Can a relatively rare, ultimately focussed mid-engined coupe designed to make short work of race tracks on a regular basis be any kind of daily drive? Masochists might say yes, but what about everyone else?
Don’t expect to see the Alpine A110 parked on every suburban street in Australia. Capped sales to comply with low-volume sales restrictions mean Renault’s take on a purpose-built mid-engined racer for the road will always be a rare spot on Aussie streets.
Does it deserve a better fate? After a week with the A110 Premiere Edition (of which only 60 units will reach these shores) it really does – but to go with limited numbers, a $106,500 price (before on-road costs) will ensure a new Alpine lies beyond the reach of the casual auto enthusiast.
There’s no doubt those that do find homes here will slot into garages as playthings alongside more sensible family cars in three- and four-car garages for the well-heeled. There’s also the very real possibility that some will be put into use as daily drivers.
Rob has already driven the A110 under launch conditions in France, while Tony had the pleasure of thrashing one at Targa High Country. Me? After a day on some of my favourite twisty roads, I drove it to work, took it shopping and freewayed it to the Geelong Revival.
No, that’s not what a car like this is designed to do. I know it all too well. It is, however, a very likely scenario for plenty of A110 owners (I see a chap dailying his Boxster Spyder to and from work most days, so it's no leap to think this car might be treated the same way) and there’s no better way to measure its capacity to function, also, as something of a grand tourer.
Of course there are compromises. A mid-engined layout ensures some of those, but others are mysteries of design, particularly when it comes to practicality in the cabin.
The long-roof silhouette does a decent job of hiding the sometimes disproportionate dimensions of cars with an engine ahead of the rear axle. As a convenient side effect it also creates a long cabin and plenty of fore-aft seat adjustment, sparking passengers to comment on how roomy the interior is.
Indeed, room for people is surprisingly generous, and even a roof that’s barely elbow height from the outside allows decent headroom on the inside. This is packaging done well.
It’s not perfect though. To these eyes, there’s enough room in the interior for at least narrow door pockets, although there are none. The pass-through under the centre console controls looks like a handy storage space too, but slip your keys/wallet/phone into it and you’ll arrive at your destination with your personal effects wedged under the seats – all having slipped out at the first corner.
There’s room behind the seats to carry a suit bag or laptop case, but the fixed-back bucket seats limit access to the space.
There’s no glovebox either, so your best bet is to leave the owner’s manual at home and use the velcro-backed book holder as a makeshift carry case and attach it anywhere you’d like on the firewall. Order a spare one or two and you can effectively double/triple (why stop there?) your small item storage.
The Premiere Edition treatment sees the interior equipped with the aforementioned fixed-back seats – a lightweight design from Italian motorsport seat specialist, Sabelt, trimmed in leather and microfibre trim, alongside 18-inch forged alloy wheels, Alpine Blue exterior paint and matching blue brake calipers.
Alpine Blue also appears on the interior door trims, while an active sports exhaust adds to the aural appeal and Brembo bi-material brake pads give the Premiere another point of difference.
The interior decor is a real mixed bag. The seats, stitched leather-look dash top and padded door inserts come straight from the sports-luxury playbook, the lower dash plastics, faux-carbon details, econo car ventilation outlets (including the non-aimable centre vent), and coverless vanity mirrors might have made the grade decades ago but have no place in a circa $100k car in 2018.
There’s an aura of quality and solidity to most parts and pieces, but those that let the presentation down, do so in a very noticeable way.
It’s amazing how quickly that fades into insignificance once you thumb the big red console-mounted starter button. The Alpine’s 1.8-litre turbocharged engine springs to life with a pleasantly gruff tone.
At your disposal lies a detuned version of the engine from the new Renault Megane RS with 185kW of power at 6000rpm and 320Nm of torque from 2000rpm, down a significant 20kW and 70Nm compared to its donor car.
There’s no real disadvantage to the detune though. Acceleration from 0-100 km/h is a claimed 4.5 seconds, helped by the A110’s kerb weight, a scant 1094kg.
The engine would no doubt work a treat coupled to a sweet, precise manual transmission but Alpine has decided against the row-your-own option equipping the A110 with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
It will work like a run-of-the-mill auto in drive but hit the D button on the console a second time to switch to manual mode and flick through the column-mounted paddles for a manual experience.
Where lesser Renaults aren’t always entirely convincing with a dual-clutch auto, the slick transmission in the Alpine doesn’t disappoint in the slightest, and can be ramped up to a more aggressive shift pattern by toggling the steering wheel mounted Sport button.
Sport – or a longer press of the button to invoke Track mode also makes the usual changes like angrying up the throttle response, adding weight to the electrically-assisted steering, and giving the valved sports exhaust a more open-throated soundtrack.
The letdown in the whole experience is the response times from the manual paddles. The column-mounted controls don’t have an instant impact on the transmission with a momentary pause between driver selection and gearbox engagement that takes some time to master.
Another potentially more dangerous failing is the Alpine’s stop-start system. As a track day weapon it’s hard to see why the system even needs to be included, but of course in Euro markets where every gram of CO2 counts the tech is essential.
