Alpine’s A110 is a breath of fresh air in the German-dominated sports coupe sector. But has the French upstart got what it takes to vanquish the established players?
The Porsche and the Audi are already parked, side-by-side, waiting for the Alpine to show. In bold colours, sitting on 20-inch wheels, they look solid and well made, confidently hewn. When the A110 arrives and swings in next to them, I’m shocked at how small and low it is. It’s the first time I’ve seen one in the metal and it never occurred to me that one of the reasons it’s so light is that it’s small, with small wheels – 17s as standard, 18s on this, the launch edition.
Feedback from the A110 launch was highly complimentary, with many experienced testers, including our own Steve Sutcliffe, claiming that the Cayman’s dominance was under threat. Well, this is where we find out just how credible the Alpine is. The price of this A110 Première Édition is strong at $106,500 and the regular production version will be priced from just $97,000. So the Cayman S ($145,500) and the TT RS ($137,611) might appear from the class above, but we really want to put the A110 to the ultimate test, so we’ve granted it no quarter.
The A110 was always going to be a hard sell: a new and unproven mid-engined sports coupe powered by a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder turbo engine. Or, for the same money, the Cayman: charismatic, polished and dynamically peerless. So I imagine the management at Alpine couldn’t believe their luck when Porsche announced it would be scrapping the silky, flat-six engines of the Boxster and Cayman and replacing them with turbocharged flat-fours. That’s one objection of the potential Alpine customer scotched.
There’s a lot more to the Cayman than just the engine though, as the three-hour journey to the North York Moors has reiterated. The 718 Cayman S looked fabulous on my driveway, better than any previous version, and it swallowed both my luggage and – more impressively – the gear of photographer Matt Howell. It rides beautifully, too, supple yet controlled, and show it any sort of corner and it will show you some flair, with incisive but calm steering and natural balance and agility – it seems to rotate around a point between the seats. Boy, it’s good.
‘‘It sounds awful,’’ says Howell. ‘‘When you started it up I didn’t realise it was a four, but now…’’ I have to agree. I had hoped it would be better, this being a heavily revised version. The original flat-four installation was bad with, amongst other aural maladies, a mid-range coarseness that was worse on the overrun and a number of whooshes and sighs that would have been deemed turbo character if they related to the demand being made of the engine, but instead seemed random. Two years on and all that noise has gone or been suppressed, and it is 100 per cent better, but what’s left is a mournful, monotone, mid-range drone.
The tragedy is that in most other respects, there’s never been a better Cayman. There’s no question that the 2.5-litre flat-four delivers the claimed 257kW, and it works in superb harmony with the (optional) seven-speed PDK gearbox, and dynamically the car is as sweet as. So when you’ve just threaded it along a few good miles of choppy Yorkshire B-road and wrung out the engine to the redline – where it sounds at its best – you know that it’s still going to take something special to unseat it.
That something could be the Alpine. With 185kW it might be 72kW down on the Cayman, but it’s stayed pretty much the same size in the Porsche’s rear-view mirror, bobbing around in its wake, small, low and blue, and distinctive with its inset driving lamps. Time to see what all the fuss is about.
Pound for pound, you get less for your money with the A110, which is a good thing if you are open to the many benefits of less mass. Build light from the start, as Alpine has, investing in aluminium construction (94 per cent of the body and chassis is aluminium) and you set the car on a virtuous circle of weight reduction. Less initial weight means you need less power for the same performance, which means you can use a smaller engine with fewer cylinders, which further reduces weight, allowing smaller brakes and smaller wheels and tyres, which means less unsprung weight, which allows lighter springs and smaller dampers…
It’s a philosophy championed by Lotus, and it has been obsessively adhered to by the Alpine development team, too, but while Hethel’s modern offerings tend to look chunky and feel spartan, the Alpine looks more like a scaled-down conventional coupe – sleek, with crisp shut lines, and a warm, welcoming cockpit. There’s a band of leather across the dash facia, the instruments are provided by a big TFT screen with neat, unique graphics, while beneath the arc of centre console, neatly trimmed in carbonfibre, is a space for phones and other chattels. The high-sided seats make this cubby awkward to get at, though.
The seats, with their quilted leather sides and fixed-back lightweight frames, look seriously sporty, but in fact are easy to get into and very comfortable, as well as being supportive. They’re part of the launch edition upgrades, as are the numerous tricolour flashes and carbon trim for the air vents and centre console. Another remarkable thing about the A110 is that although it looks small on the outside, it doesn’t feel like it from the inside.
