Isn’t that the car that caught f…?
Don’t. We’re not going to dwell on what may have made the Alpine A110 infamous, rather celebrate what ought to make it famous. Because without jumping too quickly to the conclusion, it’s proved as wonderful to drive on UK roads as it did overseas, where it was flatteringly launched on the Monte Carlo roads that made its great grandfather a rallying legend.
It doesn’t look much like a rally car.
That’s because rally cars have morphed into four-wheel-drive hatchbacks with quite staggering amounts of power. Decades ago, lightness and litheness were far more important. Thus, a dainty rear-driven, rear-engined car like the old A110 became rather good at rallying.
The new car will only see a gravel stage if it’s taken a severely wrong turn, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. What we have here is a rear-driven, mid-engined coupe to take on the Porsche Cayman. Just like the Alfa Romeo 4C tried and failed to do, not to mention numerous different Lotuses.
Does Alpine stand a chance, then?
It really does. The A110 goes its own way, with a turbocharged 1.8-litre engine producing a modest 248bhp, but with an equally modest 1,103kg to shift. So it’s flipping quick: 0-62mph takes 4.5secs and the top speed is limited to 155mph, while claimed fuel economy is a very un-sports car like 46mpg.
That’s what lightness will do. It makes power outputs punchier than they appear on paper, it makes fuel disappear at a more leisurely rate and – most important of all for a car like this – it brings the kind of agility that no suspension or steering system, no matter how clever, will ever replicate in a burlier car.
It’s such a pure driving experience, and you feel how light it is immediately. The doors feel flimsier than on the Cayman (or, indeed, most cars) and despite its superb quilted leather sports seats and a veneer of connectivity, the interior feels sparse. That brilliant, exciting kind of sparse that more focused sports cars exhibit.
When you pull away and there’s simply no inertia, the A110 reacting sharply to every millimetre of steering or throttle movement. We’re talking crawling town speeds here, where it feels special and honed right from the off. It sounds good, too, its four-cylinder turbo way more cultured than the Cayman’s, not to mention raspier and naughtier. It’s lovely.
It also soaks up ruts and speed bumps wonderfully. There’s just one suspension setup, and it’s relatively soft in sports car terms, but it offers the kind of composure that bigger wheeled, more firmly suspended rivals can only dream of.
What about out of town?
All of this means when you reach a great piece of road, then, it couldn’t be better prepared. I’d expected its daintiness – and its mechanical layout – might make it feel a bit flighty on a fast, tricky piece of road, but it never loses its cool. Its limits are lower than a Cayman’s, so you feel more involved at responsible speeds, but you’ll still have to provoke it if you want to do anything silly.
The steering is fantastic: direct and quick but with utterly natural feel, while the A110’s inherent softness mean it rolls and moves in a way more serious rivals refuse to. And the engine and gearbox work marvellously together. It’s a shame there’s no manual, but the disappointment lasts as long as it takes to prod the steering wheel button into Sport or Track modes.
What happens then?
The seven-speed paddleshifter properly sharpens up, allowing gearchanges to punch satisfyingly through with a sideshow of parps from the exhaust. The ratios are really short, too, so you can easily use the first five gears on a British back road, batting up and down them frequently.
Pop the car back in Normal and the gearbox in auto and it’s smooth and refined, too. Alongside those grippy seats, it ensures the duller miles you’ll drive on the way to your favourite piece of road should pass by without issue.
So it’s a grand tourer?
Err, nope. There’s barely any luggage space – you’ll squeeze some weeny bags in the back and perhaps a handful of CDs (if you still buy CDs) in the front. It’s not entirely settled at a motorway cruise, either, while its media system is just a bit crap, with the intuitive Apple CarPlay and Android Auto systems of rivals replaced by a barely fathomable bespoke phone link up.
The solution is simple: unplug your phone, switch it off, and turn back onto an interesting road, free to just drive without interruption. That’s what this car lives for, and what you’ll come to relish if you own one. While that pesky Cayman is practical and sensible enough to be your only car, the Alpine is more likely to be the toy you bring out on special occasions.
All of which might make this £51,805 Premiere Edition appear very steeply priced. Cheaper versions will follow soon, hopefully taking the A110 much closer to the £40,000 mark. But don’t let that detract from what’s been achieved here. With its first attempt in years, Alpine has made a scintillating sports car that’s as gratifying to drive as stuff that’s twice the price. It proves that lightness and simplicity beats aggression and complexity any day. It goes a completely different way to the Cayman, yet it no doubt has Porsche very worried indeed.