While American heads understandably spun right around last year for the launch of a new Corvette, the gear-minded craniums of Europe began swiveling more than a year earlier, when they got their first real chance to gaze at France’s reborn Alpine A110. There are important comparisons to be made between these two mid-engine, two-seat emblems of national pride. But unlike the new Chevrolet, whose layout stuck a fork in 67 years of American front-engine muscle history, Alpine’s latter-day tribute to the A110 Berlinette of 1961-1977—the French underdog’s most famous model—didn’t really displace anything. Because, Alpine, an on-again, off-again brand for longtime owner Renault, hadn’t actually offered a car for sale in more than two decades. And the ones it did sell, back in the day, were kind of weird anyway.
Having just completed a 750-mile jaunt in a new-for-2020 “S” high-performance version of the A110—Paris to Lyon and back, with a day trip to the French Alps stuck in the middle—we’re here to say Alpine is back and, mes amis, it was worth the wait. For as much as the worthy new Corvette will coax thousands into the 21st Century with its mid-engine layout and heavily aluminum architecture, the lighter and even more aluminum-intensive mid-engine Alpine spun our heads harder, satisfying us in a way that ought to resonate with discerning enthusiast populations everywhere. On the mountain roads leading to the French Alps, humble 1.8-liter engine or no, the Alpine has that rare feel of something focused and very special. Not to get too exuberant too fast, but the Alpine A110S is a truly great sports car in real-world driving.
It’s a relative bargain, too. An Alpine A110S, like the one shown here, sells for roughly $75,000 in Europe. In just over two years, Alpine has recorded recorded more sales than the original racked up in 16. With just over 5000 units reserved, it is still a very low-production automobile. But for a resurgent Alpine it is a taste of what could be. More’s the sadness, then, that there is no current plan to sell it in the United States. Though, according to Alpine’s managing director, that could change.
For now, roads of east-central France will have to suffice. Away from the city’s sophistication and warmth, the motorway leads us to the lonely mountain roads of the Vercors Massif, the pre-Alps, if you will. Along France’s D76, we attack the mountain pass at Combe Laval, a balcony road carved right out of the limestone cliff face to assist in logging. A huge engineering feat that began in 1861, it took 37 years to complete. And to think they say capitalists have no patience.
Incredibly picturesque, engagingly sinuous, the Combe Laval is a national heritage site. But as a road it’s properly dangerous, as it is quite terrifyingly narrow, with low, 120-year-old rock walls to protect you and your car, should you lose control, from falling a couple thousand of feet to a fiery death below in the valley, against which no amount of crystals, good vibes, or even the region’s heroically funky andouillette sausage will protect you.
Thankfully, the A110 doesn’t make over cooking its quenelles too easy, even with the 39-hp boost it gets in “S” form. Make no mistake, though, its turbocharged four-cylinder engine—an escapee from a hot Renault Mégane, duded up to 288 hp—does not want for urgency. With a quick-thinking, quick-shifting seven-speed Getrag box, optionally controlled by paddles, the right gear is always at hand.
Situating the compact Renault four ahead of the rear wheels makes this Alpine a proper mid-engine machine now, whereas all previous Alpine models were rear engine. Better balanced and infinitely more rigid, the A110 of 2020 still somehow manages to channel the marque’s rude and crude competition ancestry, dropkicking it into the present—unusually, for our desensitized times—with gobs of raw emotion and alert character intact. Allied to that: sophistication, comfort, and the sort of plausible build quality too rarely seen in low-production ventures, making this, we say again, a machine of unique interest.
You could call it the French Corvette. Except, unlike the hair-chested Chevrolet, this latest Alpine has nary an ounce of fiberglass, a marked departure from every one of its forbearers. Along with an aluminum chassis and bespoke aluminum suspension, its body panels are now also shaped from the lightweight metal. Not to sound prejudiced, but aluminum trumps fiberglass. People, it’s the class move.
