaded it along a few good miles of choppy York­shire B-road and wrung out the en­gine to the red line – where it sounds at its best – you know that it’s still go­ing to take some­thing spe­cial to un­seat it.

That some­thing could be the Alpine. With 249bhp it might be 96bhp down on the Cayman, but it’s stayed pretty much the same size in the Porsche’s rear-view mir­ror, bob­bing around in its wake, small, low and blue, and dis­tinc­tive with its inset driv­ing lamps. It’s time to see what all the fuss is about.

Pound for pound, you get less for your money with the A110, which is a good thing if you are open to the many ben­e­fits of less mass. Build light from the start, as Alpine has, in­vest­ing in alu­minium con­struc­tion (94 per cent of the body and chas­sis is alu­minium) and you set the car on a vir­tu­ous cir­cle of weight re­duc­tion. Less ini­tial weight means you need less power for the same per­for­mance, which means you can use a smaller en­gine with fewer cylin­ders, which fur­ther re­duces weight, al­low­ing smaller brakes and smaller wheels and tyres, which means less un­sprung weight, which al­lows lighter springs and smaller dampers, and so on…

It’s a phi­los­o­phy cham­pi­oned by Lo­tus, and it has been ob­ses­sively ad­hered to by the Alpine de­vel­op­ment team, too, but while Hethel’s mod­ern of­fer­ings tend to look chunky and feel spar­tan, the Alpine looks more like a scaled-down con­ven­tional coupe – sleek, with crisp shut lines, and a warm, wel­com­ing cock­pit with many of the ex­pected mod­ern trap­pings. There’s a band of leather across the dash fa­cia, the in­stru­ments are pro­vided by a big TFT screen with neat, unique graph­ics, while be­neath the arc of cen­tre con­sole, neatly trimmed in car­bon­fi­bre, is a space for phones and other chat­tels. The high-sided seats make this cubby awk­ward to get at, though, and be­yond the leather and car­bon there is quite a lot of hard, scratchy plas­tic, which is prob­a­bly stiff and light, but which feels more out of place in a £51k coupe than the body-coloured trim on the door cas­ings.

The seats, with their quilted leather sides and fixed-back light­weight frames, look se­ri­ously sporty, but in fact are easy to get into and very com­fort­able, as well as be­ing sup­port­ive. They’re part of the launch edi­tion up­grades, as are the nu­mer­ous tri­colour flashes and car­bon trim for the air vents and cen­tre con­sole. An­other re­mark­able thing about the A110 is that al­though it looks small on the out­side, it doesn’t feel like it from the in­side.

Hid­den be­hind the in­su­lat­ing cover be­neath the wrap-around rear screen is the all-new, all-alu­minium tur­bocharged 1.8-litre in-line four-cylin­der en­gine, mounted in a be­spoke alu­minium sub­frame and cou­pled to an evo­lu­tion of the Re­nault Clio’s Ge­trag dual-clutch gear­box. Thumb the big or­ange but­ton on the cen­tre con­sole and the noise it makes when it fires up is cleaner and sweeter than the flat-four in the Porsche. Not much of a stretch, ad­mit­tedly, but there’s a light­ness to the way it re­sponds when you blip the throt­tle, too, and within a cou­ple of miles it has proved to be de­cently char­ac­ter­ful, with a nutty, hol­low bark when pulling hard, over­laid with turbo-spool­ing whoosh. More im­por­tantly, it feels prop­erly sparky – well up to the task, though that’s as much to do with the mass of the car.

Those first cou­ple of miles aren’t about the per­for­mance, though. What grabs your at­ten­tion is the way the Alpine feels on the road, how it re­acts to steer­ing in­puts and bumps and bends. It feels gen­uinely light, through the elec­tri­cally as­sisted steer­ing and its con­nec­tion to the road, as if the front tyres are even slim­mer than their 205/40 R18 di­men­sions and are of­fer­ing lit­tle re­sis­tance. Then there’s the ride, which is loose-limbed and feels long-legged, helping cre­ate a unique im­pres­sion of sup­ple­ness and ef­fort­less­ness. It’s like an orig­i­nal Lo­tus Elise but not quite, the ride of the Alpine be­ing a lit­tle more eas­ily dis­turbed at the front.

