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Alpine A110 review
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.
Quick confession: the car I drove was a pre-production example, but Renault claims that dynamically it was 100 per cent representative. We’ll update this review when I drive the full production car on the December 7.
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’s 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 and occasionally needs a guiding hand on a blustery day.
The engine isn’t particularly charismatic. The 1.8-litre four cylinder turbois shared with the new Renaultsport Megane (albeit with its own specific air intake, turbo, exhaust system and engine tune), and is pleasant enough to use, sounds crisp and provides swift, easy pace. It also avoids the trap the four cylinder Cayman has fallen into by mistaking volume for character.
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. It’s rear-wheel drive, through a twin-clutch gearbox.
Do yourself a favour and switch straight out of Normal once you get moving. This is the nearest the A110 gets to an eco mode and in it the seven-speed transmission shuffles up through the gears, the engine is more muted and the throttle more muffled. It’s too calm.
Sport sharpens up the engine and gearbox, steering, stability control, exhaust and even dashboard display. Track mode simply unhooks the ESC some more (it can be fully disabled, too).
Sport is where the Alpine A110 shows its true colours. It flows beautifully. This is a sports car done differently. It’s not hard, nor harsh, aggressive, or 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 almost languid, a car that always has time to respond, that seems in fact 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, not super-light, but 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 performance is the brakes, which have astonishing bite and power. They look modest, the 320mm discs, but when you’ve only got a tonne or so to stop…
Is it a shame there’s no manual gearbox? Possibly. The twin clutch is way better here than in the RS Clio, but it’s not the snappiest shifter about. Like the engine, it’s not especially memorable.
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. It would be good if the gearbox was sharper and the engine had more spark, but the way it goes down the road, the fluidity, the delicacy, the adjustability and accuracy all makes the Cayman feel borderline clumsy. Just in case you want the numbers to hand 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 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.