Alpine’s A110: Embracing the past and highlighting the future of the sports car.

As we enter a new decade the Internet exploded last week with the latest rumour surrounding the recently announced Playstation 5 possibly being able to generate 'only' 9.2 teraflops compared to the new Xbox Series X 'speculated' 12. As a gamer and not an engineer, what that means is the next Xbox could be quite a bit more powerful than the Playstation 5. On the surface, this looks like a bad thing for Sony having already lost the power race this generation. That is until you consider the price point of video game consoles. $400 is seen as the sweet spot for consumers and this has been proven time and time again. It is easy to build a high-specification console but much more difficult to sell it successfully to the mass market. It all comes down to clever compromises in hardware and more importantly knowing what your target market wants. The Playstation's power deficit never became an issue because they consistently offered exclusive games for the players and it looks like this will continue to be their focus moving forward.

The Alpine A110 is another example of this kind of clever compromise despite being a car that had slipped under my radar, until now. In late 2019 Autocar's Andrew Frankel selected it as his car of the decade! I assumed this was just a journalist waxing on about the exquisite handling balance, while ignoring the rather high 50K starting price. Then another automotive journalist went one step further and actually bought one with his own money! Dan Prosser of Pistonheads posted a video about his Alpine A110 (see the link at the end of this blog) and that is when this little French car caught my attention.

Not knowing a lot about Alpine, I set about researching the company. They are a French race car manufacturer that made a name for themselves with the original A110 in the early 1970s. This car won the Monte Carlo Rally and later the World Rally Championship. Renault bought Alpine in 1973 and they continued to make cars until 1995 with the A610. The brand remained dormant in the intervening years. But its factory in Dieppe is the focal point of the famed Renault Sport models, including the Clio and Megane. In 2017, the Alpine name was revived to coincide with the launch of the current A110. Since then a more powerful A110 S has joined the range, offering increased horsepower and a more track-focused set up. It is clear that Alpine and the A110 have a legacy but that doesn't answer what is it about this car that has journalists actually putting their money where their mouths are. There has to be something more.

The A110 is NOT a perfect car. In fact, there are a number of drawbacks, when combined could make it look like a cynical nostalgic cash grab. To begin with, the A110 has a 50 thousand pound starting price. What you get for the money, is a small car with limited storage space and an only an acceptable interior in terms of plastics and infotainment. The engine is nothing special either being a four-cylinder 1.8 turbo unit producing 250bhp in base form and 289bhp in "S" specification. The sound it makes is also rather lacklustre without the optional sports exhaust fitted. Most damning though is the fact that for a car aimed at enthusiasts, there is no manual gearbox option. You can only get the A110 with a 7-speed DSG gearbox. Alpine claim this saves weight but both the Porsche Cayman and Lotus Elise, two close competitors, come with manual gearbox options!

This is where the idea of clever compromises comes into play. Like Sony and their Playstation, Alpine has clearly compromised in order to get the car to market, at a set (high) price and with a specific customer base in mind. Engines and gearboxes individually can make or break a car and Alpine is obviously aware of this choosing to allocate resources to the chassis instead. For the 50 thousand pounds you pay, you get a car with a unique platform made of aluminium. This is both daring and risky in equal measure. By having a custom platform, they were totally free to implement their vision for what they believed the A110 should be and using aluminium keeps the car incredibly light (1100kg including fluids like fuel). Additionally, the suspension design is also uncompromising. The A110 has an all-around double wishbone set up. This is an expensive choice and it eats into the already limited space within the car. What that gives though, is a subtle ride using passive dampers and excellent wheel castor geometry settings. This car is all about balance. Just enough weight and power to get the car dancing on the road. In this light, the engine and gearbox compromises makes perfect sense. They are there to support the car rather than defining it. The simple fact that journalists in the know are raving about the A110 and even buying it shows these choices were the right ones to make for the company and customers.

I would argue that the A110 is even more important though. The A110 harks back to a bygone age of man and machine, when classic cars communicated with their drivers and demanded more from them. It took time to trust the car before you could truly have fun with it and every review I researched highlighted just how much fun the A110 is. That is something missing with modern high-performance and electric cars, which are governed by computers to access their full potential. Furthermore, the A110 could be a possible roadmap for car companies and enthusiasts moving into the new decade. As the mass market continues to go autonomous and electric, other companies could follow suit. Rather than having larger heavier platforms that must cater for various models, offer a single lightweight chassis and offset the cost with off-the-shelf gearboxes and internal combustion engines. Keep it simple and as mechanically pure as possible. Naturally these will be niche cars aimed at a limited but lucrative market. Whether they are marketed as sub-brands or separate brands, this is probably the only way the "classic" sports car concept with an internal combustion and light chassis will survive until the eventual day they are outlawed for good.

It looks like Andrew Frankel is correct. The A110 is indeed the car of the last decade and possibly the next.


All Alpine images from Autocar:

Pistonheads Alpine A110 Video: