Launching a new car at a tarmac rally is a big call and I’m always impressed when a manufacturer does something like this. Not only is plenty left to chance, unlike on a more usual and carefully scripted launch, but instead of just a few motoring journalists as witness, you have an entire public audience observing all that is going on. Yet Alpine, showing great confidence in its product, decided that there was no better place to launch the new A110 than Targa High Country in Victoria.
I first sight the Alpine A110 outside a ski lodge in Victoria’s Mount Buller, where it was surrounded by close to 30 other Targa High Country entrants. First thoughts are that this is a fresh and seriously good-looking bit of kit. No doubt part of that is down to the Alpine being the new kid on the block, but in a field of some very special cars, that the A110 stands out and steals most of the attention is no mean feat.
Our Premiere Edition is fittingly painted in the same traditional Alpine Blue of the original and it looks spot on. All details hark back to the original of 1961, but instead of being there for show, all are there with purpose.
While I wouldn’t describe the Alpine as tiny, it’s not that big either – think Porsche 993 dimensions. And in an era where wheel sizes grow almost annually, it’s reassuring to see that the Alpine sits on cool Fuchs forged alloys, only 18-inches in diameter. The headlights are clear nods to the past and a highlight of the car. Perhaps the only detail about which I’m not 100 percent sure are the blue brake calipers, though they would look great if the car was painted white.
The cabin is a surprisingly airy place to be. You sit in brilliant Sabelt one-piece buckets seats that are trimmed in diamond-stitched leather and microfibre cloth. The purposeful seats hug you everywhere you need to be hugged while not making you feel jammed into place. The cabin is set off with dashes of carbonfibre trim and aluminium pedals. You get a digital driver’s display that tells you everything you need to know and just a touch more. Everything is right at your fingertips.
The Alpine A110 is all about balance. The de-tuned Megane RS engine is mid-mounted transversely directly behind the driver, while the fuel tank sits in front of you between the suspension. The suspension is the real highlight of the package, featuring double wishbones all-around with passive dampers that you can tell have been the main focus of the car’s development since day one.
So, the Alpine looks right at home here amongst the exotica of Targa High Country and we know that it has all the right ingredients to make a true driver’s car (it did finish second at eCoty last month), but how does it translate onto Australian roads?
For the first time in my life, my first experience behind the wheel of a new car is literally a “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go” at a tarmac rally special stage. Not even a chance to turn a corner or, for that matter, to use the brakes. Just straight into it.
As soon as I take off to the 130km/h limit of the touring category, I’m at ease. The Alpine hunkers down just a little under acceleration but only briefly before it regains its poise. You immediately feel how light it is, and at 1103kg, the A110 is genuinely light and especially so by modern standards. It also gets to that 130km/h limit surprisingly quickly, the engine making all the right noises but never too intrusive, even with the active-valve sports exhaust switched to loud. I’d love a manual but the paddles suit the character of the car. They don’t punch through the gears but they are crisp enough.
Entering the first corner, the Alpine A110 feels brilliantly balanced. My first 3km also happens to be a rather bumpy stretch of road, yet in proper old-school French tradition, the ride is spot on. It never crashes into a bump and even with small excursions to the edges of the road, it stays true to course. This is a car you can trust, leaning on its chassis to carry constant speed, rather than depending on outright horsepower to thrust you between corners. The feedback through the steering wheel is right up there with a Lotus Exige, but the comfort is more in line with a Porsche Cayman. Best of both worlds.
So, once you get into the groove of things, trusting all that the Alpine A110 can handle, turning off traction control becomes not only very entertaining but more in-tune with the car’s character. It lets go here and there but never in a way that you feel will get out of control, for it just doesn’t have the weight or power to drive itself into too much trouble. It just gives a bit of a wiggle pulling out of tight corners, but it never loses its line. Properly entertaining stuff and all enjoyable within the legal limit on your favourite 100km/h back road.
Barrelling through Mansfield’s town centre at the end of the day for the Special Stage is the highlight of the experience and feels quite surreal. Driving through pretty, house-lined streets at high speed is something you just don’t do. You also feel the town’s eyes are on you, and while you know that the locals want a show, you are also acutely aware that some want to see a crash. You don’t want to be that person and thankfully I’m not. While some of the other cars here pull all sorts of angles navigating the town’s streets, the Alpine offers nothing but a fine display of balance.
The Alpine is a brilliant piece of kit, highly engaging and designed for the sort of stuff that Targa High Country can throw at it. It’s a grown-up Lotus Elise with the daily practicality (in terms of getting in and out, at least) of a Porsche Cayman. Yes, luggage space is going to be an issue if you plan on using your Alpine on a decent trip away, but think about it this way; every time you go on a trip, how often do you unpack clothes you took but never wore?
If exclusivity is what you are after, the new-generation A110 should be on your shopping list (fewer that 60 Alpines are currently on our roads). Even you don’t care about exclusivity but are in the market for a Porsche Cayman, you really should seek out a test drive of an Alpine. You won’t be disappointed. Matthew O’Malley
Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1798cc, turbo
Power 186kW @ 6000rpm
Torque 320Nm @ 2000-5000rpm
Weight 1103kg (167kW/tonne)
0-100km/h 4.5sec (claimed)
Top speed 250km/h (limited)
Basic price $106,500