Turn up in France on July 14—Bastille Day, the Gallic nation’s answer to our Fourth of July—and les expressions du français will come at you rapid-fire. And should the next day happen to be the one on which the national team of this most proudly patriotic of nations finally wins soccer’s World Cup for the first time in 20 years, as happened last July, be assured the country will really let its hair down.
When you arrive in a town driving a new Renault Alpine A110, incredibly, the effect is magnified, as we found out moments after the French team’s great win. We were attempting to thread the distinctively blue two-seater through the streets of Arcachon, a resort destination on France’s south Atlantic coast. Stopped dead in single-lane traffic but also cheek to jowl with some of the commune’s most exuberant partisans, many if not all eyes were upon the Alpine, Renault’s extraordinary modern tribute to Jean Rédélé’s famous original rally-winning A110 stormer of the early 1960s and late ’70s.
Rédélé hopped up lowly Renault 4CVs in the ’50s, and from those humble origins he created the Alpine marque in 1954. What Rédélé ultimately wrought with Alpine is a kind of funkier French Lotus, with a racing and rally history ultimately supporting—and being supported by—road cars powered almost exclusively by Renault. Renault’s close association with Alpine became complete when it acquired the business in 1973. That same year Alpine-Renault won the inaugural World Rally Championship Manufacturers’ Championship running the original A110.
Larger, more comfortable, and more practical than its namesake—different yet strongly reminiscent—the new A110 was revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2017. The second coming of Alpine’s greatest hit, it was eagerly awaited by enthusiasts the world over, even in America, where it will not be sold. The latter fact borders on tragic because the new Alpine is not only a hoot to drive but is also a fully resolved automotive proposition.
After we landed in Paris but before we got caught up in the World Cup festivities, we drove this Alpine A110 500 miles south to the verdant, sun-dappled hills of Gascony, then on to the coast and the mob scene. The Alpine first distinguishes itself by being almost unique in conception. The French, once known for such things, do “weird” less and less these days, but the new A110 represents a highly credible and long overdue return to idiosyncratic form.
The last model badged strictly as an Alpine was the rear-engine A610, which finished rolling off lines in 1995. Unlike those last cars and their predecessors, which employed fiberglass body panels and a slight backbone chassis—a formula that doesn’t cut it in these days of side- and offset-crash testing—the reimagined A110’s chassis and body are constructed almost entirely of bonded and riveted aluminum.
With stylistic nods to the signature roofline and rear windscreen treatment of the old A110—the essential Alpine, looks-wise—this new one squarely captures the look of the original.
The new car’s 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine is a product of the corporate Nissan-Renault Alliance. Small but potent, it makes a big, gruff noise when prodded, more muscular than its size suggests. Mounting the engine behind the driver flies in the face of convention, as does the A110’s decidedly rearward-biased weight distribution (a claimed 44/56 split). An independent wishbone suspension, designed to help the A110 achieve a strong ride and handling balance, is in effect here, even though such a design too often seems to fall by the wayside when carmakers start looking to pare cost.
Possibly most trailblazing of all, however, is the Alpine’s modest weight. At 2,381 pounds, it keeps company with what is nowadays a rarefied and shrinking cohort. The rewards of minimalism in terms of poundage are instantly obvious, accounting for a performance that belies the Alpine’s humble displacement by making the most of its 249 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. Sixty mph comes up in less than 4.5 seconds. There’s sufficient steam to hit 155 mph, making the A110 rapid enough for most every occasion—and it’s relatively efficient to boot. At a hair less than $70,000, this special car definitely flies as a certain type of value proposition.
Aerodynamics help. In homage to the original A110 Berlinette (1961–77), engineers worked in the wind tunnel to avoid having to fit an ungainly rear spoiler, which they accomplished by employing an undercar diffuser located aft of a single-sheet, all-aluminum floor. Up front, the Alpine’s radiator lies back at an angle, allowing the car’s nose to sit that much lower to the ground, nearer than would have been possible in a front-engine car. There’s room for a fair amount of soft luggage in the front and rear trunks. With stylistic nods to the signature roofline and rear windscreen treatment of the old A110—the essential Alpine, looks-wise—this new one complies with strict EU crash and deformability standards. Yet it squarely captures the look of the original.
