Ask anyone of a younger generation if they own an Alpine and they'll probably wonder why you're mispronouncing the name of their stereo. It would take some luck for them to reference the iconic French sportscars of the middle to late 20th century.
First Drive: Alpine A110
That's mostly because Alpine hasn't built a car since 1995 – it's a shock to think that ’95 was 22 years ago, but it really was – and partly because Alpine was never really able to establish itself in the UK due to legal wrangling over its name. Its Dieppe factory hasn't fallen dormant in that time, but the series of Renault Sport products it has churned out over the following years have all failed to carry the name.
In 40 years from its founding in 1955, Jean Rédélé's company built a total of 30,000 cars, starting with the tiny A106, which Rédélé based on a Renault 4CV chassis and named after the place he did his best driving. The A110 arrived in 1962 and established Alpine on the world stage. Over the next few years Alpine (always working closely with Renault) set about dominating the world of rallying, culminating in clinching the first ever World Rally Championship in 1973 – the same year Renault acquired the company.
So how do we end up back here in Southern France driving a car built by Renault that not only has an Alpine badge affixed to it once more, but doesn't have a Renault rhombus in sight?
Renault announced it was to relaunch Alpine back in 2012, joining an ill-fated dalliance with Caterham that was to originally produce cars for both companies. Four years later the Vision concept arrived, showcasing Alpine's determination to stay true to its roots with a striking retro design. A year later the new A110 Premiére addition made its debut at Goodwood FOS and just a few months later here we are.
The new car does not shy away from its history, looking as similar to the original A110 as you can within modern car limits. The engine is still slung behind the driver and the A110 is barely more than featherlight at less than 1,100kg (the series production cars start at 1,080kg but the Premiére edition cars and their filled options lists weigh in at a slightly more hefty 1,103kg).
Alpine's strive for a truly lightweight sportscar has seen no half measures. Rather than using a standard set of windscreen wipers the A110 uses the same type as the Mercedes S-Class: 47 holes in the blades squirt water straight onto the windscreen, using less water and allowing the reservoir to be significantly reduced for the same amount of washes – may not sound much, but that saves a couple of kilograms. The chase for mass loss saw the engineering team lose sleep over whether to allow the passenger seat forwards and backwards adjustment – the removal of which would have saved 450g (they kept it in).
Underneath the skin Alpine has decided to go boldly different from the status quo. This car is priced squarely in the Cayman region so Renault knew they needed to do something to compete while being different enough to stand out. That ultra-skinny frame means that only 250bhp is required from the turbocharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder motor to propel the A110 to 62mph in 4.5 seconds. Alpine’s engineers are making much of the all-round double wishbone suspension, utilised to allow a better retention of contact area under roll than traditional macpherson struts. The skinny nature of the A110 and the double-wishbone setup have allowed Alpine to use hollow anti-roll bars, which in theory should allow for softer riding around town without compromising on performance handling.
Look to the very bottom of the newest Alpine and you’ll see that the tight packaging of the A110 has allowed engineers to give the A110 a proper flat floor and a functioning rear diffuser – eliminating the need for an ugly spoiler, or even a popup one.
The Alpine A110 may be the complete anathema to the modern sportscar. The attention to detail is the same as those rivals it wishes to join, but it also represents an attention to fun and an acknowledgement of legacy that perhaps has been forgotten in some quarters. While some abandon decades of history to chase the very latest in technological advances Renault’s chosen few at Alpine have refused to compromise on the vision the company set out all those years ago.
Turns out all that work wasn't for nothing. The Alpine A110 must be the surprise of the year, in the very best of ways. Jump behind the wheel and you will be rewarded by a near instant grin. The Alpine is an absolute joy to drive.
Those in charge say they wanted us to remember that cars used to slide, and that roll is not the enemy that we have decided it is. And boy have they managed to do that. The A110 is playful on or near the limit without ever being scary. The 44-56 weight distribution puts the centre of gravity right between drive and passenger and as a result, the car pivots around you as it turns, feeling at times more like an extension of your body than something mechanical around you.
