First Drive

Alpine A110S First Drive | Faster and stiffer, but better?

The go-faster version of the French sports car comes close to becoming too mainstream

Alpine 110 S
Alpine 110 S
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In the markets in which it sells, the Alpine A110’s success as a viable Porsche 718 Cayman alternative is thanks to its defiantly French refusal to engage on equal terms. By increasing power, grip and suspension stiffness, however, the new A110S plays to a more familiar game Alpine supposedly wasn’t going to be drawn into.

While the S unlocks obvious potential in the A110’s lightweight, mid-engined foundations this is no Cayman GT4. Customer race cars based on the A110 may well inspire such a version eventually, but for now, changes remain beneath the skin. The 1.8-liter engine gains 40 horses to deploy 288 horsepower 400 rpm further into the red than before. There’s a tad more rubber on the road, the Michelins gaining nearly half an inch in section and bespoke compounds, the optional Fuchs lightweight forged wheels still a modest 18 inches, though.

The suspension holds the key to this car’s revised character, with spring rates increased by 50%, sway bars 100% stiffer, ride height reduced by 0.15 inches and damper stroke by double that. Such dramatic gains in stiffness is testament to just how pliant the original set-up was.

Aside from the expensive options of a carbon fiber roof and matte gray paint, visual differences include the standard cross-spoke wheels, orange C-pillar badges and orange calipers for the Brembo brakes, which are standard on the S after being offered as an option on the regular A110. The orange accents carry inside, including the stitching on the Sabelt fixed-back seats, shared with the regular model, that are another weight-saving signifier in a cabin that strikes a fine balance between usability and minimalism.

If there’s a fear with this car, it’s that a willingness to play to accepted upgrade wisdom of increased power, rubber and suspension stiffness destroys the Alpine’s unique qualities. And from the first few yards on bumpy Portuguese roads it’s clear the A110S has lost that gorgeous fluidity that sets the regular car apart. With less wheel travel, the car now thumps into bumps, the stiffer springs sending thuds through the aluminium space frame that simply were not encountered before. The stiff structure holds up, as does the body control, but this harshness is something new.

The trade-off is alertness at the wheel you don’t get in the standard A110. Without feeling excessively darty, steering response is an extra coffee shot sharper, the reduced roll making direction changes keener than ever.

At first the extra power is subtle in its influence, which is a surprise when you consider horsepower has increased by a fifth with only a few pounds added to the 2,455-pound curb weight. The best of it lurks higher in the rev range, with peak power and torque now all the way to 6,400 rpm. However, keep your right foot planted and the extra urge is noticeable, the A110S delivering a decisive kick just where the standard one is starting to run out of steam.

Stickshift fans will decry the Alpine's lack of a manual option and point to the fact Porsche still offers one despite the popularity of PDK. The Alpine's Getrag seven-speed dual-clutch isn’t as slick as Porsche’s equivalent but can slur like an auto or deliver punchy paddle-activated shifts according to mood. Indeed, the paddle shifters are actually required in Track mode, which brings with it dedicated stability control programming.

Not that it’s especially challenged, as the A110S tracks hard and true where the standard car can be provoked into more lurid behavior by exploiting the softer suspension to shift weight around. Throw a regular A110 into a corner on the brakes, and the unweighted rear wheels and rearward weight bias are obvious. Admittedly, it can be fun when you want it to be. Provoking similar behavior in the A110S requires greater commitment given the new set-up’s determination to drill the Alpine into the pavement. The limits are higher and the breakaway more sudden when it comes.  

Switching from road to track reveals more. Here the extra power in the S makes its presence felt; the sliver of 0-60-mph time underselling the transformation. There’s a safety net of understeer to navigate before the S really comes alive, but the harder you drive this car, the more playful it becomes. Weight transfers that would result in slides in an A110 are contained in neater, more subtle line adjustments.

There’s not the sharpness, front-end bite or throttle adjustability of a Cayman, but if you use the lack of weight to your advantage, brake later, rotate it on the nose with a lift and then lean on the extra power, the S is exploitable and fun. The fact you now have power to spare results in a slingshot of speed up the straightaways. Both playful and predictable, the A110S maintains its difference in character to the nailed-down German norm and is huge fun on a circuit.

Is it actually better than the regular A110, though? That will depend on your tastes and intended use. For those coming from TTs and Caymans, the A110S will feel more familiar, while still different enough to stand out. And for keen drivers, the extra stiffness gives something to play with, without too much cost in the comfort and flow that defines the regular A110. A smart move then, though Alpine needs to be careful that playing to mainstream sports car expectations doesn’t dilute what makes it unique.

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