Want a circa-$100k mid-engined sportscar experience and don't want a Porsche 718? We check out the 'alternative' baby supercars in the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider and Alpine A110
Got around 100 large and after the most pragmatic sports car with an engine located at the 'party' (rear) end of the chassis? Then you'd probably forego the Alfa Romeo 4C or the Alpine A110 and go straight for Porsche’s 718 Cayman or Boxster, right?
That would be the sensible, thinking – or over-thinking, even – petrolhead's choice, full stop.
But just say you don’t want the Porsche. It could be a little too pricey (from $114,900). Too common. Too German. It could be too normal or too, well, unimaginative a choice. Or – gasp! – you might share one prevailing opinion that the 718 is “not a real Porsche sports car” as some might do.
There are certainly many and varied reasons why you might be lured towards an Italian or French alternative, and reasons outside of Italian, French or alternative status. Some gearheads – yours truly included – crave something esoteric; a left-field car some onlookers mightn’t recognise or have ever seen before. Exclusivity can be attractive.
But exclusivity can present shortcomings. Like access to review machinery. We’d have ideally cherry-picked a buck-banging Italian Coupe ($89,000) and French Pure ($96,000) as an 'entry-level' comparison if for lack of car availability, but even getting our 4C Spider ($99,000) and A110 Australian Premiere Edition ($106,500) we have here was a lucky draw.
The Lotus Elise S would’ve made for a no-brainer three-way ‘Not The Cayman’ mid-engined sports car stoush, though, sadly, the stars didn’t align timing-wise.
Having driven it at launch, I was familiar with the polarising Alfa Romeo 4C Spider convertible at the outset of the test. Its hardcore, stripped down, frills-free nature is a love-hate proposition very much by design, surprisingly fearsome despite its dinky appearance, intentionally raw, unforgiving, and hell-bent on belting your senses in a manner that, well, a Porsche 718 specifically tries to avoid.
Be it the leaden, unassisted steering or the acres of exposed carbon-fibre construction evident in the cabin, it's something of an acquired taste that I ‘get’ in a way plenty of car fans I know don’t.
By contrast, the first time I’d ever set eyes on an Alpine A110 – any Alpine for that matter – was when colleague Jez Spinks rocked up to our meeting point for this test in the NSW Southern Highlands in our (of course) Alpine Blue example.
Like the Alfa, signals broadcast on the Alpine have been mixed. Of my CarAdvice cohorts, Anthony Crawford called it possibly “the most enjoyable car in years” and Rob Margeit judged it his Winners Circle pick of 2019… While Kez Casey gave it an ordinary 7.6 from 10 in his garage review, mostly down to its lack of daily driven friendliness. So, frankly, I wasn't sure what to expect.
Brothers from (ethically) slightly different mothers, right? Nope. Right from the get-go, sampled back to back along the same roads, Jez and I quickly arrived to the exact-same overarching conclusion. Driven with red-hot sports car enthusiasm, the Alfa and Alpine could not be more different from one another.
Broad stats do suggest otherwise. The Alpine does counter the Alfa’s exotic carbon fibre and composite construction with a make-up said to be “99 percent aluminum”, but there’s not a lot in it between these Weight Watchers specialists.
The Italian clocks in at just 1058kg to the French car’s 1094kg weighbridge ticket. Built at the Maserati factory in Modena and historic Alpine Renault in Dieppe respectively, both protagonists boast weighbridge tickets over a quarter-tonne thriftier than a Porsche 718.
Then there's size. Viewed individually, it’s easy to presume that the Alfa is more compact than the Alpine when, in fact, they’re quite similar in stature parked up beside one another.
Of course, glue for this twin test is their transverse-mounted turbocharged fours, the 1.75-litre engine in the 4C good for 177kW (at 6000rpm) and 350Nm (2200–4250rpm), the 1.8-litre unit in the A110 outputting superior 185kW power (also at six grand) if with a lower absolute torque figure of 320Nm (from 2000rpm).
But they shake out to claims of 4.5sec apiece sprinting to 100km/h, the six-speed dual-clutch Alfa topping out at 250km/h, while the seven-speed DCT Alpine stretches its V-max out by a further eight clicks. So, nothing in it.
Statistic semantics are one thing, but the seat of your pants is something entirely different.
There’s some mild shock with my initial reintroduction with the Alfa, like diving into a cold pool of water. I clamber awkwardly in, fiddle with the wheel placement never quite high enough and seat back with simply not enough rake adjustment, before a sudden blast of mechanical din assaults me right behind the ears as the turbo-four ignites, bouncing the cacophony around the hard-surfaced cabin for the entirely of any given trip.
The 4C treats pain as pleasure, exacerbated by the concrete steering at a standstill or at maneuvering speed.
