French Flier

A joy­ous jour­ney in the new Alpine A110— a re­born sym­bol of na­tional pride

Automobile - - Contents - By Jamie Kit­man

Fol­low­ing in the tracks of a leg­end is tough, but Re­nault’s re­vival of the Alpine A110 has fared bet­ter than most. It’s light, rear drive, and a bar­rel of mid-en­gine fun that nods faith­fully to the orig­i­nal while ex­hibit­ing its own per­son­al­ity. And what bet­ter way to ex­pe­ri­ence it than to take it on a road trip through the French coun­try­side?

TURN UP IN France on July 14—Bastille Day, the Gal­lic na­tion’s an­swer to our Fourth of July—and les ex­pres­sions du fran•ais will come at you rapid­fire. And should the next day hap­pen to be the one on which the na­tional team of this most proudly pa­tri­otic of na­tions fi­nally wins soc­cer’s World Cup for the first time in 20 years, as hap­pened last July, be as­sured the coun­try will re­ally let its hair down.

When you ar­rive in a town driv­ing a new Re­nault Alpine A110, in­cred­i­bly, the ef­fect is mag­ni­fied—as we found out mo­ments af­ter the French team’s great win. We were at­tempt­ing to thread the dis­tinc­tively blue two-seater through the streets of Ar­ca­chon, a re­sort des­ti­na­tion on France’s south At­lantic coast. Stopped dead in sin­gle-lane traf­fic but also cheek to jowl with some of the com­mune’s most ex­u­ber­ant par­ti­sans, many if not all eyes were upon the Alpine, Re­nault’s ex­tra­or­di­nary modern trib­ute to Jean Rédélé’s fa­mous orig­i­nal rally-win­ning A110 stormer of the early 1960s and late ’70s.

Rédélé hopped up lowly Re­nault 4CVs in the ’50s, and from those hum­ble ori­gins he cre­ated the Alpine mar­que in 1954. What Rédélé ul­ti­mately wrought with Alpine is a kind of funkier French Lo­tus, with a rac­ing and rally his­tory ul­ti­mately sup­port­ing—and be­ing sup­ported by—road cars pow­ered al­most ex­clu­sively by Re­nault. Re­nault’s close as­so­ci­a­tion with Alpine be­came com­plete when it ac­quired the busi­ness in 1973. That same year Alpine-Re­nault won the in­au­gu­ral World Rally Cham­pi­onship Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ Cham­pi­onship run­ning the orig­i­nal A110.

Larger, more com­fort­able, and more prac­ti­cal than its name­sake—dif­fer­ent yet strongly rem­i­nis­cent—the new A110 was re­vealed at the Geneva Mo­tor Show in March 2017. The sec­ond com­ing of Alpine’s great­est

hit, it was ea­gerly awaited by en­thu­si­asts the world over—even in Amer­ica, where it will not be sold. The lat­ter fact bor­ders on tragic be­cause the new Alpine is not only a hoot to drive but is also a fully re­solved au­to­mo­tive propo­si­tion.

Af­ter we landed in Paris—but be­fore we got caught up in the World Cup fes­tiv­i­ties—we drove this Alpine A110 500 miles south to the ver­dant, sun-dap­pled hills of Gas­cony, then on to the coast and the mob scene. The Alpine first dis­tin­guishes it­self by be­ing al­most unique in con­cep­tion. The French, once known for such things, do “weird” less and less these days, but the new A110 rep­re­sents a highly cred­i­ble and long over­due re­turn to idio­syn­cratic form.

The last model badged strictly as an Alpine—the rear-en­gine A610—rolled off the line in 1995. Un­like those last cars and their pre­de­ces­sors, which em­ployed fiber­glass body pan­els and a slight back­bone chas­sis—a for­mula that doesn’t cut it in these days of side- and off­set-crash test­ing—the reimag­ined A110’s chas­sis and body are con­structed al­most en­tirely of bonded and riv­eted alu­minum.

