Alpine's sophomore project is a firmer, faster and more focused version of the delightful A110 mid-engined sports car. But is harder suspension what we wanted or needed from the heavenly A110? Time to find out.
In the Metal:
Subtly enhanced looks are the hallmark of the S when comparing it to the A110, although the main difference is forged 18-inch alloys for a 7kg weight saving on the already-trim standard car. There is also some different badging. Not that we're complaining; on the outside, we adore the 21st-century 'revisioning' of the 1960s and 1970s classic, and having it in S specification doesn't change our aesthetic opinion of it in the slightest. Although watch out for the fancy matte-grey paintwork, which is a €5,000 and more option...
Inside, it's a little more obvious what has changed, because there's lots of orange stitching and detailing, such as the removal of most of the tricolore flags dotted around the cabin and replaced with carbon-carbon-orange motifs. There's more Dinamica fabric (it's like Alcantara but not from the Italians) and carbon-effect trim on display, and it remains a wonderful place to be - if, admittedly not very spacious, even accepting its two-seat status; utterly bereft of useful storage areas, save for a shallow cupholder at the back of the transmission tunnel, a meagre tray underneath the gearbox and start button 'arch', and a little leather pouch mounted high up on the rear bulkhead; saddled with the same humdrum, 'four-square' infotainment graphics as a current Suzuki; and only possessed of two tiny, oddly-shaped boots at the front and rear of the car. Minor gripes, all, but enough to knock half-a-star off for this section, considering the A110S requires an €80,000-plus expenditure on the part of Irish buyers.
So what has changed? Well, the S is the A110 for the really keen drivers. Or, rather, those few who will ever take their Alpine on track. It gains Brembo four-pot brake callipers (in orange) gripping 320mm discs, has springs that are 50 per cent stiffer than those on the A110 and anti-roll bars that are twice as stiff, revised damping and a 4mm lower ride height, and - if you option the aforementioned forged alloys and the optional carbon-fibre roof - it should be a little lighter than the A110.
Perhaps the headline alteration is that the mid-mounted 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, borrowed from the RS Megane, has been given a bigger, higher-pressure turbocharger. This liberates another 40hp, resulting in a peak output of 292hp on the A110S. This is delivered at slightly higher revs than in the A110 (6,400rpm versus 6,000rpm) and, while peak torque remains unchanged at 320Nm because that's all the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (DCT) can handle, it is delivered over a wider band than in the A110 - both cars hit their torque plateau at 2,000rpm, but whereas the 252hp Alpine drops off at 5,000rpm, the A110S holds on to 320Nm until 6,400rpm and the point of peak power. This increases the top speed of the A110S and trims a tenth from its 0-100km/h time, although it is said to lead to bigger metric gains when you look at weird stats like standing quarters and 0-160km/h and so on. So, if that sort of stuff excites you, then the A110S is already looking like the more appealing of the Alpines, isn't it?
Now this is one of those instances where the manufacturers must despair of us critics. And we don't blame them. This is how it goes: the A110 comes out and is a joyous gem of a thing, with the sort of magical damping that has everyone who drives it slack-jawed in euphoric, reverential wonder. Critical appraisal is glowing in the extreme but, shortly after the novelty value has worn off, people start idly wondering what the A110's chassis could handle, beyond the standard 252hp output.
So Alpine, in a perfectly rational move (every other sports car manufacturer does a 'harder, more focused' version of their machines, after all) and one that Alpine's chiefs say was on the cards from the moment the A110 was even thought of as a concept, gives the people what they want with this A110S. And here's the thing... it's not as enjoyable as the regular car.
Oh lord. We even hate ourselves for saying that, because this is still a mid-engined masterpiece. Drive this thing in isolation and you will wonder why you'd want anything else even remotely comparable from the stable of another manufacturer. It has magnificent steering, body control that is almost totalitarian in negating its sensations of pitch, dive, yaw and roll, a drivetrain that punches ferociously hard in a 1,114kg shell and which sounds terrific when you're sitting ahead of the induction of the 1.8-litre engine, and the sort of balanced handling that makes every fast hot hatch look like the leaden, nose-heavy things that they are. To drive an A110S on a given road of your choosing is one of the final great delights of the automotive age of internal combustion, it truly is.
However. That damping makes its presence felt from the first few yards you cover in the Alpine and, truth be told, the car then never truly lets you forget that it is firmer from that point on. Operating at 100-110km/h, there's a background sensation of the wondrous 'glide' that the standard A110 serves up practically all the time you are moving in it, but in the A110S it is overlaid with harsh-edged damping and more thumping from the 18-inch wheels. This is particularly exacerbated at lower speeds, where the ride quality becomes gritty and sometimes a touch unpleasant; yep, you guessed it - you can't level any such accusation at the 252hp A110.
This is all relatively speaking, of course, and we return to our 'in isolation' comment of a few paragraphs ago. If you've never driven an A110, the A110S will blow you away. You'd be signing on the dotted line for your own within the hour of first driving it, if only you could buy one here in Ireland. But, if you have been lucky enough to have had a go in the regular A110, then unless you are a weekly attendee at Mondello Park for on-track sessions, then the S doesn't feel worth the extra outlay over its glittering source material.
What you get for your Money:
Alpine still doesn't officially have a presence in Ireland. Drat. That said, we'd be tempted to go with a 'four' here if we were to mark it, mainly because the A110S asks a premium of a few thousand Euro for an on-road driving experience that isn't quite as sensational as that of the A110. It does come with a decent kit list for the money, though, which mitigates the fact that - if you were to import an A110S from the UK - it would cost you almost €82,000 for the unadorned 292hp car. Ouch.
A sublime sports car by any rationale, the Alpine A110S is one of our favourite performance coupes ever; it's just tremendous and, if you're a track-day regular or you live near lots of very, very smooth roads, it's definitely worth the outlay, over and above an A110. But, for us, the softer-sprung Frenchie is the superior road vehicle, despite its 40hp deficit to this A110S. In some sports car ranges, the more focused model is definitely the one to go for - when it comes to the Alpine, though, stick to the entry-level A110 for a truly seminal driving experience.