The problem is, during urban commuting the system has a nasty habit of not restarting the engine. There’s not much to warn the driver either, unless you keep an eagle eyed lock on the instrument cluster for the check engine light which signals a stall rather than regular operation.
Unfortunately it’s not an isolated problem. I’ve had Meganes do the same thing to me before as well, but none as frequently as the Alpine and after a couple of hundred kilometres behind the wheel over the space of a weekend the system required a manual restart 10 times – usually to a chorus of car horns from frustrated motorists behind who think you’ve ignored a green light.
The potential for that to be a much more dangerous scenario is obvious and frankly inexcusable.
If you’re able to remember to deactivate the system at each start up the rest of the package is convincing.
The suspension is obviously performance tuned, but the passive dampers are forgiving enough to work across jagged city surfaces and can take the sting out of busy rural highway tarmac too. Each corner finds masses of grip and gives the driver a starkly accurate picture of the handling limits as they approach.
The steering is oddly delightful too, with power assistance (unlike Alfa Romeo’s 4C) to make it deftly light, accentuating the feeling of no engine up front. There’s a fast-reacting front end accuracy that builds driver confidence as speeds rise too.
The whole car gets involved on the right kinds of roads, with a vague hint of understeer into a corner, becoming more neutral is you wind on lock and transitioning comfortably into controllable oversteer as you power out.
Stomp the brakes, and despite being somewhat sedate looking (you might expect to see cross-drilled or grooved rotors, but there are none) the Alpine will just about push your brain into the back of your eyeballs time and time again.
It’s like riding a wave of emotion through each corner and is stupidly addictive fun.
Weekends away may never be the same, though it’ll take a patient co-driver to tolerate your insistence on u-turning at the end of every wiggly stretch of road to do it all over again and again.
Those weekends touring the countryside can at least be accommodated thanks to a combined 196 litres of luggage space. Alpine claims you fit two carry on cases side by side in the 100 litre front area and two full face helmets plus a soft bag in the rear.
In case you’re interested you can also fit a week’s worth of groceries in either end pretty easily too, although the front boot (froot?) opens like a traditional bonnet with a cable release inside the car (in the passenger footwell) and safety catch on the outside making it less convenient to open than the button-release rear boot.
If you’re looking to crunch the numbers on ownership you’ll need to visit your dealer for a service every 12 months or 20,000km with three years' servicing tallying $2340 making it a reasonable proposition for a highly specialised sports car.
Warranty spans three years or 100,000km, falling in line with other prestige offerings but off the pace of mainstream brands, including Alpine parent Renault, which offers five years on non-performance models.
Alpine diverges from Renault again with its infotainment system. You won’t find the Megane’s basketcase R-Link system (thankfully) but rather a reskinned version of the system Suzuki uses.
It’s great in sub $25k budget cars, but perhaps a little too generic for anything asking six-figures. The menu layouts are easy enough to master, but the graphics are a little off the pace.
Alpine’s additional telemetry relays a tonne of cool info for monitoring performance data while smartphone mirroring via a third-party mySpin app isn’t as clean and easy as CarPlay or Android Auto would be, but it is better than nothing.
No, you won’t but a car like the A110 on the strength of its infotainment. You’d be mad if you did (or if you ruled it out for the same reason) but the screen in the middle of the dash is emblematic of the car as a whole.
It’s a beautiful thing to drive. It’s as lovely on tight technical roads as it is tooling through suburban streets. It’s restrained in its styling, but lovely to look at. It sounds playful without being obnoxious.
It is, as far as purpose-built sports cars go, delightfully and thoughtfully balanced.
Under the skin there’s a bespoke aluminium chassis, upheld by bespoke aluminium suspension. The engine may be Megane at its core, but the subframe is rests in isn’t so there’s no MacPherson struts and welded tie rods hiding a front-drive transplant in a mid-engined application.
Alpine has been utterly thorough. Rivals like the Porsche 718 Cayman (more expensive, more powerful but heavier) and Alfa Romeo 4C (carbon construction but as bare inside as you’ll find) are certainly worth mentioning in the same breath, but somehow the numbers just don’t stack up.
The Alpine is a spectacular drive, but it lacks the polish, the fit and finish and the holistic ‘completeness’ of its rival from Stuttgart. It also falls short on the kind of safety kit you could reasonably expect for an all new 2018 car with just two airbags and no advanced safety assist like autonomous emergency braking or lane keeping assist.
The latter is perhaps forgivable on something conceived as a dedicated track weapon and Australia will see no more than 100 units per year in line with low-volume import restrictions for cars that don’t meet full-line safety requirements. The former, however, is a bigger issue.
If Alpine had landed the A110 in Australia with a kick-off point in the mid-$70k mark I’d herald it as a giant killer. If you could get into one with an $80k-ish price ticket the competition would have plenty of sleepless nights, but when you’re looking at a $97k buy-in for an entry car and over $105k for the Premiere Edition, all of a sudden the stretch to a completely unoptioned 718 Cayman doesn’t seem so bad.
That doesn’t stop the mid-engined Alpine from being an absolute cracker, for it really is. It falls down as an all-rounder, and in many ways that’s okay. It’s still rare, special, approachable and like any good sports car – imperfect.