Alpine’s A110 is an instant classic
A new car inevitably comes laden with the baggage of its brand. No matter how effective, exciting or efficient a new model is, we are invited to view it through the prism of the badge, what it means to us, what it means to others and what the company wants us to think. For example, a Porsche Cayman is a fabulous car, but it’s almost impossible to disassociate it from decades of Porsche’s often divisive image; drive one and you are automatically and unquestionably part of a particular club.
The Alpine A110 is as close as a contemporary car can come to being unbranded, its image scrubbed clean, its badge unfamiliar to the vast majority of us. Naturally, motoring enthusiasts will know differently. Alpine is a sub-division of Renault, and before that it was a standalone manufacturer, the Société des Automobiles Alpine SAS, dating back to the mid-1950s.
The original company specialised in transforming Renaults into racing and sports cars. In the early 1960s it scored a spectacular hit with the A110, a rear-engined road, race and rally car styled by Giovanni Michelotti. This compact, curvy design, with its signature cluster of round headlights, was hailed as one of best-looking French cars, and triumph on the track cemented the car’s legacy. By the time of the 1970s fuel crisis, Renault had stepped in to bail out the company and help the Alpine name live on, first in the A310 and then the wedgy plastic-bodied Renault Alpine GTA and A610, a quintessentially 1980s design that survived until 1995.
Alpine never did more than fill a niche, a sports car for eccentrics who weren’t especially bothered about badge recognition. And now the name is back. The all-new A110 arrives in a market that is shaped by image like never before. Still stewarded by Renault, this car has been teased for several years, with a ‘Vision Concept’ shown at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show. The production car debuted this year, practically unchanged from the show car, powered by a modest 1.8 litre 4-cylinder engine, and – by the standards of the modern industry – ultra-light and ultra-compact.
These qualities bode well, before you’ve even fired up the engine, for small, light sports cars are rare and therefore precious to those who still manage to find pleasure in driving. As well as being an unqualified aesthetic success, the A110 is also a superb car to pilot, with a sparky engine, direct, precise steering and firm but never harsh and uncomfortable ride.
On wide open country roads the little engine pushes the lightweight car with spirited verve, with near perfect balance allowing you to dive into tight corners and slingshot out of them. Unless you’re really pushing on the Alpine also manages to deliver respectable fuel economy, while its size also makes it easy to handle and park around town.
All in all, this is a thoroughly convincing piece of design, a car that will appeal equally to die-hard drivers and those in search of something a little different. The Alpine badge might be little known for now, but in the A110 the brand has a sports car that will take it places. Future models are no doubt waiting in the wings, perhaps with more power and pizzaz (there’s even talk of a sporting SUV), but whatever happens, the reborn company has debuted in the best way possible, resulting in a true contemporary icon. §