RACING ROAD TEST: France’s answer to Porsche Cayman
WHAT? Another new car brand for Australia? The market may be saturated but it's hard not to welcome the new Alpine A110 with open arms.
Alpine - Renault's sporty sub-brand - has delivered an enchanting sports coupe with a drive experience that's both rare and welcome. Unquestionably beautiful in its tiny proportions, the elegant Frenchie is flush with ingredients to seduce driving enthusiasts.
Extensive use of aluminium for the chassis, body and suspension allows it to tip the scales at just 1103kg, making it some 360kg lighter than its Porsche 718 Cayman rival, and close in mass to the Lotus Exige, a car not known for everyday usability.
With mid-rear mounted engine, rear-wheel drive and smart suspension that increases the rewards the harder you push, the two-seater sweetens the deal with beguiling retro styling and cabin comfort a notch up from track-specific sports cars.
Most won't be familiar with Alpine, the brand that won the 1973 World Rally Championship with its Renault-engined A110, and this modern interpretation blends exquisitely the design charm of the old with modern flashes.
Cherrypicking cues from its stylish 1960s heritage, the A110 uses twin front headlights, distinctive Alpine bonnet spine and tiny wraparound rear screen. A completely flat underside and rear diffuser mean that it needs no garish spoiler, which would sully the clean design of the impossibly low rear.
The French can be accused, often and fairly, of putting form before function in cars but the A110's drive experience is truly joyous. It's a grin-giver to drive as well as behold.
The launch edition is limited to 60 examples (of which 42 have already sold). Called the Australian Premiere Edition, it's yours for $106,500 before on-roads.
Not cheap but plenty of deposits are down. Cheaper Pure and Legend grades (from $97,000) are due in March.
The original Alpine A110 was a legend on the snowy Monte Carlo Rally. Having a first road test at a chilly Targa High Country (it was -2C at the Mt Buller start line) in the modern equivalent made perfect sense once the ice was scraped from the windows.
From the first few corners, it became clear Alpine has prioritised fun and driver connection. It feels properly lightweight as it shifts direction rapidly, playfully twitching its back end as the eager turbo engine feeds the skinny rear tyres.
By no means powerful by modern standards, it borrows Renault Sport's 1.8-litre boosted four-cylinder from the Megane RS, retuned to 185kW/320Nm - but this is enough to launch the svelte coupe from rest to 100km/h in 4.5 seconds.
In its favour, its power-to-weight ratio matches that of a Cayman S, it sounds better and it darts across the road with more agility than the weightier German (though you shouldn't forget the fit, finish, luxury and all-round Teutonic brilliance of the Porsche's drive experience).
The Alpine, however, feels more approachable. It's done the sprint and gym training but also taken extra-curricular ballet classes.
It helps you flow through corners as it all feels so light and the suspension pleasingly soft, absorbing the bumps via double-wishbone suspension with coil springs at each end.
Push too hard and there's a bit of body roll; grip can run out on the skinny rubber but it never surprises you.
It's a good communicator through the sharp steering and flatly refuses to scare its driver by doing anything vulgar like flinging the back end out without ample warning.
The engine has decent turbo shove but you need to select Sport or Track mode to give the dual-clutch transmission a hurry on: in Normal mode it's a lazy thing.
These sportier settings also sharpen throttle and steering response, add some crackles and pops to the exhaust and loosen stability control tolerances while still providing a safety net.
The A110 will appeal to a certain type of purist so the absence of a manual gearbox option is a surprise, especially with such a focus on weight saving.
The auto transmission and reasonably compliant ride add to the A110's potential as a daily drive, more so than the likes of a Lotus - but you have to tolerate the comically tiny (but anticipated) luggage compartments front and rear.
This being the Premiere Edition, cabin inclusions aren't bad. Sporty touches include lightweight leather Sabelt seats (height adjustable only with a tool kit), digital dash, satnav, climate control, cruise control, smartphone mirroring and lap timer with telemetry data.
Space is ample for two but storage is wanting inside. Paddle-shifters are mounted on the column rather than steering wheel, making gear changes tricky in corners.
Some of the switchgear and hard plastics feel a bit too "Renault" at this price, while not much active safety gear and just two airbags and aren't ideal.
Most is forgiven as you go weak over the elegant French curves or head out on your favourite stretch of mountain pass.
The Alpine A110 is delightfully niche and delivers old-school lightweight driving thrills so rare these days. Not everyone can afford a slimline French supermodel but the rewards are obvious.
Alpine A110 Australian Premiere Edition
Price: $106,500 plus on-roads
Safety: Not rated, two airbags
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl turbo, 185kW/320Nm
0-100km/h: 4.5 secs