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The Top Gear car review:Alpine A110
What is it like on the road?
The Alpine’s weight defines the whole driving experience. Mostly this is good news, but there are downsides to driving a light car that still wants to be comfortable and easy-going enough for everyday use. In other words not as hardcore as a Lotus or compromised as an Alfa 4C.
Let’s start with the drawbacks, as there are some interesting points to be made here. Because it’s light, it gets buffeted around a little bit. You notice it on motorways, not only from crosswinds, but from the surface itself. A car that weighs just 1,103kg (and that in maxed out Premiere Edition spec) and has the majority of that at the back (the weight distribution is 44:56), does dance a little on truck ruts (it’s narrow, don’t forget) and occasionally needs a guiding hand on a blustery day.
Left to its own devices the engine isn’t particularly charismatic. It starts up in Normal mode, the A110’s most eco-sensitive setting, so early upshifts and a vanilla exhaust note are the name of the game. Switch to Sport (or Track, which is broadly the same but further unshackles the stability control) and the 1.8-litre four cylinder turbo has a far more defined personality.
It’s shared with the new Renaultsport Megane (albeit with its own specific air intake, turbo, exhaust system and engine tune), and because it doesn’t have much weight to shift, has a surprising kick of acceleration. Normal may be a bit laggy, but once into a sportier mode and using higher revs, the 1.8 is far more enthusiastic and encouraging. It popples on the overrun, the exhaust note under full acceleration is thoroughly enjoyable and pace comes swiftly and easily.
It also avoids the trap the four cylinder Cayman has fallen into by mistaking volume for character. There’s enough noise without it being invasive or obnoxious.
Nor does it fall into the same trap as the Audi TT and mistake grip for handling. The Alpine (pronounce it Al-peen, not Al-pine, it is French after all) is a car that treads more lightly than its German opposition, and kicks back against current trends. You’ll search in vain for an adaptive suspension button, for instance. Underneath it uses double wishbone suspension at both ends because of the greater control of camber angle it offers as the wheel moves through its vertical range. The more upright the wheel stays, the better the contact patch on the road. Double wishbones aren’t easy to package when you have a transverse engine and want to stay small.
Do yourself a favour and switch straight out of Normal once you get moving. I didn’t and for a few miles wondered what all the fuss was about as the seven-speed transmission shuffled up through the gears and throttle response was muffled. The only thing I was surprised by was the economy. It was knocking along at 37-40mpg. There’s not many hot hatches that’ll do that. Even taking it over to the super-twisting roads of the Monte Carlo rally failed to pull overall economy down below 27mpg. Anyway, if you were to buy one, once the early thrill has worn off I guarantee you’ll come to admire its efficiency (and probably leave it in Normal mode, too).
Sport sharpens up the engine and gearbox, steering, stability, exhaust and even dash display. It’s where the Alpine A110 shows its true colours. It flows beautifully. This is a sports car done differently. It’s not hard, nor harsh, neither aggressive, nor intimidating. Instead it’s simply wonderfully composed and fluid. No matter how awkward the road surface underneath, the Alpine, with little weight to compress its soft springs, glides across the ruts and bumps. The ride quality and control is bewitching – like a Lotus, but with longer suspension travel and greater refinement.
It’s not perfect, you do occasionally get a little jiggled, but the almost languid way the suspension manages this means the A110 always has time to respond. It seems almost to slow time down. There is some roll, and Alpine hasn’t followed fashion by fitting super-direct steering. Instead the whole car seems carefully tuned to itself, all components working in harmony. The steering is accurate (although I’d like it to have more weight and feedback), and gives you a good idea of what the chassis is up to, the ride is flattering, on B-roads the whole car seems to slip through the air easily, unflustered and untroubled (it’s only at high speeds in straight lines you notice the buffeting).
The one exception to this rounded, gentle performance is the brakes, which have astonishing bite and power. They look modest, the 320mm discs, but when you’ve only got 1,100kg to stop…
Is it a shame there’s no manual gearbox? Possibly. The twin clutch is way better here than in the Clio, but it’s not the snappiest shifter about – upshifts are fine, but downshifts occasionally lag and feel too soft. Worth mentioning that the ratios are nicely spaced and not overly long (are you listening, Porsche?).
The key here is that the Alpine feels different. Hard to say whether this makes it better or worse than a Cayman, but certainly on paper the smaller numbers make less impression (until you reach the ones mentioning mpg and CO2).
But in reality, it’s very convincing: the way it goes down the road, the fluidity, the delicacy, the adjustability and accuracy all makes the 2.0-litre Cayman feel borderline clumsy. Just in case you want the numbers, the Porsche (295bhp, 1,410kg, 5.1secs to 62mph) has a power to weight ratio of 210bhp/tonne, while the Alpine (249bhp, 1,103kg, 4.5secs to 62mph) has 226bhp/tonne. Don’t doubt the A110’s speed. It just doesn’t feel particularly fast because it never seems to have to work that hard.
This is Alpine sailing against the prevailing winds. On track you are aware that its modest 205/40 R18 front and 235/40 rear tyres don’t have as much outright grip as some, that its responses are less aggressive, that it’s a more placid car. And some buyers might not like that. But others will love it. At least you now have a choice. Personally I loved it.