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The Long Read: Alpine A110

Renault said we could have the first A110 for half a day. We drove it till they made us stop...

By Nic Cackett / Monday, May 14, 2018

10.33am, Twickenham

I meet the car straight off the truck. We're in Twickenham, and the only thing bluer than the sky is the A110's paint job. Naturally it's the Premiere Edition, one of just 1955 examples, and one of only two in the UK (the other is languishing back at base with a busted windscreen, apparently). Is it pretty in the flesh? Not precisely. Not like a Lotus Elise or a Alfa Romeo 4C. It is very distinctive though - and brilliantly small. Think one size up from an MX-5 and you're about there. Expect to like it right off the bat.

Inside it manages to be both flawed and fabulous in roughly equal measure. Despite considerable investment in making Alpine distinctive (and worthy of its steep asking price), it is unquestionably a Renault interior - meaning it not only has to share in its parent company's parts bin, but also feels like a mainstream manufacturer's idea of upmarket rather than owning the concept on its own terms. Which is a roundabout way of saying that a Porsche 718 Cayman owner is going to notice the quality shortfall in trim material, switchgear and infotainment.

You're likely to forgive this aspect of the cabin though, because ergonomically and spatially, it is terrific. Not only is the low-slung driving position absolutely nailed (in the way that no hatchback-based 'coupe' ever could be), the fixed bucket seats are epic and the space around them flawlessly proportioned. So astute is the body's shrink wrapping that not one metre needs driving for you to know that you're sitting in a quintessential pocket-size sports car; one that manages to follow through on its compact dimensions without feeling tediously cramped or needlessly sparse. In short, it fits a 5' 8" driver like a ruddy glove.

10.49am, Sunbury on Thames

You can't tell whether a car will be great or not in 11.4 miles, but you sure as s**t know whether or not it's going to aggravate you for the next 150. The A110 clears this first hurdle more assuredly than any Renault since the last Megane R.S. Its 1.8-litre turbocharged engine and dual-clutch 'box are mostly blameless in the business of crawling out of a city (by which I mean they do everything in that amenable modern way that suggests they've not been burdened with too much weight) and the ride quality is immediately likeable. The sweet spot here (as ever) is agreeable primary firmness with just enough compliance in the secondary for it not to feel brittle or easily unsettled. And that's exactly what it's like. Throw in the sort of light-footedness that you don't necessarily get in a 718 Cayman, and the A110 already - 15mins in - seems like an agreeable place to pass a working day.

11.31am, Reading Services

Pit stop. I've arrived on the M4 via the A322 because the run through Bracknell is effectively a commuter assault course (it being a combination of dual carriageway, roundabouts and slow-moving A road). The news? Nothing worrisome in the least. Quite the opposite. Renault's track record for combining a sporty petrol engine with an automatic 'box is not precisely stellar (the mediocrity of the current Clio's drivetrain being well established) but its integration in the A110 is, generally speaking, very biddable. It is persuasive enough in fact for the pairing to seem noticeably better than it did in the new Megane. Which it isn't of course, it's just been subjected to a more compelling maths equation - 1,105kg being a helpfully small number when compared to 1,430kg for the hatchback, and of rather obvious assistance to the 236lb ft of torque available from 2,000rpm.

It certainly all makes eminent sense on the A322, not least because modern-day commuting is all about the business of slowing to and accelerating from low speeds, and the A110 does this not just seamlessly (as you'd hope any new car would) but in that inimitable way that continually speaks to its low kerbweight. The willingness to overcome its own inertia, and sail breezily forward, is almost at Caterham/Lotus levels - arguably beyond them thanks to the absense of a heavy clutch. Throw in a limber yet supremely accurate steering rack and that peaceable ride quality, and you've got yourselves the kind of harmonious, happy-go-lucky usability that MX-5 owners all go on about. Faults? Well, there's a four-pot rortiness that accompanies each throttle input which isn't going to be to everyone's liking, and, while it is not as cramped as an MX-5, there are similarly few places to put things down (I'm including the comically small cupholder in that assessment). Other than that, the average economy has already bumped up from 21.3mpg to 27.4mpg, and there's still the length of the M4 to go.

1.20pm, Layby A40

Another 100 miles or so gone and we're essentially now out of motorway. The A110 claims to have averaged 33.5mpg from start now, which is pretty decent for determined outside-lane driving (I suspect that averaging closer to 40mpg on a more relaxed trip would be no issue at all). That's impressive considering the performance on offer. It's indicative (once again) of that kerbweight when even middling throttle inputs have the car up to 70mph in a jiffy, and that once it's found the transmission's seventh cog, it rarely ever needs to come out of it (sixth being almost at the end of the accelerator travel, with fifth relegated to the kickdown). Compare that to the long term TT RS - which will slip from its longest gear at the slightest provocation and treats 30mpg like the Holy Grail - and the Alpine's long distance charm hardly needs further quantifying.

True enough, it is not perfect. Force it to hook up a lower ratio, and Renault's DCT doesn't downshift as sweetly as the TT's S tronic 'box - nor hang onto it quite as compellingly (although, that the 252hp engine doesn't have quite the character or the shove of its 400hp five-pot rival will be news to precisely no-one). The brakes are fine and strong, though it's possible you might want for a little extra travel in the pedal, given that it comes up abruptly (a sure sign of where it's been tuned to work properly). Mostly though, the niggles are trifling: visibility is negated somewhat by big rear pillars and a slit of a rear window; locating the cruise control switch under the driver's elbow is incomprehensible; the air-con is worryingly gutless in the face of even springtime sun; the proximity of Renault's column-mounted stereo controls (yep, the 20-year-old ones) with the right-hand paddle is scandalous; and the DAB reception mediocre. That none of these faults registers as being particularly problematic speaks volumes about the charm offensive going on around them.