Pick up speed and the steer­ing ef­fort re­quired in­creases ap­pro­pri­ately, giv­ing a work­able level of ef­fort, while the feel around cen­tre, pre­vi­ously soft and open, closes to bring wel­come

' The A110' s ride cre­ates an im­pres­sion of sup­ple­ness and ef­fort­less­ness, like an orig­i­nal Lo­tus Elise'

pre­ci­sion. Squeeze on the throt­tle and af­ter a mo­ment’s hes­i­ta­tion (there’s a mo­ment of lag in all three cars) the Alpine surges down the road, a quick and seam­less up­shift pro­vid­ing un­bro­ken ac­cel­er­a­tion. And the ride par­ries some of the big­ger bumps and neu­tralises some of the de­tail of a road sur­face that the Cayman proved was oddly tricky and wrong-foot­ing when we drove up. I’m grin­ning; I like the at­ti­tude and ap­proach of this Alpine. It feels mod­ern and clas­sic French at the same time.

The TT RS is look­ing a bit too fa­mil­iar, but you’d be wrong to dis­miss it, for a few good rea­sons. The first and most sig­nif­i­cant is that it’s not a car that will strug­gle for en­gine power or char­ac­ter, be­cause in­stalled trans­versely be­neath its mir­ror-fin­ish gloss red bon­net is an in-line five-cylin­der turbo en­gine crank­ing out al­most 400bhp.

At the weigh-in, our cor­ner-weight scales threw up a cou­ple of sur­prises. The fact that the TT was the heav­i­est wasn’t one of them. That at 1487kg it was only 38kg heav­ier than the Cayman S was… As was the fact that the A110 came in at just 1094kg, un­der the claimed fig­ure (1103kg) and al­most 400kg less than the Audi.

That’s not the whole story, of course, be­cause while the Porsche dis­trib­utes the load with some­thing ap­proach­ing eq­uity (44:56 front:rear), and the Alpine slightly less so (42:58), the Audi gets nowhere near that. The lat­est straight-five may have an alu­minium cylin­der block, helping re­duce the en­gine’s over­all mass by a use­ful 30kg, and it may be in­stalled trans­versely (as op­posed to lon­gi­tu­di­nally like a bat­ter­ing ram in the Ur- Qu­at­tro), but it all still sits for­ward of the front axle line. As a re­sult, more than 900kg rests on the front axle for a nose-heavy 61:39 dis­tri­bu­tion.

Mind, there is at least one up­side of be­ing front-en­gined, and that’s that the TT has rear seats. Small ones, granted, but use­ful for shop­ping or lug­gage if you don’t have small chil­dren. There’s a half-de­cent boot, too, so it ri­vals the Cayman for prac­ti­cal­ity. The Alpine is merely OK, with a stuffa­ble boot be­neath the small bootlid and a rec­tan­gu­lar space be­neath the bon­net that looks mil­lime­tre-per­fect for a prêt-à-porter suit­case (‘max load 40kg’).

It’s the bling that catches your eye first in the TT: the ma­chine­turned cen­tre con­sole plate and door pulls, the five air vents with (op­tional) coloured bands, and the shiny cen­tre but­tons that are the con­trols for the air con­di­tion­ing and heated seats. Then there’s the Al­can­tara-rimmed wheel with its see-through spokes and starter but­ton and Drive Se­lect mode switch hang­ing off it, all of which helps make for a clean cen­tre con­sole. In con­trast, the ‘fire­place’ of the Cayman – that space ahead of the gear se­lec­tor – looks like a dump for switches and but­tons. Braille would prob­a­bly help find the one you want in the dark. The driv­ing po­si­tion of the TT is less spe­cial than those of the Cayman and A110, though, be­ing high in com­par­i­son, like in a hot hatch.

