Clearly, the A110 R is not meant for everyone. If its asymmetrical carbon wheels and fixed spoiler don’t alert you to that fact, the blanked-off rear deck certainly does - especially when the fans mounted just beneath the composite are emitting a steady, cooling hum in Sainsbury’s car park. The model’s devotion to a track-first ethos is so overt, in fact, that you might experience a twinge of guilt from trundling to the shops in it. You can tell the R wants to be at Brands eating its expensive tyres, not listening to your better half call its harnesses and seats and boot stupid.
For the chosen few, however, its appeal is hardly in question. We know this already because production for this year sold out long ago. And because people apparently can’t wait to talk to you about it. The standard A110, as subtle as a Freemason’s handshake to look at, tends to earn you an approving nod from the initiated at most; the R, meanwhile, is a conversation starter roughly equivalent to having Dominic Toretto sat in your passenger seat. Not everyone PH spoke to was necessarily won over by the chiselled new look it’s fair to say - or even the prospect of ownership - but the concept of an out-there A110, lighter still and super-honed by performance-enhancing components apparently ranked as a no-brainer.
And why wouldn’t it? Alpine has spent the last year telling anyone it can get to sit still for five minutes that motorsport and circuit-based goodness are the lifeblood that pumps through its corporate veins - and if you buy into that, then an R derivative of its mid-engined sports car is an understandable outlet for all this pent-up enthusiasm. And as Matt found out at the start of the year, if you only leave the pit lane at the business end, the results are easily convincing enough to give Porsche or Lotus a run for their circuit special money. Which is precisely what Alpine is meant to be doing.
Of course, when Porsche (and to a lesser extent, Lotus) starts lowering things and subtracting unsprung mass, they typically seek to do it in a way that allows most buyers to both have their slammed cake and eat it. The R, with its manually adjustable coilovers, downforce-finding aero pack and no-nonsense Sabelt Track seats, suggests it is less concerned about that sort of crowd-pleasing compromise - especially when you consider that it’s based on a car that already requires you to pack exceptionally light and ideally not ever want a drink or to put anything down.
Initially, driving it on UK roads bears this impression out. The standard A110 is one of the most supple, deftly controlled sports cars ever made. The A110 S, particularly the latest one, is appreciably sportier, but not to the extent that it subverts the original recipe. The A110 R, 10mm closer to the ground by default on stiffer springs and anti-roll bars, is unapologetically firm in a way that speaks to how it goes round fast corners. Unlike its siblings, slow, lumpy town roads extract a down payment for the prospect of quicker lap times: you rise and fall with urban topography like a shipping container lost at sea.
As a daily then, its use is somewhat limited. But not, it must be said, entirely confounded. Interestingly, what saves it from the aggravating end of the scale is a) what inevitably happens when you go a bit quicker, and b) less predictably, the engine and gearbox. More often than not, and sometimes deservingly, the 1.8-litre four-pot has been the noose used to string up the A110 - but here, unexpectedly, it is the docility and run-of-the-mill convenience of the powertrain that prevents the R from ever seeming like too much of a chore. In fact, because the car is so unabashed in its do-or-die chassis settings, you start to weirdly cherish its innocuous capacity for getting up a high street just like a Renault.
Then, when there is a chance to push on a bit, you don’t think about the petrol motor much at all. And that’s because the R’s all-action vibe is wonderfully easy to tap into, and very moreish when you do. The percussive, stiff-necked ride quality unwinds splendidly on smoother country roads; never with the imperturbableness of its siblings, of course, but what you lose in pliancy you recoup in surface connection and, ultimately, cornering speed. Granted, no stripe of A110 has ever failed to turn in handsomely or all-of-a-piece, but the much more tightly damped R dials in a raw-boned assertiveness that ultimately makes it seem like more of an event to drive. Even in road-friendly configuration, there’s a newfound urgency to its direction changes that meshes terrifically well with the sort of dynamic finesse that a one-tonne (plus change) kerbweight buys you. It steers beautifully.
So it gets under your skin. So much so that it takes a long while before you hit the familiar buffer to total enjoyment. As ever, it’s not that the powertrain is unlikeable or ineffective - or even unsuited to the A110 - it just doesn’t ever threaten to come to the boil like the chassis does. It’s not even about flat-out speed (as Matt pointed out previously, 300hp is easily sufficient for a car this light) it just lacks that final thrilling dimension to complement the much tauter, time-attack handling. In town, that discrepancy is a peculiar strength. On the open road, and with one eye on the R’s asking price, it threatens to become a noose again.
That said - and to cut Alpine some slack you may or may not think it deserves - it is hard to see what other options were open to its engineers. The Renault Group more broadly, and Alpine specifically, is leaving combustion engines behind like a bad smell; doubtless, there is no stomach, nor resource, for additional development of its now venerable four-pot - and because it’s not really a question of output, there is precious little to be gained from wringing a bit more from it anyway. To cut the R some slack specifically, there is another angle to consider: there are precious few lightweight performance cars that can be legitimately driven to a distant track day, monstered, and then driven home again without trying your patience. The A110 R, flawed and expensive though it may be, is one of them. In a perfect world, everyone would have one.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 ALPINE A110 R
Engine: 1,798cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 251@2,400-6,000rpm
0-62mph: 3.9 seconds
Top speed: 177mph
Weight: 1,082kg (minimum kerbweight)
MPG: 40.3-41.5 (WLTP)
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