Risky business, tampering with a five-star car. Alpine itself knows this as well as anybody - the faster, stiffer A110S earned only halogen reviews compared to the matrix LED acclaim the standard car met with a couple of years previously. They didn't glow as brightly, for in those tauter springs and chunkier anti-roll bars lay more conventional handling characteristics and a less distinctive sports car.
Might there be a middle ground, some happy place between the basic A110 and the harder A110S? That's precisely the spot former Jaguar Land Rover ride and handling engineer David Pook set off in search for. His own A110 (a Premiere Edition and therefore a very early car) was left alone for a short while, but Pook started fiddling with it before long. Today he offers aftermarket springs, wheels, gearshift paddles, an engine map, his own geometry settings, brake pads and even a carbon fibre lip spoiler for sale to Alpine owners in the UK and Europe under the Life110 banner.
Of course, this assessment of his uprated car is entirely self-serving - I just want to know if I should be making any changes to my own A110. The Alpine community in the UK remains a very small one, but I know many owners are pleased that somebody with such expertise in the field (Pook oversaw the development of the mighty Jaguar XE SV Project 8) is turning his know-how to this quirky little French sports car. Alpine ownership is a richer experience for it, whether you choose to make any changes to your car or not.
So what can he actually do for you? In standard guise, the A110 has what he describes as 'very conservative' wheel geometry settings, but lots of adjustability. His own toe and camber settings, says Pook, 'improve the steering connection and turn in, reduce the tendency for the car to wander on motorways and in cross winds and add stability on track'. He offers different geometry settings because some customers want just the wheel alignment, while others want that and the aftermarket springs. These settings can be downloaded from the Life110 website free of charge, although you'll need to pay a garage a low three-figure sum to have them dialled in.
Those springs are from Eibach, but to Pook's own specification. Working with the factory-spec dampers they're stiffer by 30 per cent compared to the basic A110 springs (the A110S parts, meanwhile, are 50 per cent firmer) and they lower the car by 16mm front and rear. They should sharpen up the handling response while also toughening up the way the car looks. I often think my own car looks a touch dainty with so much air between its tyres and arches. These springs cost £480 for the set and in spite of how much more purposeful they make the A110 appear, I'm wary. After all, mightn't toying with the car's signature fluidity on bumpy roads be a step too far?
The satin black Evo Corse 18-inch wheels are straight from the A110 Cup racing car. They're half an inch wider front and back than the standard A110 wheels of the same diameter and, being motorsport spec, they're stronger, too. That means they are slightly heavier, although only by 0.6kg a corner. They can be wrapped either in the standard A110 Michelin tyres (the Pilot Sport 4) or the slightly wider rubber from the A110S, which trade some wet-weather performance for more outright grip in the dry (they're also labelled Pilot Sport 4 but are actually closer in tread pattern and construction to the Pilot Sport 4S). The wheels cost £1,655.
The carbon fibre lip spoiler is borrowed from racing Alpines, too. It costs £949 and apparently increases downforce by 50kg at 124mph, improving high-speed stability. The engine remap has been developed in partnership with DMS, a renowned tuning company on the south coast. From 252hp and 236lb ft, the revised software bumps power and torque outputs up to 300hp and 280lb ft - substantial gains given the car's very modest weight. The objective has been to increase performance without complete changing the character of the engine: you should still want to chase the redline, in other words, rather than ride a huge swell of mid-range torque.
Engine remaps are controversial in the Alpine world. The 292hp A110S has no more torque, at least not on paper, than the A110. Because, says Alpine, the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox isn't rated for any more than 236lb ft. Owners will have to make their own minds up on this one. Multi-national OEMs like Groupe Renault tend to be very conservative with things like transmission lifing. What's more, there are plenty of tuned A110s running around with much more than 236lb ft of torque and, as yet, there have been no reported gearbox failures. DMS will come to you to remap your A110 at a cost of £990, and they'll reinstall the map as many times as is necessary for the first three years free of charge.