Beginning what would morph into a 1,300-mile, weeklong odyssey in the Alpine, we left the factory showroom in Boulogne-Billancourt, on the western outskirts of Paris, and headed for the quaint and tiny hamlet of Lagraulet-du-Gers, population approximately 400. During those first few hundred miles, the Alpine showed it could handle traffic well, and despite its diminutive size and modest displacement, it was fully up to the task of consuming big distances in grand-touring style. Road noise was low, power revelatory without being excessive, and the seats were unexpectedly comfortable in spite of their sporty shape and stunningly light and elegantly simple construction. At about 29 pounds each, they weigh about half that of a typical car seat.
Doors that close with authority and quilted upholstery finished in black with decent dash and interior plastics elevate the Alpine’s interior well above the kit-car/parts-bin connotations that might once have clung to the brand. Its air conditioning is strong on a hot day, and the digital dash display is easy to read and works without annoying glitches. Three different screen views correspond to preset Comfort, Sport, and Track settings, which govern power, shifts, and chassis characteristics.
Grand touring is precisely what it felt like when we checked into the Hôtel Le Castel Pierre de Lagraulet. An exquisite boutique hotel with just five guest rooms, it has been lovingly recommissioned from an old castle that had fallen into disrepair. The couple behind the effort, like Alpine, seem to have figured out how to combine the best of the old world with our favorite modern conveniences in a seamless and appealing way. Hammering down country lanes, passing through rolling farm fields filled with hectare after hectare of yellow sunflowers and endless rows of neatly tended grape vines: The beauty of it all, in concert with the Alpine’s magical chassis and frisky affect, proves inspiring.
As we pulled into Fourcès for lunch on Bastille Day, half the patrons in an outdoor restaurant where we stopped for a trouser-busting lunch of slow-cooked lamb, eggplant, and sheep’s cheese poured out into the town square to admire the Alpine. They were delighted to see the car in the metal, surprised to see it being driven by an American, but filled with pride.
Again we come back to weight, which may be, along with lines that strike us as very fresh in this homogenized age of automotive design, the Alpine’s most remarkable achievement. This statistic amazes: An A110 carries almost 600 fewer pounds than a Porsche 718 Cayman, a car the new model comes as close to in conception as anything. Dynamically, the Alpine exhibits all the benefits of feathery weight with remarkably few of the demerits. Most surprising is its sense of rigidity and solidity. There are no rattles and little wanting in the way of comfort and convenience next to the Porsche, arguably the gold standard in less-than-stratospherically priced, mid-engine, two-seat sports cars.
Like the Cayman, the A110 offers a delectable degree of steering precision with the sort of feel we thought pretty much no longer existed. It intoxicates on secondary country roads, a right-sized car with superb balance and bags of power, readily accessed via its intuitive and agreeable paddle-shifted Getrag seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Yet it’s also fully up to the task of turning French autoroutes into mincemeat, going as fast as you or your license dare. A passing bird said that 100 mph equates to only about 3,700 rpm in the Alpine, which is pretty relaxed and all the more remarkable for its 1.8 liters.
Unlike so many cars that seek to capitalize on their heritage without the slightest grounds, the Alpine A110 actually extends Jean Rédélé’s philosophy into the 21st century, using the latest technology and engineering smarts to pursue the goal of reduced weight in the name of sports-car fun. If that doesn’t make you get up and want to sing “La Marseillaise,” nothing will.
2018 Alpine A110 Specifications
|ON SALE||Now (not in U.S.)|
|PRICE||$70,000 (base, est)|
|ENGINE||1.8L turbocharged DOHC 16 valve I-4/249 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 236 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H||164.6 x 70.8 x 48.3 in|
|0–60 MPH||4.5 sec (est)|