Alpine A290 prototype review – first taste of the electric hot hatch
evo drives Alpine’s highly anticipated hot hatch in prototype-form as it concludes cold-weather testing in Sweden
This is our first chance to get behind the wheel of the Alpine A290: a new all-electric hot hatch, and the first new Alpine model since the A110 sports car launched in 2017. The production version will be unveiled in full in June – hence the camouflage on the prototype driven here.
We’ve joined Alpine’s engineers at the company’s winter testing centre at the edge of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden. It’s here that the car’s handling is honed on ice, to fine-tune its balance on the limit in low-grip conditions, as well as countless hours of work calibrating its powertrain, braking, drive modes and traction and stability control systems, as well as numerous other engineering tasks.
Two and a bit years of development is almost at a close; the final round of winter testing concludes here in March 2024, and the car’s ultimate calibration will be signed off in April before the first customers take deliveries in autumn. So while the cars we are driving today are specially built prototypes, not fully representative of the final mass-production car, the way they drive and the way they behave is very much representative.
Despite the camouflage, it’s possible to get a good feel for the A290’s proportions and an idea of how it will look on the road: it’s just under four metres long and just over 1.5m high, with a wheelbase of 2.5m. With short overhangs and a 19-inch wheel at each corner, it’s very much a traditional hot hatchback in appearance, rather than the part-hatch, part-SUV appearance of some other high-performance EVs. Kerb weight is claimed to be less than 1500kg.
The A290 is, of course, closely related to the new Renault R5 electric hatchback. Its wider tracks (6cm broader than the Renault’s), arches, sills and distinctive motorsport-style X-motif light pods (the subject of many a long design meeting, and a far from straightforward project to manufacture, insiders say) will give it a distinctive appearance of its own, however. There will be at least two wheel designs, prototypes of which are fitted to the test cars here, including a development of the distinctive square-within-a-circle design of the original A290_β concept car.
There are many technical differences between the Alpine A290 and Renault R5 too: aside from a more powerful motor (Alpine is not discussing power output or performance figures at present), it also has an entirely unique front end, with a different suspension assembly and its own dampers all round, with hydraulic bump stops. The brakes are its own too, as are the suite of drive modes, the steering wheel, seats and numerous other differences. Its dynamics are being developed separately from the Renault, and it will drive as a bespoke Alpine model rather than rebadged R5.
Although it features a different motor from the Renault R5, there’s just the one, powering the front wheels via a single-speed transmission: 2023’s Alpine A290_β concept packed two motors, driving a front wheel each, but the A290 production car is a single-motor affair.
Making the A290 an all-wheel-drive car wasn’t an option: although it is expected to be significantly more expensive than the R5, it must still be a reasonably affordable car to drive the sales volumes Alpine needs to reach financial balance and become a profitable contributor to the wider Renault group.
This will be the only new Alpine to share a platform with Renault (the A290 and R5 are built on the company’s CMF-B small electric car platform). The Alpine models to follow – starting with an electric C-segment sports crossover, to be revealed next year, followed by an electric sports car successor to the A110 – will be built on a new, Alpine-specific APP platform. The brand has committed to launch four further new, electric, models by 2030.
We drive two prototypes, one fitted with studded tyres, one with ‘normal’ tyres, the former on Alpine’s giant steering circle and handling circuits, and the latter on a broad, slippery oblong area used to hone its braking behaviour and balance in an emergency avoidance situation.
Venturing out onto the ice in the studded-tyred A290 prototype, with chassis tuning engineer Quentin Verheecke sitting alongside, we head first to the steering pad, a giant circle scribed into the ice. The power steering feels light, though it’s far from easy to tell its ultimate weighting on ice, of course. Verheecke explains that the steering is intended to feel very similar in weight and response to that of the A110 sports car, giving Alpine a uniform feel across its different products.
The steering’s weight increases very slightly in Sport mode (final modes are still TBC but expect Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual modes, toggled from a switch on the steering wheel) but not dramatically so; the ‘easy sportiness’ of light steering is considered an Alpine hallmark.
Sport mode also relaxes the stability control slightly. In Normal mode it’s extremely safe: you can be really quite clumsy and violent with your inputs on the wheel and pedals on the ice circle and it remains steadfastly stable. The stability systems’ influence is subtle though; it’s only in extreme situations where you feel it nipping at the brakes to control the car’s trajectory. Sport allows a reasonable amount of movement, the car shimmying and pivoting into gentle oversteer with a lift of the throttle, but it’s still very safe; you’d have to be really trying to get it dramatically out of shape.
This being an Alpine, however, it’s possible to completely switch off the electronic stability control (ESC), at which point big angles are entirely possible. The A290 behaves very much like a traditional hot hatch, rotating into lift-off oversteer and allowing itself to be pulled straight by the throttle. It’s less sensitive than, for example, a Renault Sport Megane (although that car has been used in benchmark testing), because the Alpine is intended to have its own character, but it is transparent in the way it telegraphs its limits and in how it can be controlled when it reaches them.
