Alpine A110 review: Porsche Cayman rival tested

A terrific car, a genuine exponent of light weight and something pleasingly different to drive

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What is it?

It’s the new Renault Alpine A110. And it’s something very different. On the surface it’s perfectly straightforward, a compact two seat coupe in the mould of the Porsche Cayman and Audi TT. But underneath the new A110 is perhaps the world’s best example of the virtuous circle approach to automotive engineering.

It’s light. Really light. Lotus light, yet with the creature comforts you need to make it a pleasing daily driver. How light? Just 1,103kg for the flagship version including fluids and so on. That’s 300kg, approaching 25 per cent, less than the Porsche or Audi.

How? Firstly by designing it from the ground up with little carryover, and secondly by sweating the small things. So it’s an aluminium bodied, aluminium chassis’d, aluminium suspended sports car that has a modest 1.8-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine developing 249bhp and 320Nm of torque at 2000rpm. That’s mounted behind the seats and drives the rear wheels via a seven-speed Getrag double clutch gearbox – perhaps the only thing about the car that’s not the lightest possible option.

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“We have tried to follow Colin Chapman’s principle, which is still valid, so if we have low mass, we can have moderate power, so we don’t need super wide tyres or big, heavy brakes and so on,” says Alpine’s chassis technical leader, Thierry Annequin. “We have chased all grammes everywhere on each component and each system to achieve this weight.”

Everywhere you look you see this attention to detail. Take the rear wheel – there’s no secondary brake caliper for the electric parking brake (EPB), it’s now integrated into the primary brake itself. That saves 2.5kg. And getting Brembo to integrate their software into the Bosch ECU instead of bolting on a separate control unit and wiring has saved another kilo. And the brackets that hold the EPB cables and hoses are aluminium too, “this is unusual”, claims Annequin, “but it saves seven grams here, 12 grams there and it adds up”.

The Sabelt seat is a mere 13.1kg – half the weight of the Recaro seat in the current Megane RS; integrating the ball joint into the upper control arm instead of putting it in a separate housing saves 300g per corner and so it goes on. The message from Alpine, building its first car since the final A610 rolled out the Dieppe gates 22 years ago, is that light weight matters. Jean Redele, the man who founded Alpine in 1955 and named it for the type of driving he wanted his cars to excel at, would be proud.

The approach certainly promises to make the Alpine efficient – the claims are 6.1L/100km and under 138g/km of CO2, numbers a standard Cayman can’t get within 1L/100km and 30g/km of.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?).

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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 100km/h) has a power to weight ratio of 210bhp/tonne, while the Alpine (249bhp, 1,103kg, 4.5secs to 100km/h) 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.

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On the inside

Layout, finish and space

First things first. The A110 is small. Under 4.2 metres long and 1.8 metres wide, it’s a strict two-seater and not that practical. Like a Cayman, it has boots front and back, but the 100-litre front is shallow (you might get a couple of airline carry-on bags side-by-side in there), and the 96-litre rear, accessed through a lid the size of a flip-top bin, isn’t going to carry golf sticks (personally I think that’s a good thing).

It’s not small inside though, because the managing director, Michael van der Sande is six foot six, so he made sure. Design-wise the cabin gets close to being as appealing as the Cayman’s or TT’s. The design is lovely, what lets it down – and then only slightly – is the quality and materials. They’re not bad, but the door card below the lovely blue panel is black and scratchy, the steering wheel is slightly bulbous (and isn’t the boss slightly offset?) and the infotainment graphics ought to be more vivid. This does mean the 58,500 euro (S$94,450) asking price for the Premiere Edition models looks awfully steep (further pricing is yet to be announced).

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But as a car to drive, the A110’s interior sets the tone very nicely indeed. The optional fixed Sabelt seats not only look superb, but are superbly shaped and yet weigh only 13kg each – half the weight of the Recaro seats fitted in Renault’s hot hatches. You sit low, and rear visibility through the narrow slot isn’t great, but because the car is small, the driving position good, the controls well weighted and accurate, you have confidence on narrow roads. It’s a gap-slipper par excellence.

The centre console bridge features a pouch for your phone as well as the gearchange buttons and USB socket, there’s storage on the level underneath (it’s not that easy to access down the side of the seat, mind you), plus a brace plate for the passenger. There is Renault switchgear, but so different is the layout and design that you’re only peripherally aware of it.

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Final thoughts and pick of the range

The Alpine A110 does things differently. Whether that makes it better or worse than a Porsche Cayman depends on your priorities and perspective. But fundamentally it’s a terrific car, a genuine exponent of light weight that makes you question the claims of almost every firm that says they build light cars.

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It tackles difficult roads with unflappable poise and agility, it’s a non-threatening sports car that proves that you can reverse the trend towards bigger wheels, bigger brakes, more power and more weight and still have a capable and exciting sports car. There’s not much that flows across country with so little effort and so little energy expended.

Will it be a success? I sincerely hope so, but above that I hope it will be influential, will show other marques that nothing’s changed and weight saving still matters and can be achieved. As we embark on the era of electric cars with their heavy battery packs, that seems curiously important.

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Author: TopGear
Top Gear is a British television series about motor vehicles, primarily cars, and is the most widely watched factual television programme in the world.