2018 Alpine A110 review

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The 2018 Alpine A110 has remained true to the company's core 'lightweight and agile' philosophy. But, after a 22-year hiatus, has the reborn French brand done enough to capture the magic of the original A110?

Let’s get one thing clear right from the outset. The French are funny about how outsiders pronounce words in their native language. A bit, well, snobbish even. So with that in mind, it’s pronounced ‘Al-peen’, not ‘Al-pine’ and certainly not ‘Al-poine’.

Whether you choose to ignore that little snippet of cultural correctness is up to you. What can’t be ignored is that with this, the Alpine A110, the French have built a cracking mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car, a worthy machine with which to relaunch the brand globally after a 22-year hiatus.

A little history first. Alpine began in 1955 when rally driver Jean Rédélé started building low-volume sports cars. Rédélé was first and foremost a driver, an engineer second. When asked why he chose the name Alpine for his fledgling business, he responded with an answer we can all relate to: “I chose the name Alpine for my company because for me, this is an adjective that epitomises the pleasure of driving on mountain roads. The most fun I ever had behind the wheel was driving through the Alps in my five-speed [Renault] 4 CV, and it was essential for me that my customers should experience this same level of enjoyment in the car I wanted to build. In this respect, the name Alpine is both symbolic and entirely appropriate.”

Since its inception, Alpine’s philosophy has always been about lightweight agility over brute power and force. It’s a philosophy that remains in place today and the result is the car we have on test today.

There’s no denying its heritage. It looks like the original Alpine A110 Berlinette and for good reason. That original car, launched in 1962, has become an automotive icon, thanks in large part to its motorsport success including claiming the first-ever World Rally Championship in 1973.

No surprise then, that when Renault decided to relaunch the Alpine brand (which it acquired from Rédélé in 1973) it looked to the original Berlinette for inspiration, both aesthetically and philosophically.

There’s no mistaking the lines of the Alpine A110. Anyone familiar with the original Berlinette will immediately recognise the signature twin front headlights and that distinctive swooping body shape. As an aside, Rédélé drew the original silhouette of the Berlinette on a napkin while having dinner and enjoying a wine. It consisted of a single line. The napkin was handed over to a trainee designer working for Alpine at the time, who added the flourishes and touches that shaped it into the iconic Berlinette. Or so the story goes in the corridors of the company’s Dieppe headquarters.

Today’s iteration, led by head designer Antony Villain (great name!), pays tribute to that original design but, more importantly, has provided a platform for Alpine’s engineers to stay true to the brand’s DNA of making the car lightweight, agile and a pleasure to drive.

Let’s talk about weight. When Renault greenlighted the project back in 2012, the brief to the team of engineers responsible for the A110 was to build a car that weighed just 1100kg. And the end result? The 2018 Alpine Premiere Edition we have on test tips the scales at 1103kg, while the model destined for Australia, the Pure, comes in under the benchmark at just 1080kg. That’s Mazda MX-5 territory, to give it some context.

Alpine’s engineers worked hard to achieve the 1100kg weight limit. Under the A110’s aluminium skin (available in just three colours – blue, white and black) lies an all-aluminium chassis that has been bonded and riveted together, rather than welded, to save weight. Additional savings come via aluminium suspension components, including hollow anti-roll bars as well as a clever – and claimed world-first – parking brake design incorporated into the rear Brembo calipers, representing a weight saving of 2.5kg over a more conventional park brake set-up.

All those shaved kegs – and there are plenty more including lightweight speakers – add up to, well, not very much.

But it’s not just the weight – or lack of it – that helps define the Alpine. Weight distribution, or as Alpine’s engineers call it, Mass Management, is crucial to the performance of this lightweight coupe. Alpine has achieved a 44:56 weight distribution, helped in part by locating the radiator at the front of the car and the fuel tank immediately behind the front axle line. Even smaller components like the power steering have been placed with optimal balance in mind.

The result is a well-balanced car with a low centre of gravity and a mass that hints at performance. And by that measure, the Alpine doesn’t disappoint.

At the A110’s heart lies a 1.8-litre turbocharged, inline four-cylinder petrol engine conveniently packaged just behind the front seats. With power outputs of 185kW and 320Nm of torque, the A110 storms to 100km/h from standstill in just 4.5 seconds. Mid-range acceleration is pretty handy too, with a claimed 80-120km/h time of just 2.7 seconds. The A110 covers the standing quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds while top speed is electronically limited to 250km/h. Quick, by any standard.

And on the road, it feels it too. Make no mistake, this thing is quick, bloody quick, jetting from corner to corner with a razor-like precision not too many cars can boast of. Acceleration isn’t the manic-push-you-back-in-your-seat type. Instead, it’s a rush of movement that builds quickly and effortlessly.