On the motorway heading south from Sydney, the Alfa constantly tugs for attention. You can dull the noise a little at some RPM points, though there’s absolutely unfiltered connection between driver and road, which can be amplified to the wider environment should you choose to unclip the fabric roof from the carbon-fibre windscreen surround and rear cowl. In the mid-three-degree winter ambient, that’s not going to happen…
You can acclimatise, and I do, but you simply can’t relax. It’s more than the ever-present in-cabin noise – it’s that the nose of the Alfa constantly tugs left and right, so-called ‘tramlining’ with every change in the road’s contour.
It literally demands arm muscle to keep it pointed straight, and that's on a relatively smooth road... Nowhere near those narrow, heavily pockmarked, prominently crowned touring back roads we’ve aimed for in the quest for ‘fun’.
I dial up 110 on the cruise control – one of the 4C's precious few conveniences – and I bend my legs up for somewhere to prop my elbows in relief of long-haul steering fatigue as there are no armrests. You won’t fall asleep at the wheel here and no caffeine is required.
And while there’s a surprising degree of forgiveness in the suspension compliance of a device clearly set ‘hard’ everywhere, it’s as close as you’ll ever get to a bona-fide supercar experience at anything like this little money bar a harder-core Lotus – precisely as intended. It has an eventful vibe that I do like a lot.
I round up Jez and the Alpine a couple of hours south of Sydney, leaving the Hume and aiming for the beaut Southern Highlands twisties via The Back Way. Within the simple, clear TFT driver’s screen – gear, numerical speed, RPM sweep readouts primarily – the Alfa glows a low-temperature warning for black ice.
With the unkempt surface of the tourist roads literally tugging the Alfa to-and-fro, it takes much concentration and commitment to even keep the Italian car on the black stuff while attempting to maintain the A110’s fetching derrière in sight up ahead.
It’s more than just fizz and vibe that make the 4C feel electric. The roadholding grip is phenomenal, especially for such modest 205mm front/235mm rear rubber – the Alpine fits similar dimensions – but it demands you build trust in it.
Matters are not helped by steering that’s generally ideally weighted and highly intimate off centre at a decent clip, yet fluctuates between spookily aloof on centre and oppressively heavy when the road speed drops and corners become tighter.
And all the while the four-pot barks rage behind your ears, wheezing like a giant lung on boost, its potent mid-range thrusting the 4C forth effortlessly with each twitch of the right foot. It’s got a helluva lot of bite for such a small animal, and yet it demands pulse-racing, spine-tingling commitment to maintain sight of that Alpine up ahead.
Jez and I stop, swap cars, and aim them back up the same stretch of hotmix. Instantly, the Alpine is not merely different: it’s like it has come from a different planet.
The A110 cabin is much fancier, more stylised and colourful, almost concept car like, those hard-mounted one-piece race buckets (with only fore-aft adjustment) perched much higher than the lowly slung Alfa seating.
It’s far easier to get into, instantly comfier and less ergonomically challenging; a device that’s clearly lighter, softer and quieter in character. And that's even before the French car has set a wheel in anger.
I’ll admit, my first 60 seconds with the Alpine is a full-berries blast diving into some of Australia’s wickedest sequence of corners. And the measure of contrast in driver cooperation is that I’m instantly about 20 per cent more committed while putting in about half of the effort to achieve such pace.
With all the gushing of how great the A110 is to drive, I’m surprised more than anything about how laughably easy it is to punt hard.
Sure, if you’ve spent the morning in Italian motoring’s answer to sadomasochism, the French contrast feels soft, much more moderated and somewhat detached.
I’d discover over the ensuing days that, no, the Alpine effuses punchiness, vibrancy and edge; it just requires acclimatisation for those virtues to show themselves if your senses are a bit punch drunk by the 4C experience.
The Alpine’s powertrain, essentially the Megane RS combination relocated to the naughty end of the chassis, is fantastic. Its delivery is cleaner and more linear than the Alfa’s, the dual-clutch slicker in plucking ratios up or down. Or perhaps it just seems that way given that, with the Italian powertrain, every mechanical action elicits some conspicuous whirl, thud or clunk.
Though much lighter in weight, the A110’s steering is clearer and more well rounded, providing the driver more measured accuracy. The same goes for the superb brakes: it’s very easy to modulate the onset of ABS easily and intuitively, allowing you to get on the anchors very late into a corner, whereas the Alfa demands more concentrated precision from the driver.
Both cars have true sports car soul – the more you dig in, the more pace they return – it’s just that the lighter touch, less challenging Alpine arrives at the fun zone that much more quickly and easily.