There is not a limited-slip differential; the diff is a traditional set-up but it is combined with torque vectoring by braking, to mirror the effect of a limited-slip unit. When the ESC is active, it uses a combination of braking and control of the electric motor to govern the car’s stability. When it is switched off, there is no intervention from the braking system at all, but the A290 does retain a certain amount of traction control: that’s because, with instant torque from 0rpm, the electric motor could spin the front tyres to V-max while the car is barely moving. So a certain level of TC is very helpful, but the wheels do spin, and you can push the nose wide under power just as you would in a conventional hot hatch with the stability systems switched off.
The engineers explain that it’s difficult to control an e-motor in terms of traction: yes, it’s totally linear, but the instant torque from zero makes it a real challenge. The A290 prototype is able to gather speed smoothly and manage its wheelspin undramatically on sheet ice. A lot of work has clearly gone on here.
The handling is very much as you’d expect from a traditional hot hatch on the handling circuit too, a blend of tight and more open, sweeping corners between the snow banks. It’s difficult to make any judgements on ride quality on a frozen lake but Alpine says that the suspension (by passive dampers, with hydraulic bump stops, with a MacPherson strut arrangement at the front and an aluminium subframe, and a multi-link arrangement at the rear as per the R5) will offer a smooth ride, like the A110 – again, considered one of the tents of Alpine dynamics.
‘We don’t want the car to be too stiff,’ says vice president of engineering Robert Bonetto. ‘It should be very easy in all conditions. The multi-link rear suspension has been a big help; if you have a stable rear axle, you can have more precision. When we saw the platform, and the multi-link rear, we were happy with that…’
We switch to a different prototype wearing unstudded Alpin 5 winter tyres, one of three tyre choices specifically developed for the A290 by Michelin. The engineers explain that tyre development for a car such as this is particularly challenging, because of the extra weight compared with a combustion car, the extra torque on demand, and the need to find a trade-off between grip for performance and reduced rolling resistance for battery range.
Accompanied by power unit engineer Alexandre de Sousa, we test the ABS and electronic brake force distribution on differing grip surfaces, and then head for an Elk-test-style coned gate to swerve through and a more open slalom course – which is a lot of fun. With the ESC off you can achieve big angles (in the name of science, of course; de Sousa says his favourite game is to flick the A290 into 360 spins) and with it on, it’s remarkable how composed the car remains while being flicked through a narrow gate of cones at 40mph or so without drama.
The front brakes adopt the calipers from the A110, with slightly different pistons to account for the different weight and distribution. When you press the brake pedal, the A290 slows by a merged combination of regenerative braking and the conventional friction brakes
On the steering wheel, the A290 has two buttons inspired by Alpine’s Formula 1 operation; a blue ‘RCH’ switch, for ‘RECHARGE,’ with a similar design to that used to alter the KERS system in the F1 car, and an ‘OV’ for OVERTAKE button.
The RCH switch toggles four levels of regenerative braking: no regen at all, allowing the car to coast (which is the most efficient for saving energy), and then three levels of regen, from light up to a relatively heavy mode (which is still less extreme than that of some EVs). You can mix and match Drive mode with regen setting, and in the lightest regen modes, de Sousa says it has been set up to feel very similar to the engine braking you get in an A110 when you lift from the throttle, again for a uniform feel across the different Alpine models but also to make the car feel intuitive, smooth and pleasant to drive.
That philosophy extends to the accelerator pedal’s response too: many EVs have a sensitive ‘throttle’ pedal, for the shock and awe of instant, dramatic acceleration. Alpine isn’t a fan of this: it can feel wearying over long periods of time, it makes some passengers feel uncomfortable, and it’s less precise for performance driving. So, again, the benchmark for the accelerator pedal’s response in Normal mode is similar to that of the 1.8-litre turbo engine in the Alpine A110 sports car.
If drivers do want the ‘shock and awe’ of instant EV acceleration, however, there’s the OV button. Hold this down and the A290 leaps forward smartly enough to push you back in your seat. It’s hard to gauge the acceleration on a frozen lake, and Alpine is keeping tight-lipped about power and performance figures, but it feels very brisk to me. I’d wager the car will feel most enjoyable using the regular, A110-inspired accelerator map, however.
It’s hard to make too many concrete observations on a frozen lake (no pun intended) but there’s a lot of promise in the prototype Alpine A290: it feels easy and intuitive to drive, with a comfortable driving position, smooth and measured responses from its controls and a transparent, intuitive feel to its handling. With an emphasis on smooth ride quality and ease of use, you sense it might not feel as spine-tinglingly involving to drive as some Renault Sport hatches of old, but it is a car engineered to have its own identity and feel. And the engineers don’t rule out the possibility of a more focused version in future, in the mould of a Renault Sport Cup model of old. It could well be one of the most – if not the most – enjoyable mainstream EVs yet. We’ll find out in summer.