1.56pm, Llangynidr

The B4560 just east of Crickhowell is the six-mile stretch of Welsh B-road made famous by umpteen magazine shoots, although it's generally not the way used to access the hill-top car park at its centre. That 3.5-mile stretch has no name (according to Google at any rate) yet it is straighter, faster and often quieter once you've cleared the village of Llangattock. What does it teach us that the preceding 154 miles didn't? That the A110 is exceptionally well balanced; that its supple ride quality takes superbly to the job of negotiating rural bumps at speed, and also that it really is quite quick. The previous few hours had suggested it would be, but also intimated that perhaps it might be dispensed in that flat-ish, torque-skewed way that the Clio accelerates. Well, not a bit of it: the car feels exactly as fast as it ought to be, and the four-pot revs with metallic gusto to 7000rpm. Get there in any of the well-spread ratios and you'll be seriously moving. And the steering wheel-mounted button marked 'Sport' hasn't even been pressed yet.

2.34pm, Garnlydan

Okay, deep breath. From the viewpoint provided by an unseasonably warm Welsh hillside, no-one has oversold the A110's handling ability. Not one bit. There's every reason to think it off the scale. But that doesn't mean you're necessarily going to think it straightaway. The current Cayman will, I'm sure, be used as the most convenient point of comparison, yet the Alpine's chassis doesn't bullishly announce itself in anything like the same way. Push on very hard in the Porsche along the B4560 and you'll feel it lean energetically back against you with its rigorous poise and grip and wonderfully tactile sense of assurance. In the Alpine though, at first, you hardly credit the same build-up of speed at all; even in 'Sport' (which somehow renders a snappy and halfway likeable manual gear change from Renault's DCT) the passive dampers never threaten to bite down on the tarmac in a way that could be called vigorous or the steering resistance uprated to a point that might feel hefty. It just ushers everything into the same sublimely tolerant matrix at an ever greater rate, feeling no more flummoxed by it than a swallow would be from a marginally quicker beating of its wing.

It's so unstressed and accommodating and utterly without histrionics, that it actually takes a moment to fully absorb what it's doing. Think of it like coming off sugar - for awhile, everything seems slightly drab and ashen. Then your palette suddenly regrows a missing critical faculty, and you remember what an apple actually tastes like. Well, the A110 is the apple: deceptively simple, crisp, unadorned and rounded. It would almost be enough to say that it is mid-engined and (very much) rear-driven, and much more like a Lotus or a McLaren than it is a Porsche. But even that impossibly high praise isn't quite sufficient. There's scant understeer, and then heaps of non-threatening neutrality. Really pile it on and the car pivots in favour of its weighted back end - but only in the most benign way imaginable. More often than not, it's the nimbleness that really staggers, and the ease of use that accompanies it. The secret, of course, is in the foundations: the double wishbones front and back; the judicious stiffness of a bespoke aluminium spine; the ankle-high centre of gravity; the engine's placement just ahead of the rear axle; and the fact of it weighing so little in the first place. Yet the A110 is more than the sum of these parts, too.

Bucket loads of credit then must be heaped at Alpine's (or Renault Sport's) door for the job done on tuning the car. From the composure and glide of the suspension - which is singularly unafraid of roll and simultaneously in perfect control of it - to the effervescent electric steering and congruent front-end, to the wonderfully casual way the car has of telegraphing the (endlessly forgiving) limit of what is still a 252hp rear-biased chassis, the A110 bristles with a mechanical honesty and helpfulness that has precious little to do with trick parts or clever electronics. Were there slightly more character in the engine bay and a short-throw manual gearbox to stir it with, the car's B4560-based audition might very well be called complete.

3.51pm, Crickhowell

Handover time, about an aeon too soon. My colleagues ask what I think. I tell them about the sugar thing, and say it's like Renault built a Lotus. Later on I find out that another tester likes to compare it to an Ariel Nomad, which is so shrewd as to be worth stealing. He meant it specifically in regard to car's supremely adjustable handling (having spent half his alloted time on track) but it's worth mentioning that the parallel extends elsewhere, too. Because even more creditable than the A110's ability to carry flamboyant amounts of speed is the dawning awareness that the car's talent isn't the least bit beholden to it.

Much like the Nomad (though for different reasons), the Alpine remains animated and involving even when driving it well within the speed limit. It's just so delicate and accurate and effortless. Often it wants no more stoking than a brisk supermini, yet it magnifies the pleasure of every input threefold. To have come from a mainstream manufacturer, it is no less of a revelation than the Toyota GT86 was in 2012 - and the simple pleasure of interacting with it on single track roads while thoughtfully meandering back into town testifies to that fact.

Which means that greatest trick missed here is not the option of a manual (honestly, the DCT is fine) or the (largely unavoidable) practicality shortfall or even the comparatively high price - it's that we weren't ever able to find out what Caterham's end of the defunct partnership would've been like. Because the A110 quite brilliantly embodies the virtues that have made the Seven a six-decade success. Not just for its lightness - although that is at the nucleus of what makes the Alpine great - but for the deftness and balance and clarity of vision, too. Of course that's by the by, and a matter for the what-if history books. It's Dieppe's two-seater that's here to stay - and it's a triumph.

Alpine 110 - Specifications
Engine 1.8-litre, 4-cylinder turbo
Transmission seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp) 252@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft) 236@2,000rpm
0-62mph 4.5secs
Top speed 155mph
Weight 1,080 - 1,103kg
MPG 46.3
CO2 138g/km
Price £50,000

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