Right then, this is it - the test that really matters. Because despite extremely positive first drives at home and abroad of the A110, nothing will validate Alpine's work like a comparison at the same time and in the same place, with a Porsche Cayman. It couldn't be anything else, could it? Since the middle of the last decade it's been the go-to sports car at less than £50,000, delivering an almost flawless blend of concentrated Porsche prowess.
That still stands true in 2018 actually, despite some seeing the switch to four cylinders as an act of desecration. Because what else is there? A Lotus Exige, utterly fabulous though it is, will be too uncompromising for most. Even before it went off sale, the Alfa 4C couldn't hold a candle to either of these cars, despite the whole world on four wheels wishing it could. And entertaining though the M2 Competition most certainly seems, it weighs half a tonne more than the Alpine, and therefore represents a very different prospect. The A110 then offers the most exciting, most relevant, most anticipated rival to the mid-engined Porsche in years - can its early promise really make it a genuine alternative?
Before getting carried away with what the A110 may or may not be, however, it's worth getting reacquainted with the Cayman. Because, let's not forget, this was a 10 outta 10, gold star, sell-your-organs-to-fund-one sports car back in 2013, and isn't much less special with a flat-four - despite what you may have heard. Moreover, this 2.0-litre 718 is in an intriguingly restrained spec: 20-inch wheels and PASM, yes, but no Sport Chrono, no PDK and no ceramic brakes. Take the sports exhaust off (which you should), and it's genuinely a sub-£50k Cayman. With more power than an original Cayman S. As tested though, the Racing Yellow Porsche is £51,255; the Alpine Blue A110 £51,805. They're that close.
And you know what? This Cayman is still good. Really, really good, in fact. The 2.0-litre engine gives the impression of being freer and more energetic than the larger 718 S motor, revving just a tad more enthusiastically and responding with greater immediacy. These are very small margins, sure, but when you bear in mind the willingness of the 2.5 it's an improvement that shouldn't go unnoticed. Against most fairly flat, uninspiring 2.0-litre turbos, the effervescence and response of this Porsche engine is genuinely remarkable. If only it soun... let's not go there. Not yet.
That engine is then matched, as you'll well know by now, to a car of stellar dynamic quality. There's a tactility and precision to all the controls, a cohesiveness to everything that you interact with as a driver - steering, gearshift, pedals - that makes the Cayman satisfying at any speed. There's an argument to say it's honed to the point of almost apathetic infallibility, but there is joy to derive: with commitment the (optional) Porsche Torque Vectoring with LSD can be felt subtly adjusting line, the lack of Sport Chrono means all great downshifts are yours and - blunt point though it sounds - this is a 300hp Porsche. It's fast. It needs revs to give its best. It feels better the faster you drive it, always with grip, poise and ability in reserve. There's no avoiding the obvious - this Cayman is damn good.
Swapping immediately into the Alpine, there's less to be immediately enamoured by. Gorgeous though the Sabelt seat is, it isn't mounted as low as in the Porsche. The wheel doesn't reach out as far, and isn't as nice to hold. The general interior ambience is very pleasant, though you don't have to look far for some rather iffy plastics. And on the road, the steering feels almost spookily light compared to the Cayman. Combine that with its fleet-footed ride and the Alpine is almost floating down a road, seemingly in touch with nothing at all. Odd.
A swap back into the Porsche (there's a day promised in the Alpine, honest) only strengthens its case. The Cayman is entirely accommodating of however you wish to drive, be that like Timo Bernhard or a parliamentary chauffeur. The ride, despite the additional agitation afforded by the 20s, still delivers impeccable composure. Finally, while that clutch travel seems a bit long when stuck in rush hour traffic, to have manual control of gears in a 300hp sports car remains a rare privilege. It's an engaging and enjoyable car, this entry-level Cayman, if not the most intensely exhilarating. What can the Alpine offer as a riposte?
Actually, a hell of a lot - some of it before it's moved a metre. Because as a static object, be that in traffic or in car parks, the Alpine attracts huge amounts of unanimously positive attention. The Porsche, even in Racing Yellow with matching (£194!) seatbelts, can't match it for public enthusiasm, even when following directly behind. Kids want to sit in it, old boys want to tell you about classic Alpines, girls show modest curiosity rather than thinly veiled contempt; as something to see and be seen in, there can't be much at this money (besides that 4C) that makes you feel as good as a new Alpine. For those spending £50,000 on a sports car, that should be a consideration. Because nobody actively wants to be disliked in their car, do they?
Fortunately, despite some early reservations, the Alpine delivers a £50k sports car experience on the road, too. What has to be front of mind, blindingly evident though it sounds now, is to remember that this isn't a Cayman. It's been the class of the field for so long that some must feel - clearly guilty as charged here - that the Cayman way is the only way to do a mid-engined sports car. The Alpine unequivocally proves that isn't the case.
