2018 Alpine A110 Forbidden Fruit Review: Vive La Différence!


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The formula for success in today’s auto business? Copy the Germans. Outsmart an S-Class. Build a better 3 Series. Outperform a Porsche. Do what the winners do rather than waste time and money trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s a strategy that’s already shown results for automakers as genetically diverse as Cadillac and Jaguar, and it is about to transform Hyundai-Kia as it builds on the foundation of cars such as the Genesis G70, i30 N Performance, and Stinger GT. But when everything drives like a German car, then what?

The 2018 Alpine A110 strikes a blow for automotive biodiversity. On paper this compact coupe looks like a surefire 718 Cayman clone. Midmounted, turbocharged four-cylinder engine: Check. Seven-speed dual-clutch transmission: Check. 0-60 mph in less than 4.5 seconds: Check. It even has a drive mode selection button hanging off the steering wheel in the same place as the Porsche. But the good news—and we are entirely serious about this—is that it drives nothing like a Cayman. No, the Alpine A110 drives like a French car. In fact, it goes down the road in a more gloriously Gallic manner than any French car in decades. And it’s all the more special for it.

First, the backstory: Alpine was founded by Renault dealer and rally driver Jean Rédélé in Dieppe, France, in the mid-50s and specialized in building light, small sports cars around Renault mechanicals. The original A110 made its debut in 1962 and went on to score historic 1-2-3 finishes in the 1971 and 1973 editions of the Monte Carlo Rally, before capturing the World Rally Championship. But wins on Sunday didn’t translate to sales on Monday, and struggling Alpine was taken over by Renault in 1973. Two more Alpine sports cars—the A310 and A610, both powered by Renault V-6s and intended to take on Porsche’s 911—appeared before Renault effectively shelved the brand in 1995.

Alpines carried Renault badging, but when Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn officially announced Alpine’s return in early 2016, he carefully made it clear it would be a separate, stand-alone brand. Why? Ghosn knows Renault-Nissan needs premium brands that can command premium pricing and deliver fatter profit margins than, er … Renault or Nissan. He also knows launching a premium brand from scratch is expensive and time-consuming; look at how much money has been spent on Infiniti since 1989, with questionable return. The Alpine backstory is therefore critical, a shortcut to brand authenticity and credibility. Providing, of course, that backstory resonates authentically and credibly through the new A110 …

It does.

It starts with the exterior design. When the project kicked off in 2012, Alpine design chief Antony Villain took his team to visit the Jean Rédélé collection in Paris, home to 30 classic Alpines, and asked them to quickly sketch every car. “The idea was to capture the main features of an Alpine,” he says, “to discover the DNA and mood of the brand.” From this, the essence of the classic A110 was distilled down to a handful of visual elements—the headlamps, the spine over the hood, the sculpted bodysides, and the wide rear quarter panels flowing into the low tail. All those elements are there in the new A110, though in terms of surfacing and detail and execution, it is a thoroughly modern car.

But the Alpine DNA runs more than skin-deep. The original A110 was not only compact but ultra-light—it weighed just 1,322 pounds—to better make use of the available power from the four-cylinder Renault engines and deliver agile handling on tight and twisty rally roads. The new A110—longer, taller, wider than the original and equipped with 21st-century paraphernalia such as airbags, air conditioning, and sat-nav—is nevertheless by modern standards ultra-light. The fully loaded Premiere Edition tested here weighs a feathery 2,431 pounds, and the base model is 2,380 pounds. That’s a staggering 630 pounds less than a PDK-equipped Cayman.

Weight saving drove every aspect of the A110’s design and engineering. The bodywork comprises aluminum panels that cloak a bonded and riveted aluminum core structure. Aluminum suspension components are bolted to aluminum subframes front and rear, and the 18-inch wheels are forged alloy, made by Fuchs. Inside are race-style fixed back seats by Sabelt that weigh less than 29 pounds each, and in a world first, the e-brake is incorporated into the Brembo calipers on the rear wheels, saving 5.5 pounds. To save precious ounces even the stabilizer bars are hollow, and the specially developed audio system, designed by French company Focal, features speakers that weigh less than a pound.

All that attention to detail adds up to a car with a 4 percent better weight to power ratio than a PDK-equipped 718 Cayman. The base Cayman’s turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four makes 300 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, and the A110’s 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-four, a tuned version of a Renault-Nissan engine made in Busan, South Korea, develops 248 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. But the little French car is four-tenths of a second quicker than the Porsche to 60 mph, taking just 4.3 seconds to make the sprint. Physics 101 …

OK, the Cayman will run to 170 mph while the A110 tops out at 155, but, as Alpine’s voluble deputy managing director Bernard Ollivier points out, there are very few roads on the planet where that’s going to be a decisive factor. “You don’t have to drive at 155 mph to have pleasure,” echoes Alpine international marketing director Regis Fricotte. “The A110 is about driving pleasure at any time and at any speed.” And the tight, twisty mountain roads snaking through the Luberon massif in Provence, southern France, proved his point. Within the first mile, it was clear this car is truly special.

