Alpine is back. And blimey, isn’t that something? In a new car market increasingly dominated by unpredictable emissions regulations and rather un-enthusiast-appropriate SUV body shapes, Alpine being reborn is for sports car lovers like finding an Evian spring in the desert.
To the average moderately car-oriented person, it likely seems odd the fervour that Alpine’s resurrection has whipped up; this is a brand that disappeared altogether in the mid-’90s and had its brightest, most memorable moments in the ’70s.
But then again, like a lot of enthusiasts out there, I grew up listening to my dad talk about all things rallying. Everything from Lancia Stratos’, Porsche 911s, Ford Escorts, Mini Coopers, and this car’s ancestor, the unfeasibly beautiful Alpine A110.
Long a dewy-eyed, nostalgic milestone in rallying history given that – most notably – it wiped the board in the 1971 Monte Carlo Rally and went on to take the manufacturer’s title in the 1973 WRC overall.
But how do you equate that with a lb50,000 sports car in 2018?
Well, you do it properly. With something that looks awesome, doesn’t weigh much and comes with an engine in the middle and the rear-wheels driven.
And it looks wonderful, no? Distinctly different to everything else out there, with the unmistakable twin round headlights of the jaw-droppingly stunning original Alpine A110, and flared wheelarches and a wraparound rear windscreen to top off the modern retro design. It’s also only 1.8m wide, which means that it’s well suited to buzzing down British roads. Hurrah for that.
It doesn’t just look good, though. There is engineering awesomeness in this car. For a start, it’s got an all-aluminium construction that was critical to bringing a kerbweight of just 1103kg even in this comfortably-equipped, launch-spec ‘Premiere Edition” car. That’s getting on for 300kg lighter than a Porsche Cayman PDK, by the way, meaning a 0-62mph sprint time of just 4.5sec despite modest power output of 249bhp and 236lb ft.
From there on, the technical details of this car only serve to make us slavering purists froth even more. Weight distribution comes in at 44:56 front-to-rear and suspension is by double-wishbone all round. The engineers among you will know that this expensive ‘proper’ suspension design helps to keep the tyre more consistently in contact with the road regardless of cornering forces, for more predictable grip levels and, consequently, better handling. And by the way, there are no adaptive dampers here. Just suspension that’s been set up to be right, all of the time.
Even little gems of technical wonder, like knowing that the fuel tank is placed just behind the front axle for better weight spread, and that the parking brake is incorporated into the main rear callipers (a world first, apparently) in order to scrape another 2.5kg off the vital unsprung mass.
Those fixed bucket seats are by Sabelt, and weigh just over 13kg. For context, that’s around half the weight of a Renaultsport Megane’s bucket seats. You can spec seats with six-way adjustment if you’d rather, but we spent a lot of time in the fixed versions on road and track, and they are wonderfully comfortable and supportive – an impression that was echoed by drivers of all shapes and sizes on the event.
You can adjust the height but you need a spanner to do it; my 5ft 7in frame found the lowest setting just fine, with decent visibility to the front. The view out to the rear is pretty woeful even by two-seat coupe standards, but hey – it’s hardly a deal breaker.
Otherwise there are gems of real design lustre around the Alpine’s interior, with bright digital dials that shift into different views as you toggle through the Sport mode’s settings but always have just the right information at the forefront, with the discreet French flag tri-colour underlining it. No faffing – it’s just got the right numbers on the screen, which looks lovely and is easy to read.
The colour sat-nav touchscreen is functional and easy enough to use (yes, a Cayman’s is usefully better), the sound system is properly good, there’s enough boot space in the shallow front boot and deeper but smaller rear boot to make the Le Mans weekend trip an easy packing process, and the materials are plush enough to make this an interior you’ll genuinely look forward to being in. Even if it is, ultimately, a way short of the precision, polish and practicality levels of a Porsche Cayman or Audi TT.
How does it drive?
