At launch in 2017, the Alpine A110 was a breath of fresh air in the sports car segment. Entrusting in modest power and minimal mass to deliver entertainment, it still is. Here was a car a quarter of a tonne lighter than a Cayman that was more fun to drive on the road - proof if ever the concept needed it that there really is no substitute for a slender sports car.
It's precisely that accessibility and real-world road appeal that potentially undermines the appeal of the new R. Can an A110 remain overtly likeable with such an aggressive track focus? We’ve been here before, sort of, with the A110 S, a firmer and sharper offering better suited to the circuit; the overwhelming response from reviewers and buyers (if not from us) was that the appeal of the standard car had been sacrificed somewhat. So what hope for the car Alpine very proudly proclaims as designed for track and with road usability, rather than the other way around? Especially when the resulting A110 costs Cayman GT4 money…
Such concerns will likely be cast aside on seeing the R in real life. It’s honestly hard to believe this is a series production model, so extreme is the overhaul, from the carbon wheels and rear deck to a much more suggestive ride height and stunning matt blue paint just like the F1 car. Perhaps it’s not as pretty or as delicate as a standard A110, but you’re never in any doubt about where your money has been spent. There’s some genuine supercar drama to this car that isn’t there ordinarily, huge slabs of carbon and asymmetrical wheels like a mini McLaren Speedtail, and that new rear end means it’s impossible to see out of the back, too. Like a proper bit of exotica.
Furthermore, while Alpine has already shared information of how the R gets to 1,082kg from the 1,112kg of an S, it’s worth going over a few key details to show off just what’s been achieved here. When an M3 Touring is basically two tonnes and four-wheel steer is almost commonplace to get enormous SUVs into a bend, a car and company so dedicated to shedding weight is worth celebrating. The R is an absolute feast of lightweight parts, with a Lotus-like obsession with removing kilos (and mere grams) wherever possible.
Those gorgeous new carbon Sabelt seats are not only lighter in construction and super supportive, they even sit on mounts shaved to be a little thinner than standard. The removal of a valve in the exhaust and the 3D printing of the twin pipes saved 700g. Nine kilos have been subtracted by using thinner glass, removing the rear-view mirror and taking the engine cover away. It’s the carbon that will get all the attention as far as weight saving goes (and those wheels in particular really are a work of art), but the R transformation is far more drastic than that. And in a world seemingly set on adding weight to combat issues rather than taking it away, creating a sub-1,100kg sports car like this deserves even more praise than usual.
The mood is set perfectly on track before even leaving the pitlane. Those Sabelt buckets are some of the very best around, supportive in all the right places and comfortable with it; the A110 R is so focused that there’s not even a three-point belt at all, meaning harnesses for every single trip, though they are relatively simple as these things go and undoubtedly set the right tone on track. Alpine makes much of this car being designed around a Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyre that it worked with Michelin to develop, and it pays dividends immediately, with the best steering feel and response of an A110 yet. There isn’t significantly more weight than an S - probably as the front tyres remain a modest 215-section and an S can be bought on Cup 2s - but the nose seems even keener to commit to an apex, more resistant to understeer, and better at communicating what grip is available. Which is nothing if not an auspicious start.
Though the R never feels any faster on circuit, with the same power and ratios as an S, the exhaust and interior changes have created a greater authenticity of sound. Less droney than standard, the R barks a cammy tune like an old Renault tarmac rally car. And you’re never going to need a car, realistically, any faster than this - 300hp is a lot to move 1,100kg. Any concerns that might have lingered about a flagship that costs so much more yet boasts not a single additional horsepower feel redundant when the R has punched its way to 140mph again. More power would need more rubber to contain it, which would need more weight, and yet more stiffness - and then the 1,082kg sports car would disappear.
A heavier R would never handle this well, either, even with all the technology in the world. Though drastically more capable than a standard car, it immediately feels familiar as an A110 as well: deft, lithe and agile in a way so few cars are. Obviously, it doesn’t float and glide in the way we've come to expect, yet it’s never punishingly stiff over kerbs either. There’s huge grip from the tyres alongside some genuine adjustability, the car willing to modify its line in a friendly fashion with a lift if you have barrelled in too fast or somehow overpowered the mighty brakes. The R isn’t one for gratuitous showboating, because the A110 never has been, though it’s pleasing to note that such a radical track overhaul hasn’t entirely ditched the accommodating character of the original.
The modifications for track use have undoubtedly made a difference, though. There’s confidence through high-speed turns like never before thanks to the aerodynamic upgrades, however modest the numbers seem, and almost endless braking performance - the pedal firm and resilient - with a new front end improving cooling by 20 per cent. The R feels like it could lap hard and fast for a long time, which the modest kerbweight obviously contributes to. That it’s a more enjoyable A110 on track, more precise, capable and communicative, while still retaining so much of the car’s endearing nature, is a huge achievement. Those that want a less nose-led balance, moreover (deliberately done to keep it safer for cack-handed journalists), could tinker underneath with the ZF dampers for a pointier, more expressive handling car. But, honestly, as evidence of just how good a lightweight, ruthlessly focused, mid-engined, rear-drive car can be on circuit, there can’t be many - if any - better.
Moreover, despite Alpine’s admission that the R is intended as a track car first and foremost, it’s a surprisingly accommodating thing on the road. As always, this must be caveated with driving it on Spanish tarmac in a haze of launch excitement, yet this is nowhere near as hardcore as something like a GT4 RS. While spring rates are up, anti-roll bars are stiffer and everything you’d expect of a road racer made firmer, it seems to ride with real aplomb - surely a benefit of the reduced unsprung mass. There’s a plushness and dexterity to the way it goes down the road that almost seems at odds with the look, comfortable and almost serene on a long motorway drive. It’s barely any noisier. Whatever journey you would take on in an A110 would be more than doable, potentially even more enjoyable, in the R. Only perhaps not for your passenger, as that second Sabelt seat is fixed in position.
On more challenging (if still very smooth) Spanish roads, the A110 R is an unmitigated joy; as small and nimble as ever but even more vivid as an experience. The steering is a real highlight, as is the car’s formidable ability to carry the speed generated by that gurgly 1.8, never relinquishing its purchase or flustered even in rapid direction changes. The R’s ability to blend comfort and control - on this experience, at least - suggests it has no equal. A GT4 is more punishing, generating more road noise and riding more sternly. An Emira simply isn’t this engaging.
Impossible then to arrive at any conclusion other than an overwhelmingly positive one - even with one eye on the price. It is, basically, a whole hot hatch more expensive than an A110 with no additional power; for some, the notion of paying £90k for a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder sports car when there are alternatives as compelling as the Cayman around simply won’t compute. That being said, the R delivers on the expectation that its price tag confers, elevating all that is good about an A110 onto another plane entirely. With those incredible carbon parts and rarity in its favour, too. That the UK’s 2023 allocation of Rs is sold out already should be no surprise; the bigger shock will be if the cars for 2024 are around for much longer. Look elsewhere for spec sheet bragging rights in a sports car; for sheer thrills behind the wheel, Porsche and Lotus have much to worry about. It’ll be one heck of a triple test to be sure, that’s for certain.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 ALPINE A110 R
Engine: 1,798cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 251@2,400-6,000rpm
0-62mph: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 177mph
Weight: 1,082kg (minimum kerbweight)
MPG: 40.3-41.5 (WLTP)
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