The Alpine also enjoys superior weight distribution as compared to its predecessors, courtesy of the new midship configuration. And thanks, too, to relentless attention paid to weight and its excision, at a hair over 2,400 pounds, the A110S rings up more than a 1000 lighter than the ’Vette and 500 fewer than a Porsche Cayman, another tasty offering in what amounts to a very small competitive set. While no accelerative match for the American brute with nearly twice the horsepower (288 vs. 495), the A110S is definitely ready to stand up and be counted on the road, being more rapid even than the highly regarded Cayman S, with 6o mph arriving from rest at a speedy 4.3 seconds.
It may not be as refined as the Porsche, but the Alpine’s cabin never assumes the role of penalty box, even after sitting inside for hours on end. It’s just as wide, although it’s more than half a foot shorter than the Porsche, and it’s got more headroom, even though it sits almost two inches lower. Visibility is not the best, but not bad. You’ve surely ridden in quieter cars, too. The motor’s bold but lovable exhaust note—augmented by the S model’s larger turbocharger—could grow tiresome for some, though it’s possible to drive around it by taking care not to let your footsy get too deep into the throttle. If the mood calls for it, thus may you dispense with the wild and go mild. On the other hand, if bellicose exhaust noise and the sounds of violence are your thing, the A110S has got you covered, too.
Setting the Alpine apart through it all, there’s that old French magic, this time in fighting sports-car form. A sporty, confident and compact machine, with a petite 95-inch wheelbase, it surprises with the sure but improbably cosseting ride Gallic cars were once famous for. Given its larger (by one inch) wheels and specially compounded low-profile, 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sports (215/40 up front and 245/40 to the rear), the superior ride quality of the A110S—unexpectedly compliant and almost soothing—constitutes a small miracle. No fancy (and weighty) air springs, active body control devices, or on-the-go choices for suspension tuning here; the car is suspended—with aluminum double wishbones all around—correctly, direct from the factory. In S trim, carbon ceramic Brembo brakes are included, along with ride height lowered by .16 inches, springs stiffer by half again, and anti-roll bars firmed to the tune of 100 percent, all of which present no apparent detriment to ride comfort or roadability compared to a non-S Alpine I drove in 2018.
That comfortable ride and the A110’s trim dimensions mean that its nearly as well suited to the cobblestone surfaces and narrow passages of French city life.
Sometimes referred to as France’s “second city,” Lyon is actually the country’s third largest (after Marseilles) and, in many ways, the perfect antidote to Paris, with all its tourists, congestion, and high-priced aggression. Set 250 miles distant in east-central France where the Rhône and Saône rivers meet, Lyon plays capital to both the country’s Rhône département and its Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. Meaning, once done terrorizing French mountain roads, the comforts of this cosmopolitan outpost were not far away.
Founded as a Roman military colony in 43 BC, in what was then known as Gaul, Lyon is one of Europe’s oldest cities. Annexed by the Kingdom of France more than 700 years ago (to even get up to the 14th century here, we’ve had to skip about 1350 years of history), the city became a center of culture and one of Europe’s top manufacturers of silk. The local silk and arts industries still churn, but oil refineries and petrochemical operations on the outskirts of town, plus numerous pharmaceutical plants, help tell the story today. So, too, do you find the abundant institutions of academia—streets are lined with universities, art schools, and polytechnics—and the city’s enduring culture industry, with museums and galleries most plentiful. Lyon’s architecture dazzles quietly, with some buildings that date back 600 years to the Renaissance, while the city’s defining twin rivers and the many bridges which cross them prove wonderfully easy on the eye.
Inside the low-slung, close-coupled coupe photographer Greg Pajo and I couldn’t practice any distancing from each other, social or otherwise. But we were surprised by how much gear we could fit in Alpine’s two trunks, enough for a couple to go away for a week, if they packed lightly. All controls are easy to understand and use. The seats, covered in leather, are featherweight in construction, but perfectly comfortable. Overall, materials are not the world’s very best, but far closer to them than the world’s very worst, and better than most. As an office in which to carve mountain passes, the A110S is close to perfect.