The steering, though slightly light, is beautifully communicative through its electrically assisted rack, without ever being jarring over the bumpy stuff – the legacy of all that work on double-wishbones. Throw the car into a corner and you will be greeted with the faintest whiff of understeer – a situation immediately rectified by gloriously predictable lift-off oversteer should you need to bring everything back together.
The car is agile in a way that nothing else in its class could argue to be, the rack goes from lock to lock in just over two turns so the steering is sharp as a pin. Point the Alpine at the right set of tarmac and it just flows, linking you from corner to corner with such ease that you'll feel like a hero in no time at all.
Through town, the A110 is exactly what Renault hoped for: a car that's usable everywhere. The roads of Provence were never anything like billiard table-smooth, but we never felt flustered riding the bumps in places that other competition might leave you wishing you'd left the sportscar at home.
The seven-speed gearbox is a unique item to the A110. Alpine say they could have used the Clio RS’s six-speed dual clutch, but it was too old and featured a dry clutch. Their quest for ultimate packaging meant the current Megane RS's dual-clutch 'box, which features the wet clutch they were after, was thrown away, as it would not have allowed the all-important suspension setup in the rear. Instead, they asked Getrag to come up with a more bespoke unit, picking gear ratios individually to suit the car rather than taking off-the-rack solutions which would have saved cash but compromised the car.
The result is a fantastic transmission, with the lightest of tugs required to slot through the cogs and changes coming barely a fraction later. Alpine insist that in track mode the car shift even more crisply, but the sport mode settings are so good that we struggled to really see the difference.
Alpine has motorsport ambitions beyond rebadging an LMP2 car, with a one-make A110 series on the way for specially prepared A110 Cup cars. The race car loses another 30kg over the road version with power lifted to 268bhp.
Thankfully you don’t need to spend money on the six-race Alpine Europa Cup to enjoy the A110 on track. We drove the car at a tiny circuit in Provence on a day when it had just been cleared of eight inches of snow and if anything the little Alpine's prowess shone through even more in the tricky conditions. Crisp on turn in and eager in the mid corner the A110 is an absolute delight to push on a track, able to float about on it's unexpectedly skinny Michelin Pilot Sport 4's to create effect.
What’s more astonishing perhaps is that Alpine has managed to squeeze proper mod-cons into the A110’s tiny frame. You might expect a 1,080kg car (and that’s when fully wet) to be bare on the inside, completely stripped of anything that might compromise the integrity of the sportscar. You’d be completely wrong. This Premiére edition comes fully stocked with satnav, climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity and a telemetry system that allows the driver to record lap times and store driving data.
The return of Alpine is one of the trickiest propositions Renault has had to face in its entire history. The team behind the car admit to feeling the weight of pressure from the French public to not get this legend wrong in any way. Thankfully Renault refused to skimp, giving the designers a completely blank design sheet and not demanding they fit into any existing platform. Their efforts have been fully worth it, the little Alpine could well be a game-changer in more ways than one. A tiny sportscar that shows you don't have to handle on rails to have fun.
The A110 is heading directly at the likes of the Porsche Cayman, Audi TT and Alfa Romeo 4C and coming into a mighty fight armed with all the tools required to succeed. Only 1,955 people will get hold of the initial Premiére edition cars and Alpine does not expect to stretch itself further than "single digit thousands" when series production begins. There will be a waiting list when that offering goes into full production – the original Premiére run sold out in less than five minutes – and we can only hope that everyone catches on to what an absolute stonker of a car the A110 is.
An absence of over two decades is finally over for France's legendary sportscar maker, and the only question we have left is "why has it taken so long?"
Engine: 1,800cc, four-cyl, turbo petrol
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch
Bhp/lb ft: 248/236
Top speed: 150
Price as tested:
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