The new car’s 1.8-liter turbo four-cylin­der en­gine is a prod­uct of the Nis­san–Re­nault Al­liance. Small but po­tent, it makes a big, gruff noise when prod­ded, more mus­cu­lar than its size sug­gests. Mount­ing the en­gine be­hind the driver flies in the face of con­ven­tion, as does the A110’s de­cid­edly rear­ward-bi­ased weight dis­tri­bu­tion (a claimed 44/56 split). An in­de­pen­dent wish­bone sus­pen­sion, de­signed to help the A110 achieve a strong ride and han­dling bal­ance, is in ef­fect here, even though such a de­sign too often seems to fall by the way­side when car­mak­ers start look­ing to pare cost.

Pos­si­bly most trail­blaz­ing of all, how­ever, is the Alpine’s mod­est weight. At 2,381 pounds, it keeps com­pany with what is nowa­days a rar­efied and shrink­ing co­hort. The re­wards of min­i­mal­ism in terms of poundage are in­stantly ob­vi­ous, ac­count­ing for a per­for­mance that be­lies the Alpine’s hum­ble dis­place­ment by mak­ing the most of its 249 horse­power and 236 lb-ft of torque. Sixty mph comes up in less than 4.5 sec­onds. There’s suf­fi­cient steam to hit 155 mph, mak­ing the A110 rapid enough for most ev­ery oc­ca­sion—and it’s rel­a­tively ef­fi­cient to boot. At a hair less than $70,000, this spe­cial car def­i­nitely flies as a cer­tain type of value propo­si­tion.

Aero­dy­nam­ics help. In homage to the orig­i­nal A110 Ber­linette (1961-77), engi­neers worked in the wind tun­nel to avoid hav­ing to fit an un­gainly rear spoiler, which they ac­com­plished by em­ploy­ing an un­der­car dif­fuser lo­cated aft of a sin­gle-sheet, all-alu­minum floor. Up front, the Alpine’s ra­di­a­tor lies back at an an­gle, al­low­ing the car’s nose to sit that much lower to the ground, nearer than would have been pos­si­ble in a front-en­gine car. There’s room for a fair amount of soft lug­gage in the front and rear trunks. With stylis­tic nods to the sig­na­ture roofline and rear wind­screen treat­ment of the old A110— the es­sen­tial Alpine, looks-wise—this new one com­plies with strict EU crash and de­forma­bil­ity stan­dards. Yet it squarely cap­tures the look of the orig­i­nal.

Be­gin­ning what would morph into a 1,300-mile, week­long odyssey in the Alpine, we left the fac­tory show­room in Boulogne-Bil­lan­court, on the western out­skirts of Paris, and headed for the quaint and tiny ham­let of La­graulet-du-Gers, pop­u­la­tion ap­prox­i­mately 400. Dur­ing those first few hun­dred miles, the Alpine showed it could han­dle traf­fic well, and de­spite its diminu­tive size and mod­est dis­place­ment, it was fully up to the task of con­sum­ing big dis­tances in grand-tour­ing style. Road noise was low, power rev­e­la­tory without be­ing ex­ces­sive, and the seats were un­ex­pect­edly com­fort­able in spite of their sporty shape and stun­ningly light and el­e­gantly sim­ple con­struc­tion. At about 29 pounds each, they weigh about half that of a typ­i­cal car seat.

WITH STYLIS­TIC NODS TO THE SIG­NA­TURE ROOFLINE AND REAR WIND­SCREEN TREAT­MENT OF THE OLD A110—THE ES­SEN­TIAL ALPINE, LOOKS-WISE— THIS NEW ONE SQUARELY CAP­TURES THE LOOK OF THE ORIG­I­NAL.