If you’re a fan of the Ur- Qu­at­tro, the first press of the starter but­ton is a mo­ment to savour. There’s a pop-crackle flare fol­lowed

' The Porsche Cayman sounds like a muted Im­preza crossed with an air- cooled Bee­tle'

by that dis­tinc­tive, evoca­tive mel­low war­ble. It sim­ply blows the oth­ers away – the Porsche sounds like a muted Im­preza crossed with an air-cooled Bee­tle, while the Alpine sounds like a plain old hot hatch. On the move the TT is a bit less dis­tinct, like you’re be­ing fol­lowed by an Ur- Qu­at­tro, but just ahead of the gear se­lec­tor there’s a but­ton to sort that. It en­gages a phys­i­cal, ex­haust plumb­ing en­hance­ment rather than sound piped through the au­dio sys­tem, and it adds just the right amount of rich­ness and edge.

The steer­ing needs sim­i­lar help. The rim is un­usu­ally but com­fort­ably shaped, and nicely tac­tile thanks to the faux suede parts, but the ef­forts it de­mands are just a bit too low to in­spire con­fi­dence when you pick up the pace. A dip into the adap­tive set­ting of the driver modes al­lows steer­ing weight and other pa­ram­e­ters to be ad­justed, in­clud­ing damp­ing.

It cer­tainly doesn’t need to be any stiffer on these Dales roads. There’s an un­der­ly­ing taut­ness to the TT RS that can feel very gran­u­lar at times, which I’d put money on be­ing down to the 20-inch wheel op­tion on this car.

I’ve got road test edi­tor James Dis­dale be­hind in the Alpine, and the TT is so fast and such a straight­for­ward, un­de­mand­ing car to hus­tle along it feels like I should be able to shake him, on the straight bits at least. There’s im­pres­sive grip and trac­tion – no slip

at ei­ther end at sane speeds – but the Alpine is al­ways there. And as the road gets more lumpy, the Audi gets less poised. You start to wince drop­ping into com­pres­sions, while over sharp crests the car feels launched… at which point it feels ev­ery one of those 393 ki­los heav­ier than the Alpine, and you fear for the 30-sec­tion tyres (and the rims) when you land.

It’s been a fun run, il­lu­mi­nat­ing, too. James has a know­ing look on his face when we pull up on the cob­bles out­side of our ho­tel at the top of the hill in Reeth. ‘ The A110 sim­ply goes with the flow, while the Audi jig­gles and hops in a way that sug­gests it’s sim­ply not get­ting on with the sur­face,’ he ob­serves.

In iso­la­tion, the TT RS would feel in­domitable: in­ci­sive, with ter­rific cor­ner­ing grip and mas­sive punch. It lacks the en­gage­ment of the A110 and the Cayman, though, that sense that you’re a part of the process of mak­ing the car go quickly, other than steer­ing it ac­cu­rately and get­ting on the power at the right time. The Alpine stays in touch be­cause it rolls into the turns car­ry­ing more speed and, de­spite the horse­power deficit, hangs on to the TT’S tailpipes be­cause it’s so much lighter and more re­spon­sive. There are a few foibles, though. The sense of con­nec­tion to the front wheels isn’t as strong as you’d like some­times, and oc­ca­sion­ally a se­quence of bumps will set off a lat­eral bob­ble, as if the front wheels are shim­my­ing in turn.

