Renault Alpine A110

Debut: 2018
Maker: Renault
Predecessor: A110 Mk1 (1962)

 Published on 2 Feb 2018
All rights reserved. 

The glory of Alpine was associated with the earliest A110. Separated by 40 years, can the Mk2 repeat its magic?

As a fan of Renault Alpine, I have been waiting for this day too long - in fact, for a quarter of a century! The last time Alpine launched a new car, it was 1991. Poor sales killed the last breed of French sports car as well as the only other rear-engined sports car beside the 911. The Dieppe plant of Alpine was turned to build Clio V6 and then Renaultsport Clio and Megane. People started forgetting the glorious days of Alpine, which was ironically associated with the earliest A110. Although I have never seen an A110 in my life, history books told me it won world rally championships twice in the early 1970s and dominated Monte Carlo rally. No wonder Renault decided to use A110 as a blueprint for its revival.

The new production A110 is deliberately styled to resemble the original, not just the headlights and wraparound rear window but also the nose and the general profile. By today's standards, its teardrop shape and slim tail look a bit retro. It also looks incredibly compact and narrow for a modern sports car, just like the original. Somehow, it doesn't feel outdated or pretentious, unlike the last Ford GT or Dodge Challenger. Instead, it looks modern and dynamic at the same time, which is a magic I didn't expect. It proves that a fundamentally beautiful design stands the test of time. These days too many sports cars and grand tourers opt for over-the-top designs to mark themselves out of the crowd of competitors with similar dimensions and proportions. Unlike them, the A110 has a unique proportion thus it could stick with its formula and concentrate on refining the details. The result is a vibrant piece of art, a living sculpture and a new theme that unlocks our imagination from the current industrial stereotypes. Well done Renault !

Kerb weight is only 1080kg, or 255kg lighter than a Porsche 718.

At 4180mm long, 1798mm wide and 1252mm high, it is some 200mm shorter and 43mm lower than Porsche 718 Cayman, although it is only 3mm narrower. Like the Porsche but unlike its spiritual predecessor, it is mid-engined. The compact powertrain is placed transversely just ahead of the rear axle to achieve a weight distribution of 44:56. Kerb weight is only 1080kg for the base model, or 255kg lighter than a base Porsche 718. How can it be so light? Apart from the smaller dimensions, its chassis is fully made of riveted and bonded aluminum, while the body work comprises of aluminum sheets. Not quite as radical as Alfa 4C, but it is already a first for Renault. It goes without saying it is built on a dedicated platform - a rare example in Carlos Ghosn era.

Le Cost Killer did influence its powertrain design though. The engine is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder direct injection turbo based on the mass production Renault-Nissan unit. Despite bespoke intake, exhaust and turbocharger etc., output is a little disappointing to me at 252 horsepower and 236 lbft of torque, considering Peugeot manages 270hp from an even smaller 1.6-liter engine. However, this is just the starting point. Two other versions of the engine already offer 280hp and 300hp in the new Megane RS, and Alpine boss guarantees at least 300hp for a higher performance version to come in the near future, which is massive for a car so light. Even in the current form, the A110 already has a power-to-weight ratio eclipsing the base Porsche 718, although no match for the pricier 718 S.

Sitting next to the small engine is a Getrag 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Getrag builds some very good DCTs for Ferrari and BMW M cars but also some very bad ones, such as the one on Clio RS. Fortunately, the unit serving Alpine is a new design, and it employs wet clutches, so it can handle more torque and faster gearshfts. Gearshift is implemented through a pair of aluminum paddles fixed at the steering column, like Ferrari.

Despite its compact size it still manages to fit in double-wishbone suspensions at both axles.

The Alpine’s straight line performance is competitive rather than outstanding, I would say. It is quoted to top a regulated 155 mph and sprint from 0-60 mph in 4.3 seconds. The base Porsche 718 quotes slower time, but you know Porsche has always been conservative, whereas the same cannot be said to the French. The insanely powerful Audi TT RS tops the class in merely 3.6 seconds, while Alfa Romeo 4C needs 4.3. The Alfa is only 10 horsepower down but it is 150kg lighter still, thanks to carbon-fiber tub and its rawer finishing. I think the Alpine needs some tail wind to realize its promise.

As for top speed, 155 mph should be unquestionable, as the A110 has a small frontal area and a Cd of 0.32, pretty good for a sports car. To save weight and complication, it skips a retractable rear spoiler for a flat undertray and fully functional diffusers.

Its purist approach is also evident in the chassis design. All four corners ride on classic double-wishbone suspensions with lightweight forged aluminum control arms. Adaptive dampers are not offered, unusually, but the Alpine has well calibrated passive dampers and hydraulic bump stops. Very much like Lotus Elise, it makes good use of its lightweight and the superior geometry of double-wishbones, which keeps the wheels perpendicular to the road regardless of compression, to achieve great handling without resorting to stiff springs or adaptive dampers. The result is a superb handling and ride balance, which we shall see soon. It is remarkable that despite its compact size it still manages to fit in double-wishbone suspensions at both axles, while larger cars like Porsche 718 or wider cars like Alfa 4C all need to employ space-saving strut suspensions, which inevitably compromise ride and handling. Also like Lotus, the A110 employs relatively small wheels and narrow tires because they don’t have a lot of weight to handle.

