Alpine A110 1.8L Turbo S 2dr DCT
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 1,100kg 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.
We’re really nitpicking here (often a sign of a brilliant car), but left to its own devices the engine isn’t particularly charismatic either. 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 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, there’s 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 pops on the overrun, the exhaust note under full acceleration is thoroughly enjoyable and pace comes swiftly and easily.
The R has the same engine as the GT and S, and the same gear ratios too. But it has a fruiter exhaust. Not antisocial, but more likely to stir a petrolhead's blood.
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. The A110S ramps all of this up, a little more speed, and a lot more intensity at high revs. We haven't driven the R yet, but expect that to be another notch up again.
Nor does the A110 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. We 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 we were surprised by was the economy. It was knocking along at 37 to 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.
Upgrading to the A110S – a ten grand jump – does bring extra vigour and a more conventionally firm set-up. It still won’t get upset by rough roads, but it’ll jiggle you about a bit more at low speed and body roll is kept to a minimum. Worth trying both back-to-back before you commit, if you can; the standard car is so beautifully judged as a road car, the price premium is likely unnecessary. But if you ever go on trackdays you’ll appreciate the greater focus and sharper precision of the S.
Is it a shame there’s no manual gearbox? Not totally. The twin-clutch is way better here than in the Megane, but it’s not the snappiest shifter about – upshifts are fine, but downshifts occasionally lag and feel too soft. It’s worth mentioning that the ratios are nicely spaced and not overly long (are you listening, Porsche?) so you can rev out a good handful of them at modest speeds. Hurrah!
The key here is that the Alpine feels different: 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 (248bhp, 1,103kg, 4.5secs to 62mph) has 224bhp/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. Meanwhile the 300bhp A110 R matches the power-to-weight ratio of a 420bhp Cayman GT4.
This is Alpine sailing against the prevailing winds. On track you are aware that the base A110's 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.
The R is a rather different proposition. It's significantly stiffer on the road than the S. It has less soundproofing which definitely moves it away from a Porsche. Still it doesn't actually ride too harshly. But the tighter suspension gives it wonderful, supercar-like, immediacy.
And on track, the R really comes alive. The feel through its steering wheel is gorgeous and inspires huge confidence, while the stronger rear downforce makes it stable at high speed. If you want big tailslides you might want a front-engined rear-drive machine but otherwise it's hard to think of a nicer road-capable track car at the A110 R's admittedly chunky price.
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