The lithe Alpine A110 proves that when it comes to sports cars, a little goes a very, very long way.
Photos: Jonathan Lim, Jaden Low, Niken Tok
Excess weight is not good for cars of any sort and no matter what sort of driver you are. It makes potentially fun cars dull, and turns efficiency machines into elephants.
There are ways to make a car go fast such as stuffing a nuclear bomb of an engine up front, or fitting the widest tyres you can squeeze into the wheelarches. But solutions like these are simplistic fixes that address only the symptoms of mass, not the condition itself.
Which brings me to the subject of this review, the new Alpine A110. You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of the brand – Alpine (say ‘Al-peen’) is a small Renault-owned company that made its own sports cars from the 1950s to the 1990s, then produced practically all high-performance Renaults thereafter.
The A110 marks Alpine’s revival; a two-seater, mid-engined, retro-tastic throwback to the rally-dominating A110 from the 1960s, engineered with weight saving as its core goal.
On paper it does have competition from the likes of its chief rival the Porsche 718 Cayman or the Lotus Elise – which also espouses the minimal weight/maximal drive concept – but the A110 really drives like nothing else on sale today.
Alpine is not alone in using lightweight to sell a car, although it does do it more holistically than most. Where other companies would “add” lightness to an existing model by stripping sound insulation, swapping in composite body panels and removing luxury conveniences, the A110 has lightness built into it from the get-go.
Not only are the chassis and body made from aluminium, but the engineers also went on a fanatical crusade to save weight everywhere they could. The windscreen washer bottle for instance, is half the size of a normal car’s (two kilos saved); the gorgeous Sabelt bucket seats are also half as heavy as a typical sports seat (13kg saved); and even the tiny brackets under holding the ABS sensor cables are made of aluminium rather than steel (a whopping seven grams saved per side).
The result is a kerbweight of just 1,094kg, the same as a little Honda Jazz, and astoundingly it’s 300kg less than the Cayman.
That allows the Alpine to outsprint the German to 100km/h, despite its 1.8-litre turbo engine (shared, but detuned from the similarly enthralling Renault Megane RS) being down 50hp (252hp) and 60Nm (320Nm) from the Cayman’s flat-four. In fact, such a modest power output has never felt more potent, hurling the little coupe towards the horizon with a ferocity approaching that of a pro race kart (which is to say, swear-out-loud rapid).
Such giant-killing punch is emblematic of how weight saving allows you to do more with less. Because there’s less mass to move around, you can optimise the engine, brakes, chassis and so on in a panoply of benefits.
The car handles with a deftness and delicacy that I’ve not ever personally experienced before. Its steering ratio is extremely quick, so much so that it’s possible to feed in too much lock the first time you attack a corner. It’s not difficult to get used to though, and you’ll soon be relishing the electric responses, and how the front end darts into turns as soon as you think of it. The car’s compactness makes it easy to be millimetre-precise, too.
Once you up the pace, the steering does feel a bit too light to inspire big confidence through fast direction changes, but it offers clarity and feel like no other new car on sale, gently wriggling in your hands over undulations and bumps. Grip is ultimately nowhere near limpet-like, but that’s a good thing as you get to feel the workings of the chassis beneath you rather than just the sheer road-holding of the tyres.
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Even if you do get too enthusiastic, the Alpine is startlingly benign, particularly for a mid-engined car. Exceed its limits and it breaks away in a friendly neutral slide (below) that can be caught with a tiny flick of the wrist, never instilling the fear of unceremoniously swapping ends and never putting you off exploring the full envelope of the car’s abilities.
The excitement factor is compounded by the soundtrack playing just centimetres behind your head – this is one of the most tuneful modern turbo four-pots thanks to unique induction tuning, and a variable exhaust that in Sport mode will parp, crackle and pop like someone’s stuffed firecrackers in the muffler.
And once you’ve had your fun and games, the Alpine settles down to become no more painful to ride in than a family hatchback. For all its poise and ability through the bends, the Alpine is more comfortable at a cruise than any sports car has a right to be, soaking up all manner of bumps beautifully.
Refinement is good too, with the exhaust note settling into a quiet sweet spot at Singaporean highway speeds. Here’s a sports car that would not only shine at Sepang, but would excel getting there too.
That’s partly also because despite its dinky footprint and focus on dynamics, the Alpine is not at all a spartan car. The sills are regular sized (unlike in a Lotus) so ingress and egress is manageable, there’s quilted leather, Alcantara and matte carbonfibre everywhere, and the cabin’s been made big enough for even two-metre-tall giants to fit.
That said, there is a noticeable lack of cubbies to store stuff inside the car – no door pockets or glovebox, though there is a leather pouch on the rear bulkhead, a tray underneath the console, and a nifty slot for a smartphone.
To get your hands on one of the purest-driving sports cars around will set you back just under S$240k without a COE. The more brand-conscious among you might note that the Cayman costs just S$35k more, is more powerful and carries the Porsche crest, but get this – what comes standard with the Alpine (cruise control, LED lights, sport/track mode selector, parking camera and sensors) total up to over $40k worth of optional extras in the Cayman.
Sure, you’d have to explain what an Alpine is to everyone you meet, but the chore of that is quickly superseded by the joy you get behind the wheel. When it comes to sports cars, the Alpine proves that less is very much more.
Alpine A110 Pure
|Engine||1,798cc, inline 4, turbocharged|
|Power||252hp at 6000rpm|
|Torque||320Nm at 2000rpm|
|Fuel Efficiency / VES||6.1 L/100km / C1|
|Price||S$238,800 without COE|