2019 Alpine A110 review: Targa High Country

First Australian drive

It's been 41 years since we last saw a new Alpine A110 roll out of the factory in Dieppe, but it's been worth the wait, because this just may be the most enjoyable car I've driven in years. Margeit was right about that.

Any review of the latest interpretation of the A110 must surely begin with a bit of history about the brand, such is the connection between past and present surrounding this storied marque.

It’s been 41 years since we last saw a new A110 from the French master of agility Alpine, but for many, including yours truly, it’s been well worth the wait.

Alpine (pronounced al-peen), now owned by Renault, first opened shop in 1955 as a low-volume manufacturer of sports cars that traded large-displacement engines with big horsepower for a near-perfect recipe of petite powertrains and a lightweight chassis.

That magic formula produced some of the most potent rally cars of their time, collecting wins in the famed Monte Carlo Rally in 1971 and 1973, as well as the first World Rally Championship title that same year. And there were countless other victories too, including an outright win at the 1978 24 Hours of Le Mans.

This tiny French carmaker from the coastal town of Dieppe produced proper supercar slayers that captured the hearts of enthusiasts across the globe. However, the A110 ceased production in 1977. Although other models would follow, none gained such worldwide notoriety as the featherweight A110.

Passion alone is likely responsible for the rebirth of Alpine, and if the latest incarnation of the A110 is any indication of how things are progressing, then bring it on, because this is one very special bit of French kit you're going to want to try.

But forget the pics, though, because even the best photographs don’t seem to do nearly enough justice to the new Alpine – at least those we’ve seen so far. But in the metal there’s so much detail to froth over, from the inset front fog lamps and distinctive bonnet spine to the wraparound rear glass and flared rear guards – each a nod to the original giant-killing A110 Berlinette.

While many will be unfamiliar with the brand, those that know the original version will recognise the new car instantly – not that you’re likely to see too many around, mind you.

The fact that this latest attempt by Alpine only gets two airbags (there are no side airbags) means that only a limited number can be imported each year. Try 60 only of the Australian Premier Edition (call it a launch edition) will be available to Aussie buyers this year, and more than 43 of those are already spoken for. Once they’re gone, Renault will aim to import 100 units per annum, in line with import laws for such cars.

If there are any left at the end of the year, we’d be most surprised. And that’s with little or no marketing campaign – mainstream or guerrilla style. It’s word of mouth and events like Targa High Country that are doing all the talking for Alpine.

Even then, there’s likely to be as lengthy a waiting list in Australia as there is in France – after speaking with a Parisian colleague only last week, who claims customers might be waiting up to two years for their cars on its home soil.

That’s hardly a surprise, because while it might pay tribute to its illustrious ancestor, the latest version of the Alpine A110 is a clean-sheet design using the very latest build techniques and weight-saving components like its aluminium chassis and body (the entire car is 96 per cent aluminium).

There’s plenty more lightweight magic, like the hollow anti-roll bars and aluminium suspension parts that help keep the car’s weight down to just 1080kg for the entry-level ‘Pure’ model. Even our fully specified Premier Edition weighs in at only 1103kg.

By way of comparison that’s even less than a Mazda MX-5 FR auto (1106kg) and 271 kilos fewer than its only true rival, the Porsche 718 Cayman with PDK transmission – if we’re going to compare apples with apples here.

It’s patently clear that each and every component has been carefully scrutinised by the engineers in the interest of paring back the grams, let alone kilograms – a hallmark of the brand from the very outset as decreed by Alpine’s founder, Jean Rédélé.

Take the one-piece bucket seats constructed with a lightweight design using leather and microfibre; they’re sourced from high-end Italian racing specialist Sabelt and register just 13.1kg each on the scales. They’re also incredibly comfortable, yet provide proper racing levels of seat and side bolster that virtually lock in your torso, even under the most violent G-force assaults.

Not even the bulletproof Brembo brakes have been spared, and incorporate the parking brake into the main rear caliper just to save another 2.5kg. They’re also designed to effectively cool even when you’re properly going at it in the A110, and we guarantee you’ll be doing a lot of that.

The lightweight 18-inch forged alloy wheels from Otto Fuchs suit the car to a tee, and are standard equipment on the Australian Premier Edition. They, too, help shed even more kilos from the crafty little French Alpine.

Its aerodynamics are especially well sorted. The Alpine is able to generate up to 195kg of downforce at its electronically limited top speed of 250km/h, but without using a fancy rear wing or deep front apron, as that would surely ruin the silhouette of what can only be described as a master of retro-modern design.

That’s because the A110 gets a flat underbody that works in concert with a properly functioning rear diffuser. Moreover, carefully designed air inlets in the front bumper effectively produce a curtain around the front wheels, thereby reducing turbulence and drag at the front end.

Adhering to this lightweight French prescription also means you can get away with the bare minimum when it comes to power and torque. Something all French carmakers seem to have over rival makes. Always have...

The Alpine makes do with a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine lifted from the latest Renault Megane RS, only in the A110 it's mid-mounted behind the front seats and detuned to make 185kW and 320Nm of torque (down 21kW and 60Nm).