Our accommodations along the banks of the Rhône, at the Hotel Dieu de Lyon, were spectacular. My own guest room spanned two floors, with vast windows almost 20 feet high overlooking the river. After I’d seen the premises in person, calling it “God’s Hotel,” as it translates literally from the French, sounded fair, if still a little immodest. But “Hotel Dieu” is in fact a synonym for “hospital.” Turns out this massive edifice, with a bar whose ornate dome sits more than 236 feet above the ground, is truly ancient, occupying an enormous medieval structure first pressed into hospital service in the 15th century. Following a renovation of the hospital complex, believed to cost 250 million Euros, the Hotel God, which occupies just one part, is now an awe-inspiring outpost of the InterContinental hotel chain and, to borrow a phrase from the Guide Michelin typically used to describe restaurants, worth a detour.
Speaking of restaurants and food, and not the least bit unimportantly, it is said that Lyonnaise cooking is France’s best. Known as the food-obsessed country’s capital of gastronomy and the birthplace of nouvelle cuisine, the city boasts more than 4,000 restaurants, its bouchons being the classic and most common, with fresh food that is simple, unadorned, and hearty.
2020 RENAULT ALPINE A110 S
Price as tested:
$75,000 (est., in Europe)
Length x width x height:
164.5 x 70.8 x 49.3 in
turbocharged 1.8-liter inline-4
7-speed dual-clutch automatic
288 @ 6400 rpm
236 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
EPA Fuel Economy:
But while an overindulgence in Lyon’s finest calories will live with us as extra body mass for some time, the Alpine A110S has no such problem with excess. It is a tonic, the antidote to the problem with cars these days. The Horsepower War is an arms race that nobody wins, really. Most people don’t need 500-horsepower cars, much less 700-, 1000-, and 2000-hp cars. They’ll never come close to enjoying and exploiting that power. All it does is add complexity and weight—not just the engine, but brakes, suspension, and structures that have to be heavier. So many cars today need overly complicated systems to maintain traction and keep people from killing themselves in cars largely too fast to be driven on public roads, all revved up with nowhere to go. Their fuel economy is atrocious. And invariably these cars are too big. Anywhere but on a track or a really open, really lonesome highway in the middle of nowhere, a Lamborghini or Ferrari isn’t that much fun.
The Alpine is fun anywhere you drive it. And while it could be a perfectly acceptable daily driver for a spirited motorist, you just can’t get a set of golf clubs in it. As Jean-Pascal Dauce, the company’s chief engineer, remembered:
“We were discussing this with some Nissan colleagues. With the Z, they had to make sure two golf bags fit. I said, yes in the Alpine you can put the balls. But not the clubs. Only one. The putter is okay.”
Making A Mountain
Alpine founder Jean Rédélé was your basic automotive genius.
If the longevity of an enterprise is a measure of its greatness, Alpine founder Jean Rédélé must be included in any short list of the postwar European automobile industry’s leading innovators. Think France’s answer to Colin Chapman and England’s Lotus and you won’t be far off. Just two of your basic postwar automotive geniuses: each of them one part resourceful engineer of featherweight sports and competition machinery, one part smooth-talking entrepreneur, and one part nuts. That last is a key personality trait for the very clever few who would build a brand from nothing, fighting, clawing, and scratching to rise above their station every step of the way. Then one day, the upstart brand is still around, and nearly three-quarters of a century have passed.