Doors that close with au­thor­ity and quilted up­hol­stery fin­ished in black with de­cent dash and in­te­rior plas­tics el­e­vate the Alpine’s in­te­rior well above the kit-car/parts-bin con­no­ta­tions that might once have clung to the brand. Its air con­di­tion­ing is strong on a hot day, and the dig­i­tal dash dis­play is easy to read and works without an­noy­ing glitches. Three dif­fer­ent screen views cor­re­spond to pre­set Com­fort, Sport, and Track set­tings, which gov­ern power, shifts, and chas­sis char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Grand tour­ing is pre­cisely what it felt like when we checked into the Hô­tel Le Cas­tel Pierre de La­graulet. An ex­quis­ite bou­tique ho­tel with just five guest rooms, it has been lov­ingly recom­mis­sioned from an old cas­tle that had fallen into dis­re­pair. The cou­ple be­hind the ef­fort, like Alpine, seem to have fig­ured out how to com­bine the best of the old world with our fa­vorite modern con­ve­niences in a seam­less and ap­peal­ing way. Ham­mer­ing down coun­try lanes, pass­ing through rolling farm fields filled with hectare af­ter hectare of yel­low sun­flow­ers and end­less rows of neatly tended grape vines: The beauty of it all, in con­cert with the Alpine’s mag­i­cal chas­sis and frisky af­fect, proves in­spir­ing.

As we pulled into Four­cès for lunch on Bastille Day, half the pa­trons in an out­door restau­rant where we stopped for a trouser-bust­ing lunch of slow-cooked lamb, egg­plant, and sheep’s cheese poured out into the town square to ad­mire the Alpine. They were de­lighted to see the car in the metal, sur­prised to see it be­ing driven by an Amer­i­can, but filled with pride.

Again we come back to weight, which may be— along with lines that strike us as very fresh in this ho­mog­e­nized age of au­to­mo­tive de­sign—the Alpine’s most re­mark­able achieve­ment. This statis­tic amazes: An A110 car­ries al­most 600 fewer pounds than a Porsche 718 Cay­man, a car the new model comes as close to in con­cep­tion as any­thing. Dy­nam­i­cally, the Alpine ex­hibits all the ben­e­fits of feath­ery weight with re­mark­ably few of the de­mer­its. Most sur­pris­ing is its sense of rigid­ity and so­lid­ity. There are no rat­tles and lit­tle want­ing in the way of com­fort and con­ve­nience

next to the Porsche, ar­guably the gold stan­dard in less-than-strato­spher­i­cally priced, mid-en­gine, twoseat sports cars.

Like the Cay­man, the A110 of­fers a de­lec­ta­ble de­gree of steer­ing pre­ci­sion with the sort of feel we thought pretty much no longer ex­isted. It in­tox­i­cates on sec­ondary coun­try roads, a right-sized car with su­perb bal­ance and bags of power, read­ily ac­cessed via its in­tu­itive and agree­able pad­dle-shifted Ge­trag seven-speed dual-clutch au­to­matic. Yet it’s also fully up to the task of turn­ing French au­toroutes into mince­meat, go­ing as fast as you or your li­cense dare. A pass­ing bird said that 100 mph equates to only about 3,700 rpm in the Alpine, which is pretty re­laxed and all the more re­mark­able for its 1.8 liters.

Un­like so many cars that seek to cap­i­tal­ize on their her­itage without the slight­est grounds, the Alpine A110 ac­tu­ally ex­tends Jean Rédélé’s phi­los­o­phy into the 21st cen­tury, us­ing the lat­est tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing smarts to pur­sue the goal of re­duced weight in the name of sports car fun. If that doesn’t make you get up and want to sing “La Mar­seil­laise,” noth­ing will. AM

The new Alpine A110 bor­rows the sem­i­nal orig­i­nal’s name and style (seen here—1975 Alpine 1300 VC), manag­ing like few be­fore it to cap­ture the essence of a beloved an­ces­tor.

The sub­stan­tial dif­fuser and flat floor cre­ate big down­force, al­low­ing the all-alu­minum, 150-mph A110 to avoid a loopy rear spoiler. The in­te­rior de­sign and ma­te­ri­als emit no whiff of cheap, lowvol­ume kit-car.

Jamie Kit­man reck­ons the Alpine is one of the best cars he drove all year, with modern elec­tron­ics like the dig­i­tal dash har­mo­niz­ing well with its clas­sic ap­pear­ance.

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