Hidden behind the insulating cover beneath the wrap-around rear screen is the all-new, all-aluminium turbocharged 1.8-litre in-line four-cylinder engine, mounted in a bespoke aluminium subframe and coupled to an evolution of the Renault Clio’s Getrag dual-clutch gearbox. Thumb the big orange button on the centre console and the noise it makes when it fires up is cleaner and sweeter than the flat-four in the Porsche. Not much of a stretch, admittedly, but there’s a lightness to the way it responds when you blip the throttle, too, and within a couple of kilometres it has proved to be decently characterful, with a nutty, hollow bark when pulling hard, overlaid with turbo-spooling whoosh. More importantly, it feels properly sparky – well up to the task, though that’s as much to do with the mass of the car.
Those first moments aren’t about the performance, though. What grabs your attention is the way the Alpine feels on the road, how it reacts to steering inputs and bumps and bends. It feels genuinely light, through the electrically assisted steering and its connection to the road, as if the front tyres are even slimmer than their 205/40 R18 dimensions and are offering little resistance. Then there’s the ride, which is loose-limbed and feels long-legged, helping create a unique impression of suppleness and effortlessness. It’s like an original Lotus Elise but not quite, the ride of the Alpine being a little more easily disturbed at the front.
Pick up speed and the steering effort required increases appropriately, giving a workable level of effort, while the feel around centre, previously soft and open, closes to bring welcome precision. Squeeze on the throttle and after a moment’s hesitation (there’s a moment of lag in all three cars) the Alpine surges down the road, a quick and seamless upshift providing unbroken acceleration. And the ride parries some of the bigger bumps and neutralises some of the detail of a road surface that the Cayman proved was oddly tricky and wrong-footing when we drove up. I’m grinning; I like the attitude and approach of this Alpine. It feels modern and classic French at the same time.
The TT RS is looking a bit too familiar, but you’d be wrong to dismiss it, for a few good reasons. The first and most significant is that it’s not a car that will struggle for engine power or character, because installed transversely beneath its mirror-finish gloss red bonnet is an in-line five-cylinder turbo engine cranking out almost 300kW.
At the weigh-in, our corner-weight scales threw up a couple of surprises. The fact that the TT was the heaviest wasn’t one of them. That at 1487kg it was only 38kg heavier than the Cayman S was… As was the fact that the A110 came in at just 1094kg, under the claimed figure (1103kg) and almost 400kg less than the Audi.
That’s not the whole story, of course, because while the Porsche distributes the load with something approaching equity (44:56 front:rear), and the Alpine slightly less so (42:58), the Audi gets nowhere near that. The latest straight-five may have an aluminium cylinder block, helping reduce the engine’s overall mass by a useful 30kg, and it may be installed transversely (as opposed to longitudinally like a battering ram in the Ur-Quattro), but it all still sits forward of the front axle line. As a result, more than 900kg rests on the front axle for a nose-heavy 61:39 distribution.
Mind, there is at least one upside of being front-engined, and that’s that the TT has rear seats. Small ones, granted, but useful for shopping or luggage if you don’t have small children. There’s a half-decent boot, too, so it rivals the Cayman for practicality. The Alpine is merely okay, with a stuffable boot beneath the small bootlid and a rectangular space beneath the bonnet that looks millimetre-perfect for a prêt-à-porter suitcase (‘max load 40kg’).
It’s the bling that catches your eye first in the TT: the machine-turned centre console plate and door pulls, the five air vents with (optional) coloured bands, and the shiny centre buttons that are the controls for the air conditioning and heated seats. Then there’s the Alcantara-rimmed wheel with its see-through spokes and starter button and Drive Select mode switch hanging off it, all of which helps make for a clean centre console. In contrast, the ‘fireplace’ of the Cayman – that space ahead of the gear selector – looks like a dump for switches and buttons. The driving position of the TT is less special than those of the Cayman and A110, though, being high in comparison, like in a hot hatch.
If you’re a fan of the Ur-Quattro, the first press of the starter button is a moment to savour. There’s a pop-crackle flare followed by that distinctive, evocative mellow warble. It simply blows the others away – the Porsche sounds like a muted Impreza crossed with an air-cooled Beetle, while the Alpine sounds like a plain old hot hatch. On the move the TT is a bit less distinct, like you’re being followed by an Ur-Quattro, but just ahead of the gear selector there’s a button to sort that. It engages a physical, exhaust plumbing enhancement rather than sound piped through the audio system, and it adds just the right amount of richness and edge.
