I had the privilege to spend part of my childhood in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Monaco. I had caught the car virus already back then, although the 8-9-year version of myself was mostly interested in counting car antennas (these were the days where cars would regularly have 3-4 antennas, and the really cool guys would have a 2-meter, roof-mounted one, making it look like they were receiving from the moon…).
Monaco is obviously embedded in France, and France is obviously very French, also when it comes to cars. In this period there were two French sports cars that easily (at least according to the French) held up with the competition from both Germany and Italy. The first was the Renault 5 Turbo / Turbo 2 nicknamed “the steel mouse”, basically a Renault 5 with a wider body and the engine moved back to sit where the back seats used to be, and developing anything between 160-300 hp depending on version and year. Few of these are left today and when they change hands, it’s at stratospheric prices.
The other came from the small French manufacturer Alpine, established in 1955 and mostly known for the A110, built during the 60’s to the mid-70’s. Alpine had always had a close relationship with Renault who took over the company in 1973 and after the A110, sold its successor the A310 (later A610) until 1995 when the Alpine name disappeared.
In 2017 Renault then re-launched Alpine with the new A110, a small, light sports car clearly reminiscent of the original from the 60’s, and in many ways inspired by Lotus (Lotus Exige bodies were even used during the development process). The A110 received a warm reception especially from the motor press since it was a car that finally went against the logic of ever-increasing power in ever-heavier sports cars. The car magazine Evo (the tagline of which this blog uses as its name) even elected it runner-up in its Evo Car of the Year in 2018. In addition, a small engine with low emissions in a light body made the car cheap to own, which is very important in France but increasingly also in other European countries.
I obviously no longer live in Monaco but our family typically returns to the south of France every year (typically doesn’t include this year by current looks…) and we stay close to a large Renault dealer with a separate Alpine showroom. I visited it last summer, got a personalized demonstration of the car as well as a test drive in the adjacent back country that was really an experience.
Firstly I love the looks, that for me strike the right balance between old and new and are quite unique. Secondly you sit really low with the car wrapped around you. Thirdly, it’s a great drive. The mid-mounted, turbo-charged, 250 hp four-pot (now also available in a 295 hp, “S” version) delivers more than enough power to the rear wheels for the 1.100 kgs it weighs. The engine is in great harmony with the 7-speed DSG box and handling is sharp with a notable absence of body roll. It’s also very well made and doesn’t need to be thrown around a corner to be enjoyable. As Renault has shown previously, all the way from that R5 Turbo to modern incarnations of the Mégane, it knows how to develop great drives, and the A110 is a testament to that. At a starting price of around EUR 55.000, I would also claim that it’s quite competitive, being far cheaper than any new Lotus (and in comfort and finish, only the Evora could compete) or Porsche Cayman (that is however more than 500 kgs heavier), the two most obvious competitors.
Apparently though, not a lot of people agree with me on that last point – because very few Alpines are being sold – and this is even before the whole Covid thing. A total production of around 7.000 so far of what was always going to be a niche car doesn’t sound too bad, but sales in large markets are in free fall and in December, the daily production was cut from 15 cars to 7. As noted in my post on Daniel Ricciardo’s switch to McLaren a few weeks ago (that you can read here), Renault’s finances are also in bad shape, with 15.000 employees currently being cut as part of an EUR 2bn savings plan.
The Alpine is a great sports car at a good price, and although the brand may be less-known than Porsche or Lotus, the reputation and tradition should appeal to at least some of the mid-aged sports car enthusiasts that are the target group. The problem is rather to be found on the distribution side. Given Alpine is not in line neither with the rest of Renault’s line-up nor with its clients, the cars are sold over separate dealers that are few and far between (11 in Germany, 2 in Switzerland, 3 in Austria and not more than 20 in the home market France, that has more than 3.700 Renault dealers). Taken together, that 6-month old Cayman that can be serviced around the corner, that is certainly the safer option and that definitely carries the more prestigious brand, all of a sudden sounds quite attractive…
A mother company in severe financial straits with the French state as 15% owner does not bode well neither for Renault in F1, nor for niche projects like the Alpine. If sales don’t pick up, which is highly doubtful given what’s happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if for the second time in its life, Alpine is laid to rest. That may be sad for Alpine but not necessarily for A110 owners, who can still enjoy a great car that will never be seen on every corner and that can be expected to hold its value really well!