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Renault, make it so...

  1. The Renault Alpine A110-50 concept makes a hellish racket. This is a rare compliment to pay a concept car, for most concept cars do not make any noise at all. Most concept cars sit inert on their motor-show stands, hiding their fictional engines and vapourware performance under polished bodywork that would fall to pieces at the first sign of a corner. The A110-50 isn’t most concept cars.

    The A110-50 announced itself to the world on the Friday of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, lighting up its rear wheels as it exited the start line in a big dollop of drift before tearing around the F1 track at pace in the hands of Renault CEO Carlos Tavares, bellowing a rasping, race-car scream as it charged through the tunnel at triple-figure speeds. TopGear was there. Our ears are still smarting.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Pics: Rowan Horncastle

    This feature first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. So what is the A110-50, then? Nominally, officially, it’s a concept built to celebrate 50 years since the Alpine A110 Berlinette, perhaps the most famous sports car in Renault’s back catalogue, was launched. But, worthy as such a celebration may be, the Alpine concept is actually far more significant. This is a very public attempt by Renault’s engineers and designers to force a sports car into production, an attempt to show the company money men that there’s public appetite - and a business case - for a proper rear-drive, two-seater Renault.

    This car is a 50-foot-high neon sign reading, “GO ON, YOU B*******, LET US DO IT THIS TIME.”

  3. Because they are desperate to build one. The last few years have seen at least two abortive attempts to bring a Renault sports car to market, and company bosses tell TG that, this time, for the sake of the entire brand, the two-seater has to happen (and, no, the Wind doesn’t count).

    “We have a great Formula One history, but we can’t seem to make the link,” admits design chief Laurens van den Acker. “We need to fix our image.” But though a sports car is great for public image, it’s not a great way of making a quick buck, requiring a huge amount of engineering, new architecture - especially if you’re an exclusively front- and four-wheel-drive company contemplating rear-drive - and never selling the volumes of a city car or family hatch.

  4. Go to the company accountant with a plan for a fire-breathing, brand-reviving roadster, and he’ll say you’d do more help by figuring out how to shave 10p of plastic off every Clio air vent.

    So how - especially as a company like Renault, hardly bursting at the seams with cash currently - can you get a sports car built? Well, buttering up your CEO - a keen racing driver - by letting him fulfil a childhood dream of thrashing a racer around Monaco isn’t a bad start. “There was some stress,” grinned Tavares after his four laps in the €2m irreplaceable concept. “But it was fun. This is a very tricky circuit.”

  5. Beyond that? You make a lot of noise, in every sense. You cover your concept in luminous orange bits and a massive wing. You launch it into the middle of Monaco’s F1 circus. You give it a race exhaust noisy enough to scald ears. You make it a living, breathing, driving thing, a concept impossible to brush under the carpet. And you imbue it with a name that you know will send devoted petrolheads of a certain vintage into a mouth-frothing rage if it becomes watered down on its journey to production.

    “We didn’t want a RenaultSport with an Alpine sticker,” Renault concept chief Axel Breun tells TopGear. “We wanted to do a proper race car.”

  6. It’s a tacit admission that Renault’s treatment of Gordini, another of its classic racing marques, was more than a little mishandled: the once-mighty nameplate ended up as nothing more than a few blue decals and glossy bits on mechanically unaltered RenaultSport hot hatches. Breun is adamant that Alpine - a more celebrated name than Gordini, admittedly - won’t befall the same fate. Especially not one namechecking the hallowed A110. “If you talk about a Renault sports car, the A110 is the first that comes to mind,” says Breun. “It’s our 911.”

    Though the A110-50’s voluptuous bodywork and bulging doors owe much to 2010’s all-electric DeZir concept, it is based on Renault’s Megane Trophy car, a spaceframe racer about as road legal as a Top Fuel dragster. It uses the race car’s 400bhp, 3.5-litre V6, driving the rear wheels through a six-speed sequential gearbox. Unfortunately, the engineers forgot to fit any silencers: that’ll explain the eardrum-perforating noise, then. But the A110-50’s race-car origins do not mean it won’t become a road car, says Breun. In fact, quite the opposite.

  7. “In the history of Renault, these projects started in the world of racing. Look at the Clio V6…” A production version of the Alpine concept, says Breun, wouldn’t be based on the Megane Trophy’s tubular chassis. He admits it might require an all-new platform, and would likely be built at RenaultSport’s Dieppe factory, originally Alpine’s own facility. A neat historical loop, and also a chance for RenaultSport engineers to breathe their hot-hatch-bred handling magic on a proper sports car. We imagine they might do rather a good job.

    Disappointingly for ears, if not fuel receipts, the race-ready V6 won’t stay, a production Alpine probably using some version of the 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder from the RenaultSport Megane. That engine makes 247bhp in the hot hatch, but could easily be bumped up to 300bhp or so. A modest-displacement powerplant remains faithful to the original A110 philosophy: that car had a 1.0-litre Renault engine, its paucity of power offset by the fact it barely tickled the scales at 620kg. Renault is targeting a kerbweight under 1,000kg for the production Alpine. Good news indeed.

  8. More good news: Tavares confirmed a production Alpine would remain rear-drive. And, despite Renault’s push towards electric drivetrains, such a battery-powered fate won’t befall the Alpine. “Car companies should keep making cars that little kids have on their bedroom walls,” nods van den Acker. “Electric is not the ultimate solution for every car.”

    Is the A110-50 a bedroom-wall-worthy design? It’s certainly no shameless rework of its illustrious forebear, for better or worse. There are a few echoes of the original A110 - the twin LED ‘rings’ at the front mirroring the Alpine’s inboard headlamps, the curved rear glass screen, the, erm, blue paint. “It’s not simply a retro design,” Breun admits. “At Renault, we prefer to look forward rather than back, but, then again, we have so many icons in our box, we’d be silly to ignore them. It’s a modern reinterpretation.”

  9. If the wings and dayglo are all a bit Hot Wheels for your sophisticated tastes, worry not: Breun concedes the Alpine’s wildest corners would be toned down for production. In fact, peel away the concept car frippery, and there’s a well-proportioned sports car underneath that, proportionally at least, owes more than a little to the Lotus Exige.

    The L-word features heavily when Renault bosses start discussing the potential price of an Alpine sports car. “We have to be cheaper - and lighter - than the supercars,” says van den Acker. “When people picture Alpine in their mind, they don’t see a €120,000 sports car.”

  10. Renault is namechecking the Lotus Elise as a target in terms of price and luxury, admitting it’d be overambitious to drag the Renault name too upmarket and take on, say, the Porsche Cayman. “I think it shouldn’t be too luxurious,” Breun agrees. “Every time Renault and Alpine tried this before, it got worse and worse.”

    So, a lightweight, no-frills, rear-drive, RenaultSport-fettled sports car that will be built, given enough public clamour: what are you waiting for? Start a petition, write a letter to your MP, or - more sensibly - log onto the topgear.com comments section, and tell Renault exactly why making this thing is far more important than facelifting the Grand Scenic. This one is in your hands…

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