People up to 6ft 7in will fit under the roof...

Weight saving was taken seriously in its development. For example, the Brembo brakes have aluminum calipers which incorporate electronic parking brake. The Sabelt one-piece bucket seats are very light at 13kg each, half the weight of the seats used on Megane RS. The cabin is minimalist, but it offers proper equipment, infotainment system and, most unexpectedly, generous space for a car so small. People up to 6ft 7in will fit under the roof as the seats are mounted low, and the highly adjustable steering wheel will suit anybody. Visibility is pretty good for a mid-engined car, thanks in part to the wraparound rear screen (why is it abandoned by so many cars these days?). The materials and standard of finish are not quite as high as Porsche or Audi, unquestionably, and it might be a little disappointed for the £50,000 asking price. However, it doesn’t feel boring or cheap either, as it is suitably stylish and trimmed with stitched leather, Alcantara, aluminum and carbon-fiber. Oh yes, the leather door pulls are more convincing than the fabric ones on Porsche GT cars.

The A110 is not a GT, so it has limited luggage space. The boot behind the engine compartment measures only 96 liters, while the 100-liter front boot is shallow due to the fuel tank located underneath. That said, it is a far more practical car to travel along than Lotus Elise or Alfa 4C. If you travel light, a cross-country blast over the weekend would be no problem. Its calmer cabin, devoid of creaks and rattles, is an equal of Porsche for refinement. It is also economical to run, as fuel consumption is nearly 20 percent lower than Porsche.

The engine is not especially charismatic, but it revs more sweetly to its 6750 rpm redline than Alfa’s 1750 engine, while its exhaust note, a pleasant howl finished with angry pops on overrun, is way more musical than the dreadful noise of the Porsche boxer-four. There is a touch more turbo lag than the latter, and throttle response is a little slower, but when its turbo picks up, the torque rushes and adds to the sensation of speed. By this time it feels fast enough to beat the Porsche, at least subjectively. The DCT is way better than Clio’s. Its ratios are well spaced and upshifts are fast, though downshifts are still no match for PDK.

It lets us rethink what makes a great sports car great.

What marks the Alpine out is the chassis. Its handling and ride is simply sensational. No, it won’t break Nurburgring records nor set new standards on cornering speed. On the contrary, it proves that you don’t need rock-steady body control or fat semi-slick tires to feel excited. The sensation here comes from not speed but the transparent feedback and the chassis’ willingness to obey your commands. In fact, the A110 rolls a lot more than a 718 in corner. Its suspension is much softer than its rival’s, thus its soaks up bumps effortlessly. However, the roll does not affect its balance, grip or the sharp steering at all, because the combination of lightweight body, low center of gravity and low polar moment of inertia mean little weight transfer (the double-wishbone suspension also helps). It just adds to the feedback to the driver. The car always feels lighter and more agile than Porsche. The steering is fast and precise but simultaneously progressive and uncorrupted, if not the most feelsome. On a challenging mountain road, its compactness gives you great confidence. Ditto its precise control and feedback. It suspension overcomes serious bumps that could unsettle the balance of a 4C or 718 as if nothing happens. Yes, very much like an Elise, just with added suspension travel and refinement.

On a circuit, where Porsche usually shines, the A110 is still very impressive. A slight understeer builds up before a fast corner. You can rely on its powerful brakes to shed speed. The tires don’t generate massive grip, but no problem, you can use steering and throttle to adjust the balance to neutral and oversteer. Because it feels so light and its mass is contained well within its wheelbase, you can place the car with millimeter accuracy, controlling its slip angle as beautifully as Toyota GT-86. The only difference is you get far more torque to play with, thus the operating window is much wider. It is one of the very few cars that feel thrilling to drive at both low and high speeds.

No wonder one motoring journalist described it like a GT-86 given more power, an MX-5 with better roll control and a Lotus Exige with lighter steering. I would add one more: a Lotus Elise and Alfa 4C without their compromises. To me, the A110's greatest achievement is that it truly understands what are essential to keen drivers these days, cuts the rest and optimizes all ingredients in an efficient package. It lets us rethink what makes a great sports car great. Rather than chasing numbers and lap time, it is time to return to the roots of motoring excitement.

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Kerb weight
Top speed
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A110 (Premier edition)
Mid-engined, RWD
Aluminum monocoque
4180 / 1798 / 1252 mm
2420 mm
1798 cc
DOHC 16 valves, DVVT
252 hp / 6000 rpm
236 lbft / 2000-5000 rpm
7-speed twin-clutch
All: double-wishbone
F: 195/40R17 (205/40R18)
R: 225/40R18 (235/40R18)
1080 (1103) kg
155 mph (limited)
4.3 (c)

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