Gifted a bombed-out showroom in Dieppe, a fishing port on the Normandy coast, by his Renault concessionaire father after the war, Rédélé thought to go rallying in the French Alps to promote the business. An early profitable sidelight of his garage was heating up France’s new postwar workhorse, the Renault 4CV, for like-minded competitors. He not unreasonably concluded performance could be bettered. (With its stock 747cc four grinding out 17 hp from the factory.) A class win at the Mille Miglia in 1952 proved the point and buoyed his reputation, to where by 1955 Rédélé was able to launch the Alpine A106, a 4CV-based contraption. Fittingly enough, he christened his new brand with a name that referenced the mountains on whose roads he had excelled behind the wheel.
Early adopters, Alpine sent its debut model forth with bodies made of newfangled fiberglass—a material that Chapman would soon embrace—and mechanicals borrowed from others. (Chapman shopped primarily with Ford for a time, while Rédélé used only Renault components.) On opposite sides of the English Channel, both Chapman and Rédélé were pursuing the same goal that was obscure to most everyone else: maximally trimmed vehicular weight in service of superior handling, ride, and efficiency. It’s a timeless formula, often forgotten. Okay, where road cars are concerned, almost always forgotten. But one does well to remember it, for as animating principles go, it is among the most noble and swell.
Working for many years alongside Renault, Alpine became the de facto competition department for France’s biggest carmaker. Its 1973 purchase by Renault cemented the deal. The long-running A110 Berlinette of 1961 was Alpine’s most successful model, becoming a monumentally effective rally car and winning the very first World Rally Championship in 1973, after entering its second decade in production. Nonetheless, by the time Rédélé died in 2007, Alpine had been reduced to existence as a name on a badge affixed to a few of Renault’s tweakier hot hatchbacks.
Alpine’s last stand-alone offering, the larger and more grown up, but distinctly amusing, V-6-powered A610 (previously the GTA,) had exited étage gauche in 1995. The new A110 picks up where that machine left off. But it’s dramatically different in conception from the A610, that oddity of yore, with its fiberglass body, rear engine, backbone chassis, and pop-up headlights. You can see some Porsche in the A610, but those last models arguably hinted even more at various Lotus cars past and even the Lotus-engineered DeLorean. Or was it the other way around?
Somewhere around 2011, longtime Renault executive Carlos Tavares, the company’s COO (and now head of the sprawling yet-to-be-named, Groupe PSA-FCA merger), championed a plan for Alpine’s resurrection. It saw the company partnering with England’s Caterham Cars to devise an all-new lightweight sports car whose engineering and componentry the companies might share. As some will know, the irony here is that Caterham was established in 1973 to build the Lotus 7, a rudimentary, very lightweight, race-car-like two-seater that Chapman started producing in the late Fifties, only to grow bored and sell the rights to Caterham, who continue building and selling the 7, the essential roller skate, under their own name through the present day. Yes, it’s that Chapman connection again.
The Alpine project came about, at least in part, because Tavares, a better-than-average race-car driver and serious enthusiast who reportedly still owns a vintage A110 today, wanted it to happen. But even after Tavares was unceremoniously ejected from his No. 2 role at the Renault-Nissan Alliance early in the project’s gestation (he’d angered CEO Carlos Ghosn by publicly acknowledging his desire to one day run a car company himself ), support for the project didn’t dry up. Ghosn, we would say wisely, green-lit a new Alpine A110, which debuted at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show, long after the joint venture had wound down.—JK
Behind the New Alpine
How Renault re-birthed a legend.
Jean-Pascal Dauce, a 35-year veteran of Renault, one time head of Renault Sport (which merged the company’s Alpine and Gordini competition departments) and, with it, the company’s F1 effort, is now Alpine’s chief engineer. Assigned in 2012 to oversee Renault’s joint venture with Caterham, he was there at the new Alpine A110’s genesis.
“It started because Renault and Caterham had a Formula One Grand Prix weekend together. And, as I used to say, an F1 Grand Prix is three days long, but the race is only two hours. So you have plenty of time to discuss, imagine things. We decided to see if we could do a project together.