While it perhaps takes a little longer to get accustomed to versus the Porsche, the Alpine also delivers a memorable and absorbing driving experience - but in a discrete and immensely likeable French fashion. You know how people hark on about old French cars? The lissom ride, the effortlessness, the delicate poise and the fluid involvement? That's the mantra the Alpine unashamedly adheres to; it's different to the Porsche, it's different to pretty much anything else you care to mention, yet equally valid as a dynamic doctrine.
The key is the Alpine's featherweight mass. A kerbweight of 1,100kg gives it an advantage in excess of 200kg over the Porsche, meaning it feels entirely unshackled by such tedious physical constraints as inertia and momentum; instead the A110 almost glides along a road, comfortable while still composed and supple without ever apparently veering into sloppiness. There are similarities to the Mazda MX-5 here, in that the little French rocket isn't afraid to allow body movement at road speed; the difference here is that the Alpine never feels like the roll will get the best of it, never undermines confidence and never feels like it's been done just for the sake of it.
Being so slender makes the Alpine fast, too. Shorter gear ratios than the Porsche (third pretty much finishing here where second is done in the 718) make it feel punchier at real world speed, with a sense of boundless, zesty acceleration that eludes the Cayman. While we're here it's worth noting that the 1.8-litre Alpine is nicer to listen to as well; rortier and naughtier (if manufactured to that effect) than the 2.0-litre Porsche, it actually feels a worthwhile part of the experience - if far from a standout element - rather than actively detracting from it in the yellow car.
Moreover, don't mistake the relaxed, pragmatic attitude of the Alpine for a lack of purpose - far from it. The cars boasts a firm, satisfying brake pedal, traction is plentiful, the balance inherently very friendly and it uses the best version of this Renault dual-clutch by a mile. It's probably still not as crisp as a PDK, sure. That said, the A110's driver won't ever find themselves yearning for a manual in the same way they would in a Clio or Megane - which sounds like good progress from here.
Need more positives? Good, because there are plenty. Though accommodating of two six-foot-plus adults and (most) of their stuff, the Alpine is a really tiny vehicle. By the stats it's 20cm shorter than a Cayman and 5cm lower, if only a jot narrower. Allied to a good view out front and the agility of its slender mass, the Alpine feels like the more exploitable minor roads. Say, for instance, when there's a road closure on the return from Goodwood, the diversion leads nowhere and you're lost in Sussex for ages. Purely as an example.
But it doesn't matter. None of it really matters. Because on B-roads there's always more space in the lane than first thought, there's sufficient maturity at motorway speeds, it's largely a doddle around town and all the while there's those delightful, heartening, welcome virtues of low weight. Acceleration that's always a bit brisker, turn in that's more eager, the dynamic flow and lucidity that stems from a mere 1,100kg which no amount of tech can adequately mimic. It's all the benefits of an old car kerbweight, combined with modern amenities and precious few drawbacks.
The A110 feels like what Lotus was trying to achieve with the Europa, in making an everyday sports car that retains the benefits of not weighing much. That it could be said to have a distinctly Lotus feel to its chassis on UK roads, a grace and finesse underlined by serious engineering nous, is intended (and should be taken) only as praise. If the Alfa 4C was anywhere near as resolved out of the box as the A110 it would have been leagues better than it was. Rest assured, the Alpine is absolutely the real deal.
But could you really, really, spend fifty thousand pounds on a car with a Megane engine, baffling infotainment and a boot that intermittently won't open? Yes, you could, and on this experience you should. The Alpine proves there is another way to do mid-engined coupe, one that in some regards makes for a more accomplished sports car experience. By creating a car more habitable than an Elise and more alive than this 718, Alpine has struck upon a fantastic compromise that delivers very nearly the best of two worlds which always seemed so far apart.
So while the Cayman still delivers the more complete sports car package - more refined, more logical, more practical - that the Alpine can be good enough on those scores while offering a more memorable driving experience makes it the more alluring prospect for us. It can't have happened for a while, if ever, but the Porsche Cayman has been surpassed - bravo Alpine. Bravo indeed.
SPECIFICATION - ALPINE A110
Engine: 1,798cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 252@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 239@2,000rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Price: £51,805 (Premiere edition, now sold out. From £46,905 for A110 Pure)
SPECIFICATION - PORSCHE 718 CAYMAN
Engine: 1,988cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,900-4,500rpm
Top speed: 171mph
Weight: 1,335kg (DIN kerbweight, without driver)
Price: £42,897 (price as standard. Price as tested £51,255 comprised of Racing Yellow seat belts for £194, seat heating for £294, heated multifunction steering wheel for £329, speed limit display for £236, cruise control for £228, wheel centres with full colour Porsche Crest for £114, 20-inch Carrera Classic wheels for £2,273, 64-litre fuel tank for £84, sports exhaust for £1,592, Porsche Torque Vectoring including mechanically locking rear diff for £926, Porsche Active Suspension Management for £1,010, rear park assist for £362, bi-xenon headlights including Porsche Dynamic Light System for £615 and 718 logo painted black for £101)
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