After a prolonged absence from the motoring world, the Alpine brand is back, having been resurrected by Renault - its new owner. Previously the purveyors of curious rear-engined sports cars, the brand is in the process of launching an all-new, mid-engined Porsche Cayman rival, expected to cost around £50,000.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the passenger seat of several A110s at Renault’s Aubevoye test track ahead of the car’s media launch this Autumn, and from what I’ve seen so far, it’s looking very, very promising…
These days, the phrase ‘turbocharged inline-four’ usually makes me want to fall asleep, and I was indeed worried I’d be presented with a monotonous drone from the transversely-mounted, 1.8-litre unit. But, Alpine has managed extract a pleasing din from the all-new engine.
It’s quite throaty and angry at mid to high revs, with the aural experience enhanced by a sound tube that pipes noise from the airbox into the cabin through a hole in the bulkhead.
You also get a nicely aggressive ‘thwack’ every time the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox swaps a cog, which goes some way to make up for the lack of manual option.
The Alpine seems to roll very little, and can change direction with savage speed and efficiency. Grip certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue, and during the drifty segment of the day, it took some provocation for the test driver to get the A110’s rear to step out.
Being a mid-engine car, once pushed beyond the limit, the back does step out relatively quickly. But, as Laurent Hurgon (the driving badass responsible for Renault’s Nurburgring records) explained to us, the ESP system will cut in to stop you spinning even in Race Mode.
So, it’ll make you look like a hero without the risk of something highly embarrassing happening. Oh, and you can turn the ESP off entirely, should you wish.
It’s hard to draw any firm conclusions when sat in the ‘wrong’ seat, but so far, the A110 looks to be an incredibly well-rounded car in the handling department.
Jumping in the A110, the first thing that hits you is the size of the cabin - it really isn’t big in there. It’s a lovely space though, with the deep, quilted bucket seats and the ‘floating’ console in the middle of the two chairs being highlights in particular.
Some of the switchgear - taken from the Renault parts bin, as you’d expect - isn’t the nicest however, and some of the materials used for the dashboard feel cheap. But since less hefty-feeling materials keep the weight down, we aren’t going to complain much.
The 250bhp offered up by the A110’s 1.8-litre turbocharged engine may not sound much, especially when you bear in mind the Porsche 718 Cayman S puts out 345bhp. But with a kerb weight of 1080kg, the A110 is over 300kg lighter than the Porsche, meaning the power-to-weight ratio isn’t all that far off.
It’s all thanks to an obsession with weight saving. It’s constructed largely from aluminium, and is a particularly compact car overall. The Otto Fuchs wheels measure a relatively modest 18 inches in diameter, and the tyres aren’t even that wide - you’re looking at 205/40s at the front, and 235/40s at the rear. And those seats we’re so fond of? They’re just 13.1kg apiece.
The healthy power-to-weight enables the A110 to do 0-62mph in 4.5 seconds. A decent innings, but it’s worth pointing out it doesn’t feel particularly fast or dramatic at full throttle. It’s the handling you’ll be enjoying here most, not the straight-line performance.
You won’t find a fancy (and heavy) adaptive suspension system on the A110. Instead, the car (which also has double wishbones front and rear) just uses a very well honed set of dampers, complete with hydraulic bump stops.
With no suspension modes to fiddle with, you’d think the A110 with its stellar body control would be stupidly stiff. But no - over the course of our day at Aubevoye the engineers and test drivers were awfully keen to hammer home the point that this is supposed to be a sports car you can daily, not some uncompromising track car.
This ethos is very clearly translated into the A110’s chassis: it rides incredibly well, even when taken over the rougher parts of the test track. On the typically crap road surfaces of the UK’s B roads, we doubt you’ll be complaining about the ride.
Even now it’s lost a pair of cylinders, the Porsche Cayman is still the defacto sports car of choice at this end of the market. And to understand why, you just have to take a look at the car’s rivals.
The Audi TT RS grips like a damn barnacle and has a sensational engine, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. The Jaguar F-Type is a bit too big and a bit too heavy to be considered a true rival, while the twitchy, uncompromising Alfa Romeo 4C is a much more niche proposition.
The Alpine A110 on the other hand has the requisite purity in its mid-engined, weight-obsessed design to take on the 718 Cayman, and judging by our passenger rides, it might just have the handling to show the Porsche a clean pair of heels. It certainly sounds better, arguably looks better, and represents a much more interesting choice than the obvious Porsche.
We can’t wait to have a drive…