I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound like much these days, but trust us when we tell you the Alpine’s balance between outright point-to-point squirt and handling prowess feels pretty much spot on.

In any case, adding more power would develop more heat and require a more complex cooling solution, and that’s before any issues you might have with the braking package and the extra loads.

From the very moment I launched the Alpine off the start line at Targa High Country, this car caught me by complete surprise. Not only did it feel properly quick – potent, even – but the feedback through the steering wheel was nothing less than extraordinary.

The sheer pace the A110 is capable of carrying into corners requires constant recalibration of the appropriate senses, and even then you’re still not quite prepared for the never-ending adjustments. This car will outdrive you if you’re not at the top of your game.

But, even if you stuff it up and turn in too late, it’s all good, because the car is also incredibly forgiving with no nasty side effects. If there’s any body roll, I can’t detect it. It feels more kart-like than car, but different to the Lotus Elise we entered. It’s an easier car to pedal hard – less effort required and way more comfortable at the same time.

I know I’m frothing ad nauseam here, but the Alpine’s composure and balance are pure wizardry. Its 44:56 weight distribution is a key achievement thanks to the careful placement of the radiator at the front of the car and the fuel tank behind the front axle.

You can’t quite believe the grip and traction on offer, either. It doesn’t seem possible given the relatively skinny Michelin Pilot Sport rubber all round (205/40 front, 235/40 rear). I’m guessing that’s got as much to do with the A110’s sophisticated double-wishbone suspension system that ensures max tyre patch not only connects with the ground, but is also forcibly pressed into the tarmac as the car rolls through a bend.

Not only that, there’s genuine compliance built into this suspension, and that’s another thing that surprised us. I expected a rock-hard ride to go with its ultra-sharp handling, but the opposite is true. Even over metal expansion joints on the concrete road up to the chalets at Mount Buller, the Alpine effectively damps the bumps.

Ordinarily, I might avoid cutting too fine a line through the faster corners for fear of ending up down one of the many embankments in these parts (like the half-dozen that went over). But, again, the Alpine absorbs much of the hit and you press on and repeat with no loss of traction whatsoever.

Moreover, the pace just seems to build and build. Even allowing for the Porsche tour to cut in 3–4 minutes ahead of the A110, it seems only like a minute or two before we’ve closed the gap on the same yellow 911 Carrera – for the third consecutive time.

However, nothing is perfect as they say. There’s a chink in the Frenchie’s lightweight armour.

The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission sourced from Getrag is, for the most part, up to the task, unless you happen to be running in a Targa event like this where deficiencies can show up. In this case, it can be slow to react, particularly when closing in on tighter corners under hard braking. It won’t always downshift when you want it to.

There’s an issue with the paddle shifters too: they’re column-mounted and too short in some circumstances. Longer paddles would seem an obvious choice to me. Pity, then, that Alpine can’t ask Porsche to supply them with its PDK box.

There’s a good exhaust note, though. At least, that’s what countless onlookers told us at the launch stop. Thankfully, plenty of that high-revving snarl is making its way into the cabin, which only entices you to push harder.

If we thought the standard-fit Brembo brakes might have faltered in a hard-charging event like Targa, we were wrong again. I don’t know how many times I leaned on them with plenty of late-braking moments, but never did they show any signs of faltering. Instead, they performed unfailingly to the very end of four demanding stages, including a 48km stint.

Even our Megane RS Cup car that was tucked in behind us, and piloted by a professional race driver, was having trouble staying with the Alpine on the really twisty stuff. But even when the road straightened out, the Alpine still seemed to pull away. It’s hugely satisfying.

Overall build quality seems good, but if Alpine wants to win over Porsche Cayman buyers, it’ll need to step it up in the interior department. It’s not that it doesn’t feel a bit special, because the Sabelt seats alone could win me over.

There’s plenty of twin-stitched leather and Alcantara around, but there’s also plenty of cheap plastics below the dash and there’s a serious lack of convenient storage due to the fact there’s no glovebox or centre console bin – just a rather awkward space under the McLaren-esque floating bridge that houses the transmission selector and start/stop buttons. Sure, there are some appealing elements inside, but it’s not a patch on the Cayman in that respect.

That said, the Alpine isn’t playing in the same price bracket as the Porsche either. Even the fully stocked Premier Edition at $106,500 (plus on-roads) is priced well below the $117,132 entry-level Cayman with PDK transmission.

Alpine also intends to bring its base-model Pure priced from $97,000, while the top-spec Legende (once the Premier Editions are sold) will enter the market priced from $103,500.

Make no mistake, the new Alpine A110 is first and foremost an enthusiast’s car. Fast, light and extremely agile. But, it’s also a car that can be driven as a daily – not even fast, mind you, but enjoyed all the same – by anyone.

I’d go further and issue a warning to those keen enough to try it out – make sure you’ve got the coin for an on-the-spot purchase, because this thing is also thoroughly addictive and fast-acting to boot.

Targa High Country images shot by Angryman Photography

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