Welcome to a new era. One where Alpine, that most decidedly left-field maker of sports cars, has set out to build a B-segment electric hatchback. If that prospect sends a chill up your spine and has you wishing that EVs could be cancelled like outspoken celebrities, then fear not - the firm has evidently launched itself at the prospect with characteristic gusto. Obviously, the A290_β (as in ‘Beta’) is a concept, and therefore some of its more conspicuous traits - the central driving position, the arrow-shaped dashboard, the assorted carbon fibre bling - can be dismissed as conceptual silliness. But PH was assured at a preview event that the way the show car looks from the outside, especially in terms of its exterior proportions and the fundamental styling package (including quad-light motif), is around 85 per cent true to the production model. And that’s important. Because it looks bloody brilliant.
We had a feeling it might. You’ll likely recall that the A290 will essentially be the hot hatch version of the incoming Renault 5, a future B-segment variant previewed by its own easy-on-the-eye concept last year. Well, the A290_β takes that retro ball and runs with it in the direction of a Daft Punk album. ‘City-friendly hot-rod inspired by racing cars’ is the cumbersome sentiment leaned on in the press bumf, but standing near the thing in a studio, it does an admirably good job of screaming ‘GT Turbo’ at you - and that prospect ought to be enough to get those of a certain age hankering to learn more (which, of course, is the salient point of building a concept in the first place).
It’s interesting to note that Renault indulged itself with an even more gung-ho (and retro-looking) concept towards the end of last year. But the so-called Renault 5 Turbo 3E, equipped with 380hp and being exclusively rear-driven, was surely the product of flagrant navel-gazing; the A290_β, while it may share some of the 3E’s tubular chassis underneath (hence the integrated roll cage and FFSA track approval), presents for the most part like a conventional five-door hot hatch on big wheels. And that’s encouraging because that’s what we’re going to get next year.
If you’re wondering why Renault simply didn’t badge the earlier Turbo 3E an Alpine to emphasise its track-honed sensibilities then you’ve sagely hit upon the fine line being trod here. Privately, Alpine is keen to acknowledge the historical debt it owes to Renault Sport, but because the modern incantation of the brand essentially is Renault Sport operating under a different name, it prefers to adopt a forward-thinking philosophy even as its designers cannily hark back. So Renault gets to talk about building the spiritual successor to the Turbo 2; Alpine would rather focus on the fact that the A290 is the first of three new electric models that comprise its ‘Dream Garage’.
Would its approach have been better served by kicking off the three-pronged strategy with the A110-replacing compact sports car it is developing in conjunction with Lotus? Absolutely. But that prong is very definitely not ready. Instead Alpine must make do with its B-segment contender - which, in turn, accounts for the extent to which the A290_β is pulled in different thematic directions. On the one hand, the team was at pains to remind us that the production car will be regarded internally as a ‘lifestyle’ product (hence the ’90’ part of its name); on the other, there is that three-seat architecture meant to draw direct and unmissable parallels with Formula 1.
The nicest thing to say about the latter is that, broadly speaking, it’s well-resolved. Mount carbon fibre seats in a hollow sounding, plastic-heavy interior and you’ll give off a motorsport vibe regardless of where the LMP2-inspired steering wheel is placed, but Alpine has obviously given some thought to its minimalist, Tron-like setting. The various indicator strips and F1-cone inspired dash are plainly meant to underscore the centralised, single-seater theme, but it’s the absence of screens (save the slender display integrated into the wheel) that appeals - alongside a red OV (for Overtake, of course) button that Alpine promises will migrate to all its production EVs, delivering a 10-second power boost.
Alpine isn’t ready to say precisely how much power we’re talking about just yet (though it’s safe to assume that the production variant will be broadly competitive with its 200hp+ rivals) but we know that it will be front-wheel drive and obviously share the Renault 5’s CMF-B-EV platform. In that regard, there is much already to be encouraged by. Renault itself has previously confirmed that a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension would feature on the back axle, and Alpine was quick to remind everyone that a short wheelbase, comparatively wide track and exemplary, battery-enabled weight distribution were handy traits in a compact hot hatch.
Of course, it isn’t going to weigh the same as a traditional B-segment hot hatch. But it is significant to note - and in stark contrast to something like the Cupra Born - that the A290 (in Beta format, at least) has that low-to-the-ground attitude redolent of a proper hot hatch, rather than it seeming like a compact crossover with its spring travel halved. Granted, it has huge sills to disguise its height, the concept is riding on 20-inch wheels and that eye-pleasing lack of distance to the arches is carefully orchestrated - but it’s a fair bet that the production car will sit appealingly close to what PH was told will be 19-inch alloys that closely resemble the Alps-inspired aluminium rims you see here.
Still not convinced? Four other things had the PH eyebrows on a motivational fishing line. Firstly, the firm has secured an exclusive partnership with Michelin that will see it supplied with custom-designed tyres manufactured with white Alpine triangles to show where the tyre should ideally be positioned in relation to the wheel. Chintzy, but cool. Secondly, to bring those upgraded tyres to a suitably well-controlled stop, the production A290 will get precisely the same high-performance, Brembo-made 4-piston calliper braking system as the A110. This suggests it doesn’t weigh as much as a Bentayga at least.
Thirdly, Alpine’s engineers were keen to point out how much they’d learnt about the near-endless possibilities for torque vectoring when dealing with a pure EV drivetrain. Not just for pushing performance to its limit, but for the ‘unforgettable’ feeling that results. We’re promised the fruits of that experimental labour in the production car. Together with (number four) hydraulic bumps stops - so often the mechanism used to distinguish a class-leading Renault Sport chassis from the more brittle chasing pack.
None of that ensures glory for the A290, of course - but who better than Alpine (née Renault Sport) to spin molten gold from a front-drive EV? We need hardly revisit its combined back catalogue of hot hatch greats for inspiration, nor harp on about the chassis-based greatness of the A110 to guess that something special might yet be brewing in Dieppe. Perhaps we’re guilty of wishful thinking - and thus far there has certainly been precious little to inspire us beyond amenable city runarounds in an underwhelming small EV segment. But with no combustion cars left to concern itself with, Alpine can already lay claim to having the prerequisite experience, outlook and expertise to make a proper go of it. Now it has the right look, too.
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