The Performance Friction front brake pads cost £160 and are more durable, says Pook, than the standard pads on circuit. Finally, the factory gearshift paddles, which are cast items, can be replaced by a pair of CNC machined paddles that are longer by 20mm top and bottom, 10mm closer to the steering wheel (exactly matching the gap between the Ferrari 488 Pista's wheel and paddles) and with a sharper edge for a more tactile feel. These cost £225 and take five minutes to fit.
You notice the sharper, more responsive steering first. Whereas my car has a slight fuzziness about its steering around the straight ahead, the Life110 car is far more immediate, but without being artificially so. With more camber front and rear there will also be greater cornering grip, although you'd need a race track to identify the difference. Pook runs quite extreme geometry settings on his car because he also has the lower ride height and the stickier tyres with their firmer sidewalls - without those, you can only fiddle with geo settings so much.
On firmer springs there is, inevitably, a shade more patter to the ride quality. You do suddenly feel the tiny little lumps and bumps in the road surface that the standard car smothers very effectively. It's never tiresome, though. Cleverly, even with its reduced ride height and firmer springs, the Life110 car still skips lightly over very rough sections of tarmac and it's still expressive in the way it rolls in corners and squats down under acceleration. That means the standard car's basic dynamic character hasn't been eroded altogether, which for me is a very important point. Pook's car still feels like an A110, albeit with more control and precision when you really up your pace. On circuit, where the standard car can feel a touch ponderous, I suspect these uprated springs would make a world of difference.
Nonetheless, my car's very exaggerated way of rolling in bends and rising and falling in sympathy with the shape of the road, not to mention its very plush ride quality, is the reason I love it so much. Those things make it fun to drive even at moderate speeds and unusually comfortable in everyday use, too. I was also hesitant about the brake pad upgrade because the pedal feel on my car is exemplary - I'd hate to lose that. I also haven't used my car on track yet and so have had no need for more durable stoppers. However, the pedal feel on Pook's car was very good as well. For track use, I suspect these Performance Friction pads are a must-have.
With its grippier tyres and tauter body control, this uprated A110 has substantially more cross-country pace than my car. Is that a good thing? It isn't for me, but others will feel differently. Of course, it's the extra power that makes the Life110 machine much faster in a straight line and along a road. You do still use the engine like you would in the stock car, though, running each gear out to the rev limiter. It's through the final 2,000rpm or so that you feel the remapped engine pulling significant harder. I've also tried a Litchfield-tuned A110 with even more torque. It felt explosively accelerative through the mid-range by comparison - but also very different in character to the standard car. At least now there are options.
Meanwhile, the gearshift paddles are very good indeed. Their extra length means you never have to reach awkwardly for them, even with a quarter turn of steering lock on (they're attached to the column rather than the wheel), and they don't get in the way either of the volume control or the wheel itself. The much sharper, blade-like edge reminded me of the paddles on a Lamborghini and made my rounder, blunter shifters feel toy-like by comparison (but the satisfyingly clicky paddle action is unchanged).
I suspect that as long as my car is under warranty and I'm paying it off on the drip, it will remain in more or less factory specification. I'm planning to keep it for a very long time (unforeseen changes in my own circumstances notwithstanding) and so I feel no rush whatsoever to begin fiddling with it now. I'll save that for later in its life, perhaps when it's no longer my everyday car. When it spends far more time in a garage than out on the road, maybe I'll want it to be faster, grippier, tauter and more uncompromising. We'll see. Sounds like a great way to rekindle the love affair a few years down the road.
But those gearshift paddles? Slightly more purposeful geometry? New brake pads? Maybe I'll do those things sooner rather than later. All the other upgrades are exceptionally well-judged. When bundled together, they make the A110 a fearsomely rapid and seriously capable machine, but without completely undermining what it is that makes the standard car so wonderful to drive. Most of all, I think it's brilliant that Alpine owners now have the choice.
Car: Alpine A110
Run by: Dan P
On fleet since: November 2019
Mileage: 7,203 (delivered on 25)
List price new: £46,910 (price as tested £51,494, comprised of Metallic Thunder Grey paint £780; 18-inch Fuchs forged wheels £1656; Brembo high performance brakes £936; lightweight Focal audio £552; parking sensors front and rear £660)
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