The steering needs similar help. The rim is unusually but comfortably shaped, and nicely tactile thanks to the faux suede parts, but the efforts it demands are just a bit too low to inspire confidence when you pick up the pace. A dip into the adaptive setting of the driver modes allows steering weight and other parameters to be adjusted, including damping.
I’ve got road test editor James Disdale behind in the Alpine, and the TT is so fast and such a straightforward, undemanding car to hustle along it feels like I should be able to shake him, on the straight bits at least. There’s impressive grip and traction but the Alpine is always there. And as the road gets more lumpy, the Audi gets less poised. You start to wince dropping into compressions, while over sharp crests the car feels launched… at which point it feels every one of those 393kg heavier than the Alpine, and you fear for the 30-section tyres (and the rims) when you land.
It’s been a fun run, illuminating, too. James has a knowing look on his face when we pull up on the cobbles outside of our hotel. ‘‘The A110 simply goes with the flow, while the Audi jiggles and hops in a way that suggests it’s simply not getting on with the surface,’’ he observes.
In isolation, the TT RS would feel indomitable: incisive, with terrific cornering grip and massive punch. It lacks the engagement of the A110 and the Cayman, though, that sense that you’re a part of the process of making the car go quickly, other than steering it accurately and getting on the power at the right time. The Alpine stays in touch because it rolls into the turns carrying more speed and, despite the horsepower deficit, hangs on to the TT’s tailpipes because it’s so much lighter and more responsive. There are a few foibles, though. The sense of connection to the front wheels isn’t as strong as you’d like sometimes, and occasionally a sequence of bumps will set off a lateral bobble, as if the front wheels are shimmying in turn.
‘‘The TT feels more like a very fast hot hatch than a genuine sports car, though that howling motor sounds part Group B rally car and part R8 V10,’’ grins James. On the other hand, the Porsche, we agree, is dynamically sublime. ‘‘The steering is quick without being nervy, and once the front tyres are biting it delivers by far the most detailed feedback,’’ says James. ‘‘Then there’s the beautiful balance, near faultless damping and tenacious grip. It’s also the only one here that’s really throttle-adjustable.’’
Day two of our Tour de Yorkshire sees light rain falling out of a clear blue sky. In a reverse of our arrival, James leads away in the Alpine and I’m behind in the Audi. The wetted surface seems to be making him more circumspect and the TT is able to manage the gap, playing with the French coupe like a cat with a mouse. I feel relaxed; the Audi has grip and grunt to spare and does some things very well: its dual-clutch gearbox is slick and intuitive, its selector lever logic-natural and tactile (the Porsche’s feels clunky, the Alpine’s buttons a cop-out), and after you’ve pulled a paddle the ’box holds manual mode for just the right amount of time. Turns out that on the damp surface, James didn’t quite trust that the front of the Alpine was turned and so was trail-braking into some corners to help it in.
The Buttertubs Pass is breathtaking when we arrive, bathed in watery light. It’s a narrow, lollopy bit of road, and the TT once again feels its mass if you misjudge your speed or the severity of a dip or crest. It feels like the perfect road for the small, softly sprung Alpine, and once we’ve got the shots we came for, I slip into the embrace of the A110’s bucket seat and lead James in the Porsche back down to Hawes. Initially the Alpine does feel made for this part of the world, but a couple of big dips bring sounds of light contact – wheels rubbing the arches is our guess – and the front is again distracted by certain combos of bumps. Of course, if there wasn’t an acid yellow Porsche behind, the pace would be somewhat less enthusiastic.
The Cayman is having no such issues. Yes, it’s a significantly heavier car, but – as is so often the case with a Porsche – keep asking more of the car and you’ll be amazed to find just how deep its abilities run. It’s quite something, dynamically.
The in-line four in the back of the Alpine can whine on the overrun, but mostly it sounds keen and clean, revving out with enthusiasm. Stroking along the road to the Ribblehead Viaduct, I seem to find just the road and just the pace to suit the Alpine, and it’s sublime. The car flows along with a lightness of touch that’s almost magical, smoothing the surface, composed, effortlessly responsive to your inputs and handling. John Barker