The seven-speed (wet clutch) DCT sourced from Getrag is a gem, too. Left to its own devices in Normal mode (there are three drive modes – Normal, Sport and Track) and it happily shuffles through the gears in search of optimal performance. Switching over to Sport adds some weight to the steering and some additional revs to the gear changes, while engaging Track mode unleashes everything the A110 is hiding under its swoopy exterior.

With a raucous cacophony of snarls and pops and crackles, the 1.8-litre happily and willingly revs out to redline, each gear change accompanied by a manic bang from the mill located just behind your ears. You are, in short, a conductor, the paddle-shifters your baton and the engine your orchestra.

Our test of the Alpine A110 included some typically sketchy French b-roads in the Provence region in the south of France. With temperatures hovering at zero degrees, and the omnipresent spectacle of snow-covered French Alps on the horizon, only the brave would dare push the car even close to its lofty limits on the oft icy roads. But such is the nature of this Alpine beast, even the meekest amongst us, i.e. me, felt confident enough to push a little harder with each passing corner.

Such is the handling of this car, with its double-wishbone suspension all around helping to keep maximum tyre contact with the road, that icy patches and slippery roads are dispatched with confidence. The steering too, is pinpoint accurate, although a little light in Normal mode. Switching to Sport mode firms it up noticeably and nicely, offering an altogether more tactile experience.

Tactility the order of the day for the second part of the Alpine A110 launch, our road loop leading us to the small, but entirely charming, Grand Sambuc Racetrack in Provence. Here, the A110’s mettle as a bone fide sports car was left in no doubt. At once fast and agile – as per the company’s philosophy – the A110 offered a beguiling track experience. With its razor-like acceleration out of corners, the Alpine leaves you in no doubt that this is a high performance car.

Better yet, its handling is at once predictable and communicative. You are never left in doubt as to what is happening underneath you, the A110 signaling its movements to you – and in Track mode on an icy racetrack there are definitely movements – with a predictability that is at once charming and comforting. Not to mention, grin inducing.

There’s plenty of aero grip on offer too, with the A110’s flat bottom channeling air to the car’s rear diffuser. That invisible setup can provide up to 190kg of downforce at 250km/h. Not bad for a car with no wings.

Stopping comes courtesy of 320mm discs all around, with four-piston fixed calipers at front and single piston floating calipers out the back. Despite a tortuous road loop to get to the track and then subsequent punishment at the hands of the many and varied drivers at the track, the brakes remained as adept at pulling up the A110 at the end of the day as they did at the start.

With its country back roads and racetrack credentials not in question, the last trick up the A110’s sleeve is, without a doubt, its durability. Nothing highlighted this more than the highway cruise after the day’s performance activities had concluded.

Where some sports cars excel on the track but offer a less-than-enjoyable experience on the road, the Alpine offered a soft and supple ride on the highway. It is, in short, supremely comfortable with a ride that would put some plusher vehicles to shame. Again, Alpine’s philosophy coming to the fore.

That comfort extends to the cabin which is Spartan – no glovebox, only a single cupholder – yet comfortable. The lightweight (just 13.1kg each) Sabelt sports seats hug your body perfectly. There are no grab handles for the passenger, simply because you don’t need them – such are the body-hugging contours of the seats.

Storage is an issue with the Alpine too, both within the cabin and without. In short, there is no storage in the cabin bar a small, shallow receptacle underneath the centre console which is good for a smartphone and not much else. There are no pockets in the doors and no other storage cubbies. Maybe Alpine’s engineers don’t want you adding any additional weight to the finely balanced A110.

Exterior storage isn’t much to write home about either, despite having two boots to choose from – 100 litres out front and 96 litres at rear – and neither option is hugely practical with shallow apertures for soft bags only. Forget about trying to pack a hard case.

Of course, perfection is an ideal never reached. And the Alpine A110 is far from perfect. It has its faults, some of them glaring – no side airbags anyone? – but, like we do with those we hold closest to our hearts, we can overlook those faults if the sum parts stack up. And for the most, with the Alpine A110, they do.

The Alpine A110 will arrive in Australia in the second half of next year and while pricing is still to be finalised, Renault Australia is gunning for a price in the bracket of $90,000 to $100,000. That actually stacks up pretty well, not just against its potential rivals but also against its French pricing where all 1955 Premiere Editions have been sold for €58,500 ($90,556 at today’s exchange rate).

There’s no question the Alpine A110 should be on the consideration list of buyers in Australia looking for a sports car with some real performance chops. But whether the brand has enough cache locally to wrest some buyers away from the more established and better-known offerings remains to be seen.

Yes, the A110 is compromised in some areas, particularly in safety and storage. But, as an expression of the company’s philosophy of a car that is “lightweight, agile and a pleasure to drive”, the Alpine A110 absolutely nails the brief.

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