But perhaps the single most impressive corner-carving trait the A110 possesses is balance across its axles, and the most tangible upshot being its tremendous front-end grip. In fact, the only other rear- or mid-rear-engined sports car I can recall having such fantastically neutral dynamics is, well, Porsche’s 718 breed, with not a hint of front-end float typical of this sort of rear-weight-biased chassis format.
In fact, at times you forget the Alpine parks its engine in the boot. There’s a surprising amount of synergy with the character of its cousin, the Renault Megane RS; a car I’m quite familiar with and particularly fond of.
The A110 really demands little discretion to punt with gusto on-road – you just grab its scruff and commit. This is quite unlike the more 'classic' rear-engined experience of the Alfa some buyers consider essential to real sports car dynamic DNA, where you tend to try and swing the weight of the rear to help point the nose.
Rather than being strictly sports car like, the A110 does come across as more a sports coupe with an unorthodox engine location, which is fittingly in homage to the original A110 Berlinette of the 1970s that this contemporary re-imagination so painfully apes. It is something of a motoring oddball, perhaps, but it's also oh-so likeable, let alone oh-so-driveable, because of it.
Those distinctive differences in the quick drive manifest themselves while cruising. Despite some criticism of its liveability reported in the past, I'm convinced you could live with the way the Alpine drives every day.
The French car offers a proper split personality. Meanwhile, the Alfa is realistically that second, or perhaps third, car that lives in the garage – its more singular focus only really ideally suited for uncorking during fair-weather Sunday morning thrill rides.
Each does present some measure of compromise. While it’s unsurprising that the Alfa lacks much in the way of active safety, conveniences or techy gizmos, the seemingly more lavish Alpine is actually also quite bereft of features.
So, while the A110 does fit proper touchscreen infotainment against the 4C’s afterthought, aftermarket single-DIN (yes) Alpine head unit, neither car fits as much as a reversing camera.
But to kick the pair for the slim equipment lists is to miss the point. Each is more lightweight than an MX-5 RF and something – namely dead weight – has to give. Streamlined focus is key to their appeal, and to merely add stuff to the detriment of added mass would surely dilute these cars’ core credentials. That the Alfa’s steering wheel has no added controls, for example, is actually appealing.
However, there are notable shortcomings and, for some sports car shoppers, potential deal-breakers. The Alpine’s two-tier console looks concept car cool, but the oddment tray is frustratingly awkward to access.
Its one-piece buckets, too, are bolted in too high and any adjustment to lower them requires tools – I’d love to try the cheaper Pure version with its regular pews. But it’s the rear-view mirror placement (because of the fixed seat placement), completely blinding peripheral vision, that would make the A110 very hard to live with.
With the Alfa, the big bone of contention is the steering weight: spend a full day punting it around and there’s a fair chance you’ll sprain a wrist (you can ice it until your ears stop ringing). Even a mild power-steering system, one that might just offer weight relief at low speed, would broaden this car's appeal by a measurable magnitude.
Storage? Well, it’s the base of the passenger seat... Unless someone is sitting in it. Also, the 4C's removable roof is frustratingly awkward to mount or stow single-handedly. Impractical, yes, but if you’re shopping for convenient motoring, you really shouldn’t be sniffing around this neck of the motoring landscape.
Also, neither has what you’d call generous ownership terms. Each is covered by nominal three-year warranties, the Alfa with a 150,000km cap and the Alpine 100,000km in total, with conditional three- and four-year roadside assistance programs respectively. And each has a 12-month servicing schedule, the 4C through to 15,000km, the A110 up to 20,000km per interval.
But while the French car is, at a $780 average per year (for three years), pricey to service, the Italian’s steep $1325 per annum average (over five years) is a wallet-buster.
Despite their myriad differences, these sports cars are so interesting, quirky and compelling that, even individually, each does more to enrich the wider motoring gene pool than an entire segment of homogenised SUVs. Even if neither is the right fit for you, the automotive world is a richer and more interesting place because of their inclusion.
Which is better? Which is the winner? Neither, really. Regardless of how we rate it, there’s really nothing out there with four wheels with a rego plate that will belt your senses quite as violently as the 4C Spider.
And the handy byproduct of its nature is that not much else feels quite so fast when the road speed isn’t actually that high. That said, it’s certainly the only proper baby supercar of the pair.
The Alpine crosses over roles more easily. Sports car? Hot sports coupe? Super grand tourer? It's flexible enough to embody all three when needs arise. It’s easier to get on top of, to extract pace and explore its limits. And it’s much easier to live with, making it a more flexible prospect.
Better yet, the French car is nigh on as exotic as the Alfa in build, has just as interesting a heritage, and doesn’t feel less special despite offering a more 'normal' broader driving experience. And if more normality means 'better' in your personal book, then you might consider the French car to be the winner.