A moribund marque comes triumphantly back to life to kick-start a French halo brand
– Alpine A110 –
You have to be so careful in this game. Four years ago I travelled to Italy to drive the new Alfa-Romeo 4C. We knew the car was beautiful, light and with its carbon tub, likely to be exceptionally rigid too. Clearly it was going to be quick. It seemed to be a sporting Alfa able finally to deliver on the promise of its badge. And then I drove it and was confused. I’d not had much time in the car but that’s what I’m paid for: any idiot can reach a reliable conclusion after a week and a 1000 miles – my job is to do so in only a couple of hours. Even so it felt promising but under-developed so I wrote saying how good it was but how much better it should have been. But I still gave it the benefit of the doubt. The truth was the 4C was not good enough, but it took me a long drive on more difficult British roads months later before I knew for sure. In short, I got it wrong.
Which is why I determined to approach this new Alpine A110 with the hardest of hearts. The formula seemed to be that of the 4C all over again but realised in aluminium rather than carbon. A small, conspicuously light-weight mid-engined coupé powered by a 1.8-litre turbo four driving through a double-clutch paddle-shift gearbox to the rear wheels alone. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as I’d discovered previously, plenty.
Not least because there is so much riding on its success. You will know Alpine and the fact that despite having created some brilliant cars in the past, none more so than the original A110, as a car constructor it has been defunct for 22 years. The cars were too expensive to buy and too niche in appeal. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the same of the A110: however good such cars might be, they are not volume sellers, as not only the 4C but even the Lotus Elise bear stark witness.
But they are brand builders and while no one at Alpine or its Renault parent is prepared to say as much, this is what we have here: a stalking horse for an Alpine brand that one day could have full ranges of cars and exist as a Mini to BMW, an Alfa to Fiat or, dare I say it, a Porsche to VW. Which is why the A110 has to be right from the off.
So it’s sad to say I think it’s got one of the most important things wrong. I don’t like retro styling at the best of times and while the modern A110 is perfectly pleasant to look at, park one next to that little jewel that is the original – as did Alpine at the launch – and you’re saying ‘here’s one we did earlier, just rather better.’ It sends the wrong message, too: a new company looking over its shoulder rather than to its future.
Encouragingly, however, it’s sensibly proportioned and far more spacious than you might expect – I’m 6ft 4in and could drive in complete comfort even with a helmet on. The interior is simple, adequately stylish and probably more functional than you might expect of such a car. The engine is also sweeter at idle than I’d expected and with a pull of a paddle and touch on the throttle, we’re rolling.
Even before I’ve asked for another gear sensations start flooding in. The first is that the ride quality is other-worldly for this kind of car. It has unequal length double wishbones at each corner but they seem suspended by feather-weight springs. The steering seems delightfully accurate and positive too.
With just a few turns under the wheels, I could feel the excitement start to built. It just felt right, more so in less than five minutes than the 4C has in all the hours I’ve now spent driving them. The engine is so much more than the working tool we’ve come to expect from such cars: it fizzes when you’re hard on the gas and crackles when you’re not. It’s always smooth and always good to listen to, which I’d really not expected given its humdrum specification. And yes, of course, I’d rather have manual gears and believe Alpine has missed a trick in not providing them, but the DSG it uses instead is every bit a match for the engine to which it is attached.
Given that it has forced induction and four cylinders, this is a class powertrain.
But it is outshone by the chassis. The key to its success is to punt the search for grip miles down the list of priorities. With little weight to carry, a mid-engined configuration and properly designed, securely located suspension, it was always going to corner fast enough for public roads, so Alpine’s engineers decided instead of seeking even more adhesion that could rarely be used, it would go for poise and response instead which could be enjoyed every time the wheel is turned. So they kept the springs springy and the tyres narrow. And they have triumphed.
Indeed the A110 is so extraordinarily involving, exciting and intimate on the public road that I just assumed it would fall over on the race track, because that’s what cars whose set up has been so focused on one environment tend to do. But not this one. Out on the circuit it was almost equally impressive, happy to be driven quickly and accurately, but simply delighted to be flung about and slid from one opposite lock the other. I didn’t even mind its lack of a limited-slip differential because I’d not trade its deliciously neutral balance for the extra grip. One health warning however: the track we used was tight, narrow and wet, factors that all play to the light, compact and softly sprung Alpine’s strengths. How it would be amid the wide open spaces of, say, the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit on a dry summer’s day I cannot tell you, but it would be naïve to presume its talents were indefinitely extendable.
Then again, I don’t see the A110 predominately as a track car and that’s perhaps its greatest strength of all. The single greatest limiting factor of cars configured like the 4C and Lotus Elise is that you need to be in the right mood and with the right scenery around you to enjoy driving them. In the Alpine you don’t. Although there is barely any stowage space on board and the boot is small, as a thing to just get in and drive it requires almost no compromise at all. It is quiet, it is comfortable. Ergonomically it’s not going to scare BMW much but nor is it going to drive you to distraction. The driving position is excellent, the electronic dash simple and clear and the touchscreen nav system intuitive enough to be understood and operated almost at once.
In many ways indeed, this is the car I’ve been waiting for, one that really does offer a credible middle ground between the purely recreational class of cars like the Alfa and Lotus and massively heavier, more mainstream machines like the Porsche Cayman. It has that feel only cars weighing a little over a tonne or less can provide, yet it imposes startlingly few compromises for those who’ll use theirs every day. In short this is a car that’s better to drive even than a Cayman yet laughably more easy to live with than a Lotus.
Sadly this in no way guarantees success. Alpine has created some superb products in the past, none more notably than the brilliant 1990s A610, and even that could not ensure the brand’s survival. And the uncomfortable fact is that, at around £50,000, the A110 is more expensive than an entry-level Cayman and, well, it’s not a Porsche. And at this price point that is a crucial consideration. Indeed and time and again in all parts of the market, we see customers walk straight past the best car in the class in order to get to the best badge in the class. Not only that, but with the A110 many prospective owners are going to have to accept they’re going to have to explain to their friends and family not merely what kind of car they have bought, but even where its name comes from.
I hope more than I routinely hope for most things in this business that the A110 works, and that as a result Alpine is able to deliver an entire range of lightweight, engineering-led products that can appeal to real drivers from across the spectrum. It is a brilliant car, clearly conceived for all the right reasons and expertly engineered. It was probably the best car I drove last year. That it deserves to do well is not the issue: whether it will or not remains to be seen.
Price £50,000 approx Engine 1.8 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged Power [email protected] Torque 239lb [email protected] Weight 1103kg Power to weight 226bhp per tonne Transmission seven-speed dual clutch, rear-wheel drive 0-60mph 4.5sec Top speed 155mph Economy 46.3mpg CO2 138g/km