We’ll get straight to the point. This is a landmark car. A car that we’ll be talking about in 20, 30 years’ time and more.
It is entirely characterised by that low weight, which makes the whole car seem to wrap around you and pivot effortlessly. Immediately, and even from low speeds and on scruffy surfaces, there is a thrillingly slick, feathery, tingly-fingertip feel to the Alpine’s handling.
The steering is light – perhaps a fraction too light in Normal mode – and inevitably isn’t as textural as the hydraulic steering in a Lotus regardless of mode. But it’s spot-on in Sport when you get an oily, predictable keenness that’s encouraging and enjoyable at a lazy mooch, a hearty strop or a flat-out track attack.
The tyres are quite skinny, and with those modest power figures churning from the 1.8-litre turbocharged, mid-ships motor, there is plenty of grip to make you feel secure and encourage you to push it to truly exhilarating, slightly questionable speeds. It doesn’t feel underpowered one little bit. But it also doesn’t have so much mechanical traction that you have to be threatening a sonic boom to feel like you’re getting the best from the car. It feels nimble and on its toes, yet punchy and just the right amount of intense.
Sure, there’s a bit of roll from the body but it never remotely intrudes on your consciousness as you pedal down the road; everything about the way the Alpine’s handling feels natural and lithe, from the way it steers to the way it softens the road surface so effectively while keeping you keyed into what’s going on at the wheels.
And the powertrain? I know, I know. There’s no manual gearbox, and there isn’t going to be one. It’s too expensive to engineer for the number of people who would choose to buy it. This is a shame, because the Alpine would suit a manual gearshift like Christmas suits glitter.
But the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder make for a characterful and rewarding double act. Leave everything in Normal and the gearbox is easy to forget about as it does a fine job of getting you through traffic with minimum fuss or bother. But we favour Sport mode for anything but stop-start stuff, when the ‘box and the exhaust perks up and it all feels a bit more, well, Alpine.
There’re pops and bangs and gurgles from the exhaust, and you’re encouraged to use the wheel-mounted paddles (not least for their lovely, precisely damped snick), which brings quick, responsive shifts. No, it’s not as fast or as precise as a Porsche PDK, or even the automatic ‘box in a BMW M2, but it’s far better than the Alfa 4C’s and it does a very fine job. You will thoroughly enjoy using it.
Just as you will thoroughly enjoy the 1.8 engine, which musters a fine cacophony of throaty, mechanical howls and farts, and delivers a ripping build of revs that is both exciting and predictable enough to not be frightening – even if you floor it right up to the near-7000rpm redline.
Even on track, stick the Alpine in Track mode and you get a loose ESP setting that allows for hilariously easy skids on the damp track we were on, and also shows off its prancing, balletic poise. Again, it understeers quite willingly if you get a bit optimistic on corner entry. But back off the throttle and it’ll generally save you from any real embarrassment. It’s remarkably forgiving for a mid-engined sports car, certainly usefully more so than a Porsche Cayman.
Here is a car that waters your parched, enthusiast’s soul, even at normal road speeds and on rubbish, wet roads. Or it serves up all the fizz and delight you could want in full-on track use. Praise be, our prayers have been answered.
Should I buy one?
Ideally, everyone should buy two. It’s that good. Is it expensive? Well, yes, kind of. Pricing for the UK hasn’t been confirmed, this Premiere Edition (only 1955 have been made and they’re all sold…) is likely to be pushing lb50k, and the lower trim won’t be much cheaper. Still, it’ll come with things like air-con, sat-nav and a decent sound system, so you’re not talking about a car that you need to add lots of stuff to.
Plus, the Alpine feels remarkably like a compact, manageable yet scintillating McLaren. It’s got a similar fluidity and organic feel to it. Its sheer handling aplomb and driver satisfaction level is up there with much more expensive machinery. So if you look at it from that perspective it’s a bargain.
There’s not much else to say, really, other than this: Alpine, you absolute beauty. What a car. What a revival.
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