‘ The TT feels more like a very fast hot hatch than a genuine sports car, though that howl­ing mo­tor sounds part Group B rally car and part R8 V10,’ grins James. On the other hand, the Porsche, we agree, is dy­nam­i­cally sub­lime. ‘ The steer­ing is quick with­out be­ing nervy, and once the front tyres are bit­ing it de­liv­ers by far the most de­tailed feed­back,’ says James. ‘Fac­tor in the beau­ti­ful bal­ance, near fault­less damp­ing and tena­cious grip and the Cayman is both fast and fun. It’s also the only one here that’s re­ally throt­tle-ad­justable.’

DAY TWO OF OUR TOUR DE YORK­SHIRE SEES LIGHT rain fall­ing out of a clear blue sky. In a re­verse of our ar­rival, James leads away in the Alpine and I’m be­hind in the Audi. The wet­ted sur­face seems to be mak­ing him more cir­cum­spect and the TT is able to man­age the gap, play­ing with the French coupe like a cat with a mouse. I feel re­laxed; the Audi has grip and grunt to spare and does some things very well: its dual-clutch gear­box is slick and in­tu­itive, its se­lec­tor lever logic-nat­u­ral and tac­tile (the Porsche’s feels clunky, the Alpine’s but­tons a cop-out), and af­ter you’ve pulled a pad­dle the ’box holds man­ual mode for just the right amount of time. Turns out that on the damp sur­face, James didn’t quite trust that the front of the Alpine was turned and so was trail-brak­ing into some cor­ners to help it in.

The But­ter­tubs Pass is breath­tak­ing when we ar­rive, bathed in wa­tery light. It’s a nar­row, lol­lopy bit of road, and the TT once again feels its mass if you misjudge your speed or the sever­ity of a dip or crest. It feels like the per­fect road for the small, softly sprung Alpine, and once we’ve got the shots we came for, I slip into the em­brace of the A110’s bucket seat and lead James in the Porsche back down to Hawes. Ini­tially the Alpine does feel made for this part of the world, but a cou­ple of big dips bring sounds of light con­tact – wheels rub­bing the arches is our guess – and the front is again dis­tracted by cer­tain com­bos of bumps. Of course, if there wasn’t an acid yel­low Porsche be­hind, the pace would be some­what less en­thu­si­as­tic.

The Cayman is hav­ing no such is­sues. Yes, it’s a sig­nif­i­cantly heav­ier car, but – as is so of­ten the case with a Porsche – keep ask­ing more of the car and you’ll be amazed to find just how deep its abil­i­ties run. It’s quite some­thing, dy­nam­i­cally. There’s al­ways a ‘ but’, though. ‘ There’s no deny­ing the flat-four’s ef­fec­tive­ness,’ says James, ‘ but by gum it sounds aw­ful’.

The in-line four in the back of the Alpine can whine on the over­run, but mostly it sounds keen and clean, revving out with en­thu­si­asm. Stroking along the road to the Rib­ble­head Viaduct, I seem to find just the road and just the pace to suit the Alpine, and it’s sub­lime. The car flows along with a light­ness of touch that’s al­most mag­i­cal, smooth­ing the sur­face, com­posed, ef­fort­lessly re­spon­sive to your in­puts and han­dling. Ev­ery­thing clicks into place. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see what it can do against the stop­watch and around the lap…

' The Audi jig­gles and hops in a way that sug­gests it's sim­ply not get­ting on with the sur­face'

Left: A110 seems made for these types of road, but cer­tain bumps can un­set­tle it. Top left: it doesn’t feel tight in­side de­spite it be­ing the small­est of the three cars here. Right: Dis­dale and Barker take the chance to re­fuel

Above: Cayman S feels good for its 345bhp and is as dy­nam­i­cally sorted as ever. Left: in­te­rior can’t match that of the Audi; op­tional sev­en­speed PDK gear­box works in su­perb har­mony with the tur­bocharged flat-four en­gine

Top right: heav­ier and less nim­ble Audi loses out to the Porsche and Alpine on these roads. Above left: TT’S cabin is a qual­ity place to spend time. Left: Cayman can ex­pose the A110’s weak­nesses when the go­ing gets tough

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