The little Alpine dances down the road like a prima ballerina, light on its feet yet preternaturally calm. Alpine’s chassis engineers have taken advantage of the A110’s low mass to endow the car with relatively soft, long travel suspension. As a result, it effortlessly soaks up humps and heaves on the road, keeping its tires in contact with the tarmac at all times and enhancing grip and stability. Ride quality is astoundingly good for a low slung, lightweight sports car; the Alpine is supple and serene on roads that would have a Cayman jitterbugging all over the place.

The more you drive the A110, the more you’re aware of the virtuous circle set up by the Alpine engineering team’s obsession with weight. Enabling the tires to work more effectively, for example, means they can be smaller—the Alpine runs modest 205/40 R18 and 235/40 R18 Michelins front and rear—reducing unspring mass and rotational inertia. That makes the steering feel more communicative, the brakes more responsive, and the chassis feel at once agile and composed. Less mass also requires less energy to move it: Alpine claims the A110 delivers almost 20 percent better fuel economy than a Cayman on the European combined cycle fuel economy test.

The A110 has a drive mode selector offering Sport and Track settings in addition to Normal, but they only alter throttle response, transmission shift speed, steering assistance, the stability control intervention threshold, and the exhaust note. The spring and shock rates are fixed. Soft, long travel suspension isn’t usually the hot setup on the track, but a quick session on a tight and challenging private circuit tucked away in the hills of Provence showed the A110 to be fast and fun. Roll, dive, and squat motions are pronounced compared with most modern sports cars, but the transitions are beautifully modulated, and once you’re used to them, you begin to understand the nuances of the physics at work.

Hot-lapping the Alpine will give you a master class in the art of weight transfer, in how to use the throttle and brakes and steering to achieve perfect balance through a turn. Because it’s so light, it’s very sensitive to inputs, and it gives delicious feedback. With a front to rear weight distribution of 44/56 percent, the driver’s hips are right at the center of gravity, enabling you to feel what the front and rear tires are doing with a clarity few other cars can match.

The A110 encourages you to take it to its limits, no matter how expert a driver you are, and looks after you when it gets there, smoothly, predictably, controllably. Alpine has tested the A110 at the Nürburgring Nordschliefe but won’t talk lap times. “This is not a car dedicated to a circuit but dedicated to being fun to drive, both for the specialist and the nonspecialist,” says Alpine’s Ollivier. If that’s a mission statement, Alpine’s absolutely nailed it.

Gripes? Although the 1.8-liter engine delivers a generous helping of midrange torque—all 236 lb-ft is available from 2,000 rpm to just past 5,000 rpm—throttle response feels a little doughy, even in Sport and Track modes. The Getrag seven-speed dual-clutch transmission isn’t as crisp and precise as Porsche’s PDK. And there are currently no plans to sell the A110 in the U.S.—the car lacks side airbags and a backup camera.

The interior is not quite as well finished as that of a Cayman, with some hard plastics evident and switchgear obviously borrowed from quotidian Renault products. But it’s well designed and surprisingly roomy given the car’s compact dimensions, and there’s leather, Alcantara, aluminum, and carbon fiber in all the places you expect them to be.

The A110 Première Edition shown here is one of a limited run of 1955 cars (the number references the year Alpine’s first car appeared), all of which were sold in just five days via an innovative mobile app. The regular A110 lineup will comprise the sport-focused Pure, which differs only in visual detail from the Premiere Edition, and the Legend, which will be configured as a more comfort-oriented GT.

One car does not a premium brand make, however, and although no one will talk specifics, the A110 is the first of what will be a whole range of Alpine vehicles. Back in 2013 Renault design boss Laurens van den Acker said the A110 needed to be “the 911 of Alpine.” In other words, a touchstone vehicle that clearly defined the Alpine brand and its DNA to a whole new generation of sports car enthusiasts. “If we do [the A110] properly,” he said, “then we can consider cars like a Panamera.” And a Cayenne or Macan, too—an Alpine SUV is reportedly already under development.

If we are to take van den Acker at his word—along with the knowing smiles of the tight lipped Alpine execs at the launch—the new A110 suggests Alpine’s future lineup is most assuredly not going to copy the Germans. Thanks to its lightweight engineering, supple suspension, and torquey engine, the new Alpine A110 feels quintessentially French, in the manner of the truly great French cars of the past.

Vive la différence!

The Alpine carries a base price that’s the U.S. equivalent of about $69,500.

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