There's a quandary apparent in trying to create an A110 with what Alpine call a "more intense" driving experience. Because the joy of the standard car was its very un-intense nature; the way it flowed down a road, seemingly gliding with insouciant ease over roads that would thud and thump through more stiffly suspended cars. Drive an M2 Competition over a stretch of tarmac back to back with an Alpine, and you'll wonder if the road hasn't suddenly become layered with Rubik's Cubes. Big ones.
Therefore the prospect of a sports car from Dieppe with 50 per cent stiffer springs, 100 per cent stiffer anti-roll bars, a lower ride height and more power doesn't seem as immediately appealing as it might. The concern is that in chasing lap times, a track day crowd and the more focussed German alternatives, the very character traits that make an Alpine an Alpine (and also so very good) could have been lost. It was a brave move to go against the grain with the standard car; could the S be an unwise one in going with it?
Alpine is naturally keen to suggest that it's not. Newly appointed MD Patrick Marinoff describes the A110 S as a car that keeps the "key ingredients" of the non-S, a range addition that's "true to the recipe, but with more spice", and a vehicle that offers a "new flavour, not an entirely new car." With those thoughts in mind (and everyone suddenly a lot hungrier), Estoril looms in the early morning sunshine...
It takes little more than the pit exit curve to establish the A110 S as tangibly more serious a product than the base car. The lower ride height, albeit only 4mm, combined with slightly wider front and rear Pilot 4 Michelins (of a stickier compound than usual) conspire to give the S a turn-in bite never knowingly absent from the standard car. The steering maybe feels a touch more detailed, the ride already more involved - imagine what it might do with some proper corners.
It's great, at the most basic appraisal, the A110 S retaining much of the standard car's suppleness while injecting a double shot of precision and finesse that could sometimes see the Alpine feel lost on track. The mass can still be manipulated, though now more accurately, and seemingly without fear of the car abandoning its body control. Moreover, the gearbox is responsive, the brakes excellent and the newly tweaked 1.8 turbo - the same torque spread over a wider band and near-as-makes-no-difference 300hp - gives proper performance, the S easily surpassing 140mph down Estoril's main straight.
Combine that with the newfound appetite for apexes and the A110 S is a proper hoot. By better tying down that minuscule kerbweight every direction change feels so urgent, any subtle adjustments to line having an immediate and pronounced effect. You adjust, the car adjusts, without delay or gimmick - only a transparent, welcome stream of communication through hands, feet and rump.
It's easy to forget what a decent track starting point the A110 makes - remember that it has a one-make racer and a successful GT4 entrantbased off its platform already. The A110 S isn't quite the ideal circuit car, though. The balance has been altered a little more towards understeer at the limit; a lower, stiffer car breaking away in a similar fashion to standard wouldn't be as manageable, so it makes sense, though here it can feel a little too pushy, like the front end can't dig in. That said, that could be changed with something as simple as a geometry tweak, or indeed a modification in driving style - those who passengered with Laurent Hurgon certainly had no understeer complaints.
Would an LSD improve the 110? Alpine says not, the car intended to be "driven by lightness" and adding a hunk of differential out back not worth the extra weight over the gains already offered by new tyres, suspension and retuning of the driver assists. There's the odd occasion its presence would surely be welcomed out of a few of the slower corners, but by and large Alpine seems to have made the right call. Yet the curiosity never entirely abates...
But let's be honest: anybody could stiffen up a sports car and make it fun to drive around an old Grand Prix track. The real test for the A110 S is on the road, where the standard car proved so wonderful and where all the upgrades would suggest this new car simply can't match its lithe, lucid, joyous dynamism.
Put it this way: there'll be no mistaking the two. In the same way that the difference was immediately obvious on track, so it also feels on the road - and not for good reasons. The S initially feels abrupt in a way that Alpines never have, its tautness loitering somewhere near irritatingly firm as it jostles with the surface. Nothing harsher than that ever materialises, though. While the dampers have been retuned to match the spring stiffening, the changes aren't as drastic; the S retaining a civil composure that means it never crashes or jars. It's certainly more tense than a standard Alpine, which does rob it of some of that easygoing charm, but it's liveable once over the initial surprise and expertly done. Hours in those Sabelt seats proved no hardship, certainly.
The trade-off is a fizzier, livelier, more energetic Alpine experience. Which is great. Because this remains, obviously, a very small (4,180mm long) and very light (1,107kg with the lightweight bits) sports car, of which there are now precious few, and a wonderful reminder of why they're so good: roads seem larger, tyres last longer on track, fuel lasts longer everywhere. As it was before, really, only now the A110 S darts with greater eagerness into bends, displays additional composure through them and puts the extra power down better on the way out. All while still feeling distinctly related to the A110 we already know and love.
A triumph, then? Broadly speaking, yes. While those with designs on doing nothing more than road driving in their A110 will still be best served by the standard model, any prospective buyer with occasional track use in mind - or indeed more spirited road driving - has to go for the more expensive S. With a marked improvement in handling sharpness enabled by a tolerable sacrifice in ride comfort, this is the most rewarding Alpine yet for keen drivers - which is saying something given the bar already set. Put simply, there's not a bad Alpine, just variations on an exceptionally good theme depending on what you're after. And anyone after a £50,000 sports car of any kind, assuming the Alpine's practical compromises can be endured, really can't surpass an A110, be that as standard or this as a more intense S. The choice is yours...
SPECIFICATION - ALPINE A110S
Engine: 1,798cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 292@6,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 239@2,000-6,400rpm
Top speed: 162mph
Weight: 1,114kg (1,107kg with forged wheels and carbon roof)