Few cars have been as eagerly awaited, or had such a troubled gestation, as the Alpine A110. Bravely pitched as a rival to the sublime Porsche Cayman, the French machine originally started out as a joint venture between Renault and Caterham, but a struggle with finances meant that La Regie took the project in-house. Developed with an obsessive attention to minimising mass and a uniquely French approach to chassis tuning that manages to make the car both sharp and supple, the Alpine is a genuinely different proposition to the Cayman, but no less thrilling as a result.
Like the Porsche, the A110 is powered by a four-cylinder engine, but while the turbocharged 1.8-litre in-line unit’s 247bhp might not seem much on paper, in a car weighing just 1103kg and with sprint gearing it makes for a scintillating turn of speed. It’s so rapid that you’ll even forgive it a lack of a manual gearbox and the fact the seven-speed twin-clutch unit isn’t the snappiest shifter.
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Most remarkable is the way the Alpine goes down the road. Where many rivals pummel the tarmac into submission, the A110 glides serenely over it, working with the surface rather than against it. Quick steering and that mid-engined layout engender real agility, while outright grip levels are high. And given the softness of the set-up it’s surprising how controlled the Alpine is... up to a point. Push really hard and the car can feel a little ragged, but drive within its limits and its unique approach to going quickly has to be enjoyed and admired.
Perhaps crucially, it’s possible to forgive a few flaws when a car looks this good. Compact, delicate and with just enough injection of retro, the Alpine looks stunning in the flesh. The cabin’s not quite as successful (some may find the driving position a little high) and it's in here that the A110’s near-£50,000 price tag starts to look less appropriate. That’s a lot of cash, but the lissom Alpine just about gets away with it.
Alpine A110: in detail
- Engine, gearbox and technical specs - Four-cylinder unit is sweet-revving and eager, but twin-clutch transmission isn’t the sharpest. Bespoke aluminium chassis an inspired decision – its light weight is a virtuous circle for the rest of the A110's talents.
- Performance and 0-62mph time - Low weight philosophy and short gearing means the rasping turbo 'four delivers strong straight-line punch. It's smooth and responsive too.
- Ride and handling - Alpine follows Lotus’s lead by combining supple ride with agility. It gives the car a distinctive feel, but can feel scrappy at the limit.
- MPG and running costs - Low weight pays dividends at the pumps, the Alpine getting close to its official figures on a run. Also means less wear and tear on consumables.
- Interior and tech - Trails similarly-priced rivals on quality, while infotainment will make you scream. Fantastic seats, though some may find them mounted a little high.
- Design - No matter which way you look at it, compact and retro-infused A110 looks stunning. A thoroughly modern design, but those in the know will spot the retro cues.
Price, specs and rivals
You can’t fault Renault’s ambition with the Alpine, with the flagship S model setting you back a hefty £55,900, the middling Légende £50,805, and the entry-level Pure model £46,905. Yes, all variants are extremely well equipped, but it’s a chunky amount of cash for what is essentially a four-cylinder coupe with a two-decade gap in its heritage.
By comparison, the entry-level Porsche 718 Cayman with its six-speed manual gearbox (lovely) and 286bhp 2-litre flat four (not so lovely) will set you back £44,790, while adding the seven-speed PDK (a superior unit to the Alpine’s twin-clutch) lifts the price to £46,790. Step up to the more powerful 2.5-litre S and you’ll pay £53,746 and £55,746 respectively for the manual and PDK versions.
Of course, these prices are before options, meaning they’ll rise more than a little to match the Porsche and Alpine spec for spec, but as a complete sports car the Cayman just edges its more expensive rival. And yes, the flat-four engine is a bone of contention, but while it’s not the most charismatic unit, its main failing is that it’s simply not the old car’s flat-six – in terms of performance this punchy powerplant is in a different league.
Competing with the Alpine for style, if not ability, is the Audi TT RS. Available in coupe (£53,325) and (£55,075) convertible guises, both powered by the exceptional 394bhp turbocharged five-cylinder engine, which is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Sadly the chassis isn't quite in the same league; it's neither as agile as the Alpine (or Cayman), nor as supple.
If you fancy something a little out of leftfield, then the BMW M2 Competition could be well worth a look. More four-seater, two door saloon than traditional coupe, the BMW is nevertheless an eye-catching and desirable machine. Unlike the original model the latest Comp version gets a full-strength M engine – essentially the S55 motor from the M3/4, which is 'detuned' to deliver 404bhp and 406lb ft – and a number of suspension tweaks aimed at sharpening the handling. £51,425 buys you the six-speed manual.
The Alpine is by no means poorly equipped for its outlay, however. One shouldn't sniff at a low-volume specially-developed aluminium chassis with double wishbones at each end for a start, but the company does understand that under-the-skin stuff only goes so far. Even in "basic" Pure trim you get LED headlights and tail lamps, 17-inch alloy wheels, lightweight (and gorgeous) Sabelt one-piece bucket seats, selectable driving modes and a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment setup. Légende adds front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera, 18-inch wheels, a full leather interior, six-way adjustable seats, and a Focal audio system. The range-topping S receives further Alcantara-esque Dinamica fabric inside, as well as uprated brakes and the sports exhaust system as standard.