Every so often, a sports car comes along that is so brilliantly judged, so entertaining, so pure of purpose and just so darn perfect that its very existence should be celebrated. If nothing else, to celebrate the fact that some car manufacturers still care about making cars that matter to keen drivers.
It might surprise you to learn that this car doesn’t have 1,000hp, doesn’t cost several million dollars and isn’t Italian. Rather, the Alpine A110 (pronounced ahl-peen, by the way) has just 252hp from a tiny 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder motor, costs SGD238,800 without COE and is French.
Yes, we did have a few niggles with it, mainly concerning the fiddly, low-rent infotainment system and the stubborn persistence on Renault’s part (Alpine is a wholly owned subsidiary) in using the stubby ear-shaped remote located on the steering column.
There’s also the infuriating way its narrow central storage cubby is located underneath a floating centre console and made even harder to access by its proximity to the bucket seats with their high seat cushion bolsters.
To drive, however, the A110 is sheer, unfiltered screaming brilliance. Because it’s a product of Renault Sport’s genius (who we maintain are pretty much the only people in the automotive industry that actually care about making good drivers’ cars), the ride quality in the A110 is sublime.
The initial impression is one of firmness, but just beneath that, there’s a feeling of remarkable suppleness. While you do feel bumps in the road and midcorner, the A110 lets in just enough to know they’re there, but stops well short of letting said imperfections upset the car’s balance.
Of course, the car’s relative lack of weight (tipping the scales at 1,094kg) helps here, as does its ultra-rigid aluminium underpinnings. This allows the suspension to get on with doing the work of, uh, suspending the car instead of having to compensate for added pounds or chassis flex.
Scratch a little deeper or spend a little more time with the car and you’ll realise the A110 has the sort of delicacy and finesse to its ride quality that you’d normally only find on million-dollar supercars. And all, as Alpine is so keen to stress, without the help of adaptive dampers.
To say nothing of the sort of fun you’ll have in it. In fact, we’ll go so far as to say the A110 is more fun than any supercar, and that’s not because the A110 has tear-your-face-off-with- 700hp pace. Well, that’s not to say the A110 is slow, but its 0-100km/h time of 4.5 seconds is, in this day and age, brisk at best.
Anyway, you’ll have more fun in the A110 than any 700hp monster because, unless you’re blessed with the ability of a Formula One driver, you’ll never even come close to a supercar’s limits.
It’s more than likely you’ll hit the wall of your ability (or an actual wall, for that matter) far sooner than you would in the Alpine. Which brings us to our next point— how exploitable the A110 is. In that how easy it is to read the car.
The helm is deadly accurate, the brakes easy to modulate and most entertaining of all, you can adjust its attitude mid-corner on the throttle as much as you can with the steering. There’s a distinct sense that with the A110, you get out of it exactly what you put in, and that, we think is its biggest triumph.
Sure, a more skilled driver could make the car really dance, but even if you aren’t blessed with Lewis Hamilton’s talent, the A110 is still a deeply enjoyable thing. That’s a rarity these days, especially in some performance cars, where you feel the car’s electronics is working harder (mainly to tame those big, headline-grabbing power figures) than the person behind the wheel.
To be certain, there are some electronics in the A110, though it’s telling that the most complicated of its driving-related electronics is probably its parking sensors. Actually, there is its stability control that shuts off while the car is in Track mode.
There’s also a Sport mode if you want to keep the stability control system on, but want that sweet, sweet exhaust crackle and quicker gearshifts.
Since we’re here, we’d also like to bring up how the A110 has quite possibly the best Sport mode of any modern performance car. Some carmakers think that making the throttle incredibly sensitive and throwing out any semblance of modulation is a good thing.
Alpine doesn’t seem to think so, and neither do we.
Now, take a moment to stop and appreciate how all the above factors contribute to making the A110 such a special car. Alpine has resolutely refused to engage in the horsepower arms race that so defines the modern performance car sphere and instead has chosen to make a car more fun to drive.
In all fairness, there have been other cars that have tried to do the same. The Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ made a brave attempt, but both cars are just gagging for more power; ditto for the Mazda MX-5.
There’s always the Lotus Elise with its blend of pared-back lightness and exemplary ride, but you have to ask yourself how much you can live without creature comforts… like a semi-decent air-conditioning system and carpets. And how much of a contortionist you are in order to clamber in and out of it.
Or the Alfa Romeo 4C, but with that car, you’d best know what you’re doing. Its short wheelbase, brutish power delivery and nervy, unassisted steering rack doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
The only cars that come close are the Porsche Boxster and Cayman. But while they set the benchmark for quality interiors and a forgiving chassis that will make you feel like a driving god, they can feel a little sterile.
And that leaves us with the Alpine. It doesn’t excel in any one particular aspect or grab you in any particular way, but the sum of the car is greater than its parts. More crucially, nothing about the way the A110 drives feels like a cynical move. You do get the feeling the people who made the A110 really care about what people who love driving want and delivered on that.
If you were to put a gun to our heads and asked us to choose between the A110 and a multi-million dollar hypercar, we’d go for the blue French one in a heartbeat. Yes, it’s that good.