Up until now, there hasn’t been a Porsche Cayman rival. Well, not a proper one. “Ah, but the Audi TT RS!” I hear you cry. Sure, it’s fast, capable and brilliantly built, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. “Dude, you completely forgot about the BMW M2!” you might protest. I haven’t: it’s just not as sharp and - like the Audi - has its engine in the ‘wrong’ place.
Then there’s the Jaguar F-Type, which is too fat and only comparable in terms of price if you’re looking at the base inline-four model, and the Alfa Romeo 4C, which is massively twitchy and horribly uncompromising. Without getting something a little more specialised like a Lotus, there just hasn’t been a comparable car to tempt people away from the paragon of handling that is the Cayman. Until now.
Yep, I’m not going to tease you with my verdict on the all-new Alpine A110. I’m not going to weave some convoluted story and drop the important bit at the end. No, I’m going to simply tell you now that this isn’t just the first proper Cayman rival ever, it’s actually better. Now if you wouldn’t mind awfully sticking around for a bit longer, I’m going to tell you why.
First, let’s look at the recipe. Unlike the aforementioned Audi, BMW and Jaguar, the engine is where it should be: the middle. It’s a 250bhp, 1.8-litre inline-four turbo, which on paper sounds fairly weedy when any sports car worth its salt these days has a power figure starting with the number ‘3’. But here’s the thing: in its lightest configuration the Alpine weighs just 1080kg with fluids, about 300kg lighter than a Cayman. To put that in context, put a complete A110 and an A110 rolling chassis on one side of a giant scale with a 718 Cayman on the other side, and it’d tip the way of the Porsche. The fatty.
The weight’s mostly been kept down by making the A110 much more compact than its rivals and by building it mostly from aluminium, but there are also some fabulously anal weight saving measures going on.
Take the efficient windscreen washer jets, for instance: they’re integrated into the wiper blades and can clean the screen with less water, so the screen wash tank can be smaller. The seats are made especially for the car by Sabelt, and tip the scales at just 13kg apiece - about half that of the already minimalist chairs found in the Renault Megane Trophy R. They even commissioned a special hi-fi system from a company called Focal, which uses glass fibre-reinforced wool speaker cones backed with neodymium magnets. The latter material costs about 10 times as much as steel, but it’s a fraction of the weight. I could go on (and on, and on, and on), but you get the picture: Alpine hates weight.
As a result, the relatively modest power output is enough to get the 0-62mph sprint done and dusted in 4.5 seconds. The boost builds up gradually rather than dramatically from 3000rpm, and thanks to the lack of bulk, it always feels eager to pick up and punt you toward a more exciting speed. It sounds great too: there’s a muscular din to the 1.8, enhanced by intake noise being piped into the cabin through the rear bulkhead.
Weight isn’t just the enemy of acceleration, of course: it’s the arch-enemy of handling too. With so little weight, the A110 is can be thrown around with abandon, and when doing thusly, it feels spectacular. It changes direction quickly and effortlessly, and was very, very easy to tuck into every apex of the tricky Circuit du Grand Sambac where we tested the cars. Through the genuinely terrifying fast right-hander at the end of the start-finish straight - which sees you hug an imposing Armco barrier on exit - it felt beautifully balanced and stubbornly grippy.
The tighter corners revealed a tendency for the ESP system to cut in a little too aggressively in Sport Mode, stopping any rear-end shenanigans dead. That’s fine, as this is where Track Mode comes in. It ups the aggression from the engine and gearbox further while cutting the electronic interference to a minimum, meaning the back end will step out nicely, and since the balance is so good, you’ll catch it each and every time.
As if a sublime yet friendly chassis wasn’t enough, the steering is utterly on-point. It’s up there with the best electric power steering setups I’ve tried: it’s fast, linear, perfectly judged in terms of weight, and - shock horror - actually delivers a lot of feedback.
The A110 is just as want-inducing on the road, and a lot of that is down to the size. I seem to be hearing tight, twisty bits of tarmac increasingly referred to as ‘hot hatch roads’, and half the reason is because modern sports cars and supercars have gotten so God damn big. No such problem here with the A110’s diminutive dimensions: get it on a less generously-sized piece of road, and it doesn’t - like some sports cars - feel like you’re trying to pilot a supertanker down the River Thames.
"In a world of ever more powerful, over-tyred, over-blown sports cars, it’s a featherweight, supremely-executed riposte"
The other big factor is the suspension setup. It has a double-wishbone setup front and rear, which is a pain to package while also being quite expensive. But it’s worth it for the trade-off. This kind of arrangement is better at managing the camber of the wheels, meaning they can be kept in contact with the road more efficiently. It also means roll isn’t as much of an issue, so a relatively soft suspension setup can be used (with hydraulic bump stops to act like an extra damper at each corner for bigger impacts). Oh, and that also means adaptive dampers aren’t needed, leaving a passive setup which - you guessed it - saves weight.
It’s supple and unflustered by broken-up tarmac, and for the most part neutral, even in Track Mode. It’s not a car for big, lairy sideways moments - it doesn’t have a limited-slip differential, it’s worth pointing out - and even with relatively modest 235-width rear tyres (guess what, that saves more weight!) it doesn’t move around at the rear as much as you’d expect out on the road. Instead, it’s just pointy, keen, and utterly determined to show you a good time.
To drive, the A110 is as good as faultless. The only thing that irks me is the upshift ‘beep’ warning in track mode, which unfortunately can’t be turned off. Elsewhere from the driving experience, you’ll find that the off-the-shelf navigation system is moderately useless and particularly fiddly, and some of the switchgear - much of it sourced from run-of-the-mill Renaults - isn’t the nicest. But in a car whose main purpose in life is to entertain you, it’s all liveable.
Do I wish there was a manual gearbox option? Sure, but Alpine’s argument is that it’s not worth spending its already limited resources for something that’s going to have limited buyer appeal, and that’s fair enough. Particularly given the level of modification that’d be needed to package it, and in any case, at no point during my day with the A110 did I find myself hankering after a stick. The DCT-box is a good match for the car, and in the angrier modes, brutally fast on the upshifts and downshifts. Some slightly larger shifters would be nice, but it’s a minor grumble.
As it is, I want an A110 badly, and so should you. In a world of ever more powerful, over-tyred, over-blown sports cars, it’s a featherweight, supremely-executed riposte. There’s no UK price yet, but with the Premiere Edition coming in at €58,500, it’s bang on the money, and I can see why there’s already a one-year waiting list. I just wish I could join the queue.