“I knew of course very well the Renault managers because I’d been working with them for years. But on the Caterham side, too, because I’d been working in the UK in Renault F1. Mike Gascoyne, my boss at the time, became the technical director of Caterham Technology and Innovation. We had a good relationship. [However,] after one year we came to a point where it was difficult—not to work together, not that at all—but being such different sizes.” Developing a modern car, Dauce explained, is very costly and, he gently implies over coffee when we return to Alpine’s Boulogne-Billancourt showrooms, Caterham’s pockets just weren’t deep enough, and they knew it. “We split very smoothly,” he concludes.
Dauce enumerated Alpine’s goals with the comeback car. “We wanted to be lightweight. But we considered that we couldn’t be best in class because we had two competitors which were doing different compromises. I will not say they were better or not, but there was an Alfa [Romeo] 4C with a carbon-fiber tub. And the [aluminum-tubbed] Lotus Elise, already existing. But we knew in terms of comfort compromises we could not be the same at all. We didn’t want to compete directly with these guys; we knew we wouldn’t be best in class. Nevertheless, in our world, let’s say the one of more refined cars, we wanted to be the best. And for that reason, any decision had to be considered on the basis of its weight impact.
“Still we didn’t want to cross the limit, where people would say, ‘Hey, very nice toy. But it’s a toy.’ No, [we needed to create a] real car. This car is roomy. I can fit, no problem at all, although I’m quite tall. In terms of equipment, we are very well placed compared to some other cars in the market.
So we are not on the level of the basic car that we could have done, but we didn’t want to play this game.
“[In terms of construction and manufacturing,] we gathered everything which was clever on the market. Some processes maybe we improved a bit. But in the end we cannot say, ‘It’s brand new, nobody did it before.’ But put together, it is very wise. And for the body panels, all Alpines in history were done with fiberglass and epoxy resin. So, of course, many people believed we would pursue this theory. But because of market trends, we considered that for perceived quality, it was difficult to remain with fiberglass. And so we moved to aluminum, which is a really premium- oriented material. We wanted to make use of it for the new car. Aluminum plays very nicely. To say the main components, the chassis, plus the axles and suspension plus the body parts, would have an intensive use of aluminum. It is the best material, and it plays a global role in making a good story to tell on lightness and quality, which is really one step above what we haddone previously.”
Can we expect more powerful models in the future?
“We can always put more horsepower in. Nevertheless, the car has been designed around this particular engine. And to make it light, you want a 10-percent margin in every direction, because maybe one day I will have a different gearbox, I will have a different engine, blah, blah, blah, you cannot optimize. The fact that we’ve optimized and we’ve reached our target [curb weight] of the 1080 kilograms [2380 pounds] it also has a drawback—we have to stick to our rules. And that’s really what we want to say. [The A110 could not have] a big V-8 engine, or a V-12 or V-6 or whatever. That’s the Alpine way. The cars always had small engines and lots of pleasure at the wheel, because that’s what we try to deliver.
“I’m not saying I don’t want more BHP. Of course I would like to be 300, 320, 340. But we know it is not going [to happen] without drawback. And we don’t want to escape from our playground where we are in an ideal situation. When you look at the price we had with the standard and the S [models] we had two different chassis settings. We have two different engine outputs. And I tried to refrain myself and my team and my colleagues from the easy way: always more.”—JK
1965 Alpine A 110 Berlinette
Like all Alpines before it, the A 110 Berlinette, which launched in 1961, was based on the grubby bits of an existing Renault. Following established Alpine practice at that time, engines, gearbox, suspension, and brakes were plucked off of Renault’s shelves and then bolted into a shapely, if slightly idiosyncratic, two-seat fiberglass body of Alpine’s creation. In this case, that shape arrived from the pen of the underrated Italian master, Giovanni Michelotti (BMW 2002, Triumph TR4 and Spitfire, and a cavalcade of Ferraris and Maseratis). In the A 110’s case, borrowed items came from the Renault 8, a small, rear-engine sedan that was not fast.
