EVER SINCE JEAN REDELE’S curious little sports car company was wound down more than 20 years ago – for good, as far as anybody could tell – the Alpine name has faded from consciousness like tail lights slipping into the mist. The last A610 rolled off the Dieppe production line in 1995, the company fatally short of the investment it needed to keep pace with ever more demanding crash and safety regulations.
In the two decades that have followed, the very concept of a French sports car has become every bit as obscure as the Alpine name itself. Today, French performance cars are based on very normal hatchbacks, and they’re almost always front-wheel drive. Proper sports cars come from Germany, Britain or Italy, or perhaps from the other side of the globe, but not from France. In some ways the Alpine brand never went away.
A nutty core of enthusiasts has kept A610s, GTAs, A310s and earlier Berlinettes running over the years, the pocket-sized A110 becoming a fixture on classic rallies across Europe. Most significantly, though, Alpine’s factory at Dieppe has continued to develop and manufacture performance cars. And while those cars have all been badged ‘Renault Sport’ since 1995, the Alpine name has always been splashed across the walls of the factory and the clothing of the workforce, as though waiting until the time was right. Which is now.
Unveiled in road-going, production form to the press and public at the Geneva motor show, the new A110 is a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive two-seater. With a bespoke aluminium body and extensive weight-saving measures it’s very lightweight, while its 249bhp turbocharged four-cylinder engine should sling it along every bit as quickly as a drivercentric sports coupe needs to go. Alpine (pronounced ‘Al-peen’) was bailed out by Renault in 1974 and the French giant still owns the marque to this day. It’s therefore with the backing of a multinational corporation – and its production expertise and economies of scale and unimaginable research and development resources – that Alpine makes its comeback today.
‘There’s a real pride both within the many employees of the Renault Group and in France and abroad for this brand,’ says Alpine managing director Michael van der Sande. ‘It instills passion. It’s a huge responsibility [to bring the brand back] and we take it very seriously. We’re trying to do justice to the original Alpines of the past with a lightweight sports car that’s hopefully going to be as much fun to drive as the original A110 was.’
Reviving the A110 name was ultimately a simple decision, van der Sande explains, because the principles between the old and new versions are the same, despite being separated by half a century. ‘A very lightweight sports car that punches above its weight in terms of performance is very relevant, not just in the ’60s and 70s, but also today,’ he says.
The engineering team behind the A110 were fanatical about weight, which yielded a 1103kg total. The class-leading Porsche 718 Cayman, benchmarked by Alpine’s engineers throughout the development process, is more than 230kg heavier. The A110’s aluminium structure alone is reckoned to save 180kg compared to a steel one, while the very compact dimensions – the A110 is 20cm shorter than a Cayman – have also helped to keep weight down. Chief engineer David Twohig admits he lost a night’s sleep toying with the idea of fixing the passenger seat in position. Eventually, he decided the 500g saving wouldn’t have been worth the inconvenience.
The engine is a 1.8-litre, single-turbo direct-injection unit. It will appear in forthcoming Renault models, so isn’t unique to Alpine. Power is rated at 249bhp and torque at 236lb ft, which means the A110 has a Cayman-rivalling power-to-weight ratio of 224bhp per ton (the Porsche has 225bhp per ton). Power is sent to the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, with no option of a manual transmission. There’s no limited-slip differential either, but the rear brakes are used to mimic the effect of one.
With double-wishbone suspension at all corners, the A110 has a more sophisticated chassis setup than the Cayman, which features MacPherson struts on both axles. The Alpine’s steering, meanwhile, is electrically assisted, like the Porsche, but with the motor mounted on the column rather than the rack. On this occasion that’s the less sophisticated method. The very well executed styling of the car is clearly influenced by the shape of the original A110, including a tail that falls away from the rear screen.
That profile is certain to generate aerodynamic lift at speed, but rather than solve the problem by attaching an ungainly wing or incorporating a complicated, expensive pop-up spoiler, Alpine has used the underside of the car to generate downforce, almost eradicating lift at the rear. The bottom of the car is completely flat with eight strakes to direct air through the rear diffuser.
Despite the car’s modest dimensions, there’s enough headroom for van der Sande to sit comfortably; at six-foot-seven he represents the 99.9th percentile for height. The lightweight Sabelt bucket seats can be adjusted up and down with the correct tools, dropping very close to the floor in their lowest setting to give a near-perfect seating position. The rear storage compartment is big enough to swallow two helmets, while the shallow front boot can take a pair of airline cabin suitcases.
The Brembo brakes feature 320mm discs at the front, with four-piston calipers. Brembo has incorporated the parking brake into the rear calipers to save as much as 2.5kg, this being the first application of that technology. Alpine quotes a 0-62mph time of 4.5sec with a top speed of 155mph, but the A110 isn’t about raw performance. ‘We’re probably not going to be quickest on circuit,’ says Twohig, ‘but we have to be the most agile.’
The tyre is a 17-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4, rather than the grippier 4S, because Twohig wants the car to be playful at medium and low speeds: ‘The car slides relatively easily. It isn’t all about grip.’ The A110 has various drive modes and an intermediate setting for the stability control, which can be switched off completely. The car in these pictures is the launch-spec Premiere Edition, which gets 18-inch wheels and satnav as standard, although all 1955 examples have already sold out.
The A110 is expected to cost less than £50,000 when it arrives in the UK early next year, where it will initially be sold through six or eight strategically located Renault dealerships. Twenty-two years is an awfully long time for a sports car company to lie dormant, but Renault’s timing could hardly be better. The wider performance car sector has become wrapped up in big power outputs and straight-line speed; a pretty little two-seater that prioritises fun over figures comes as welcome relief. If the A110 drives as good as it looks, Alpine’s return will be a triumphant one.