Alpine returns after a 22-year hiatus of making cars and, boy, was it worth the wait. The new A110, a challenger for the established likes of the Audi TT, Porsche 718 Cayman and Lotus Elise/Exige, is thoroughly glorious in every detail - leaving all of its rivals in its wake with its supreme delicacy of touch and exquisite operation. The bad news? It's not officially coming to Ireland. Yet...
In the Metal:
Do a Google image search of 'Alpine A110' and, along with pictures of this current car, you'll likely find some of the 21st-century design team's inspiration - the A110 Berlinette, launched in 1962. That will then inform you of the look of the 2017 revival, which is basically a modern interpretation of that legendary Alpine machine. And we happen to think the new one is magnificent. Its proportions are 'just so', it looks obviously up-to-date while simultaneously referencing that 1960s vehicle and it suits a wide variety of colours and alloy wheels that are 'only' 17- or 18 inches in diameter. It's prettier than any of its key rivals and yet it remains physically small, too, measuring less than 4.2 metres long and tipping the scales (with fluids onboard) at a mere 1,103kg.
Thankfully, the interior doesn't let the Alpine down, because it's smashing. You sit very low and perfectly sited for the pedals and steering wheel, while visibility out of the cabin is first rate, albeit the view in the interior mirror is rather narrow. Nevertheless, all of the materials used are of a high quality, so while you might recognise some Renault touches here and there (most obviously for the infotainment display perched on the centre console), you don't feel as if the Alpine is mercilessly cribbing ideas from the RS Megane. Particular aesthetic flourishes are the body-coloured bits of exposed metal on the doors, the fancy two-deck transmission tunnel with button-pad gearshift (a feature used by some high-end supercars and, weirdly enough, the Hyundai Ioniq), quilted leather panels in this Premiere Edition, the gorgeous digital display in the instrument cluster and the use of French tricolore details in various places, both inside and out. Yep, visually and in terms of quality, the Alpine is spot on.
And then you drive it, and... wow. Your heart just melts. There is not a thing we would change about the Alpine A110, in terms of its abilities as a fast road car. It is sublime. It's verging on the ridiculous, how talented it is, when some rivals have spent either years or decades, in some instances, honing their comparable products to the point of perfection... and then this Lazarus-like French upstart comes waltzing in and delivers a genius piece of engineering to humble them all.
The Alpine's chief weapon is soft suspension. And it's a magical set-up, there's no other word that can cover it. You fire up the 252hp 1.8-litre mid-mounted engine, which is borrowed from the RS Megane but detuned a little here, and it sounds great. OK, there might be some augmentation going on, but there's the genuine bark of induction and various gasps, whooshes and whirrs from the turbocharger. At very low manoeuvring velocity, the Alpine feels as if it's going to be uncomfortable and firm, because you're aware of the unsprung mass of the alloys at each corner and the suspension is fairly loud as it deals with bumps and so on.
But as the speed builds to town speeds and then beyond, the Alpine transforms into a god-like piece of dynamic work. Everything about it is gossamer-light, such as the steering, which doesn't go for massive amounts of artificial heft to try and convince you that you're in a sports car, instead relying on pinpoint accuracy, immaculate consistency and genuine feel to get the job emphatically done. Nice-sized steering wheel, too, Alpine, in terms of both diameter and the thickness of its rim; BMW M, please take note of this.
However, the noise of the engine has built into a furious snarl by the time you've started exploring the upper reaches of the rev counter, the turbocharged unit revving cleanly and willingly and not displaying an iota of lag. Is this really the same engine as found in the RS Megane? It can't be, can it?! It doesn't sound anything like the hot hatch, instead imbuing the Alpine with a soundtrack that has the four-cylinder 718 Porsche twins completely licked, and which would only be outshone by the five-cylinder wail of the dynamically inferior Audi TT RS.
The Alpine is quick, too. Like, monster quick. While its 252hp might look meagre in a world where the 718 GTS makes 365hp, bear in mind the Porsche is 300kg heavier than the A110. Three. Hundred. Kilos. So don't doubt the veracity of Alpine's 4.5-second 0-100km/h claim, nor the fact its top speed needs to be limited to 250km/h, because it feels every bit capable of those numbers, and a little bit more besides. Ably abetting the power delivery is also the best (by miles) use of a twin-clutch gearbox in a Renault Group product we can think of; yes, it's a shame there's no manual A110 (as yet), but with nicely weighted, column-mounted paddle shifts and flawless responses - both in 'D' auto mode and 'M' manual mode - we never once lamented the Alpine's lack of three footwell pedals.
The brakes are excellent, good and strong with perfect progression. The suppression of unwanted noises, like tyre roar and wind buffeting, are top notch. But it's the glittering suspension and damping that batters any hope of reasonable critical appraisal into submission. The A110 is perfection on the roads. Absolute perfection. There's so much suppleness to the body movements, without the car ever becoming wayward or toppling over in corners. You can feel what each wheel is doing at any given moment, with feedback flooding into your synapses from seat base and steering wheel in equal torrents. And the way the A110 moves around is heavenly. It clearly conveys its midships balance with such elegance and aplomb that it almost makes you want to stop the car, get out and then supplicate yourself in 'we're not worthy' worship at the foot of its Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres.
All of which means you can attack any given road, no matter what condition its surface is in, with utter confidence that the car will have your back. And yet, it's not like you learn everything about the Alpine in an instant; this is a vehicle that will need a lot of patient kilometres to unlock through repeated usage day after day. We got less than 50km in it, which was enough to be completely bedazzled and seduced by its brilliance, but also insufficient to get the absolute best from what is clearly one of the greatest road-car chassis ever committed to production. We crave more, Alpine. More! MORE, WE TELL YOU! GIVE IT TO US!!!
What you get for your Money:
We can't score the Alpine on value as yet, because Renault Ireland isn't planning on bringing the A110 to these shores any time soon. This is tragic news, believe us, and it's not as if the Alpine would make no sense whatsoever here, as its low weight and 1.8-litre turbo engine mean it would actually be pretty cheap to tax, even if the list price would likely be fairly robust. Watch this space for further news on that.
There's going to be a lot more to come from Alpine - faster variants of the A110, stripped-out versions that focus on track work (maybe), customer competition cars and possibly even other models that hark back to some of the company's other historic creations, like the A310 and A610. But it's hard to see how the company is going to improve on this, because the A110 is little short of transcendental. It looks superb. It sounds superb. Its cabin is superb. Its performance is superb. And its chassis? Its chassis is flawless. As good at pottering around gently like a mini-GT as it is at ripping its way along a twisting road in a fury of fun, the Alpine A110 not only reorders its particular market segment of sports cars, but provides a game-changing driving experience that ought to make anyone making performance vehicles sit up and take note. It's the best car we've driven in the 21st century, and probably ever. Outstanding.