The A 110 we drove for this story is a 1965 model. The aggressive four-headlamp configuration that was introduced on later cars appears here courtesy of a nose transplant from a 1968 model, which took place at some point in this car’s life. And this particular car, delivered to an owner in a northern Paris suburb, whose French plate it still wears, originally came with an 1100cc engine, as would be found in that year’s R8. (The first A 110’s had the launch R8’s 900cc motor.) But as was frequently the case, somewhere along the way, it got upgraded.
In addition to that four-light nose and the bigger, later homologation wheels and tires and the arched fenders to cover them, there’s also a hotter engine—in the form of a 1300cc Renault four with the preferred Gordini head and twin Webers, thought to give it around 120 hp to push around the Alpine’s less than 1400 pounds. A dogleg, close-ratio Monte Carlo gearbox, a period race/rally option, extends range with five forward speeds, while larger front discs, as homologated for Group 4 rallying, aid in slowing the Alpine down in a hurry. An up-front radiator conversion improves cooling, an always-present concern in a rear-engine, water-cooled car.
Owner Bradley Price was kind enough to let us drive his A 110 one recent overcast morning, and it was a revelation, because how could it not be? We’d always admired the looks of the Alpine—is there a red-blooded car enthusiast who hasn’t gravitated to its stance? But we’d never driven one. So it was with an acute sense of occasion that we set out. Me, because I’d never driven one before, Price, because he’d never seen me drive one, and compared to modern cars it is a very specific machine.
My first thoughts as we settled into the cockpit, it turned out, were pretty much my last thoughts when the drive was done:
“Race car. Rally machine. Omigod.” Everything is raw. Everything is ready. It’s all on its own terms, too. Fall in with the program and it will treat you well. Try to drive it like it doesn’t want to be driven and it is you who will look foolish.
The motor crackles into life. The Webers have no choke and the 1300 doesn’t like the cold, wanting to stall and stutter, unhappier and unhappier the lower the revs get. This improves as it warms to life, but you’re never in doubt that you’re in the company of a peaky engine that won’t really sing with happy abandon till around 4000 rpm. Let it fall much below, and earnest stabs at the throttle will be greeted like requests for yard work presented to stoned teenagers. A mumbled “Whaaaa…?” And then, nothing. Until, in this case, Boom!—and it’s off to the races. Like the engine, the gear-stick has a way it wants to be handled. Treat it like it wants, which requires thought, mechanical sympathy, and technique, and you’ll be fine.
Underway, the Alpine has the reflexes of your basic scalded chipmunk. Steering is ultra-quick and communicative, and everything else about it seems frenetic and high-strung, in what only some (me included) will think is a good way. Writing in 1966, a journalist for Autocar noted: “In terms of tackling the twists, turns and climbs, it’s difficult to find comparisons for a car as individual as the A 110. It brings back memories of the Porsche 356B Carrera 1600, but it’s not quite like that. In terms of handling, it feels most like the Lotus Elan.” In other words, it is confidence-inspiring, firmly planted, and entirely predictable, rear engine and all, in everything I could throw at it in limited time. It’s a little grumpy around town but positively encouraging in fast driving on back roads.
Price, a VSCCA racer and industrial designer whose Autodromo firm has made big noise in the world of car-gauge-themed watches, has owned several exotics in his youthful collecting years, but he was long smitten by the Alpine’s shape and eccentricity. He bought his from its second U.S. owner. During the Eighties and Nineties, it had run at Lime Rock and the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. And the A 110 is not just perfectly suited to life as a track car. It’s the only life to which it’s perfectly suited.
“It’s a little bit tiring to drive on the road,” notes Price. “The car is built for one specific thing and it does that thing superbly well. It’s not a well-rounded vehicle. It really is a road-going rally/race car. It was designed to win rallies and it beat the world. I love the David-versus-Goliath thing about Alpine.” —JK