The Alpine A110 S is the ultimate driver’s car – but I’m not the ultimate driver
A tale of when things go horribly wrong, even if the car in question is pretty much faultless
Leon Poultney is a writer, driver, rider and lover of all things automotive, who writes for the likes of Wired, T3, Stuff, The Sun and DriveTribe.
The plan was simple: wake up before the birds, brave a frigid winter’s morning and race to catch a jaw-dropping sunrise in a spot that is not only famed for its beauty but is also only accessed via some enticingly empty twisting Tarmac.
If there’s one car that’s worth leaving the comfort of a warm duvet, skipping a shower and slipping into the grips of a freezing morning, it’s the Alpine A110S. With the increased power from the deliciously diminutive 1.8-litre turbo engine, lower body height, stiffer suspension and a mild light-weighting programme, it takes what is intoxicating about the ‘standard’ A110 and turns the dial up a few notches.
The idea was to capture the sensation of rising long before the school run and enjoying some gloriously open roads, heading deep into the countryside with only the inky black sky and odd early-riser farmer for company.
Early birds catch the driving worms (or something)
Things kicked off perfectly, the thermometer hovering just above freezing, keeping most safely tucked into bed and away from the roads. With a couple of backpacks loaded into the Alpine’s ‘frunk’ (and I promise not to type that word again), it was simply a case of hammering some dual carriageway until the roads got more interesting.
The day’s chilly temperatures seemed only to make the Alpine’s exhaust note even more enjoyable and when the system is thumbed into its racier ‘sports’ mode, those pipes are freed up to emit a howl that’s as unique as this machine’s styling.
Perhaps there should be a disclaimer here, because I fell head-over-heels in love with the A110 when I was lucky enough to drive it during the debut launch event over in central France. Weirdly, the conditions weren’t that far off a chilly March in the UK, albeit the views were slightly more epic.
Some seriously smart engineering
Not a bad way to spend the morning...
Anyone who appreciates an engineering yarn couldn’t fail to be impressed by then-Alpine chief engineer David Twohig’s tales of windscreen washer fluid headaches (the fluid bottle is so small, the team had to develop a precise system to clear the screen a regulation amount of times), packaging challenges and powertrain perfection. This is a car that required many man hours to refine, despite the market for small sports cars not exactly making the most passionate case for its existence.
If a Porsche is regarded as the pinnacle of sports car performance, the Alpine strutted on stage and offered itself up as the slightly madcap, decidedly French alternative. A definite underdog, but everyone loves an underdog – right?
There’s likely an argument that the A110 S doesn’t really need to exist, seeing that the basic model is about as much fun as you can have on four wheels. Light, agile, peppy and absolutely on fire when driven hard, it does what all small sports cars do best and entertains, even when operating no way near its top speed.
Loading up the 'trunk' before heading out
The S model has clearly been tuned to be a more serious proposition and the firmer suspension, more reactive steering and extra 40hp are immediately noticeable. Even though the 0-62mph sprint is only half a second faster in this lighter, more purposeful version, the speeds somehow seem more ferocious.
This is perhaps due to newfound levels of grip. The tyres now have a greater contact patch than ever before, meaning the playful nature of old still exists, but this Alpine urges to be pushed that little bit harder, to attack the corner that little bit faster.
And that's when it all went wrong for me…
No sheep were harmed in the making of this image
A tight right-hand bend, greasy road surfaces, the odd spattering of tractor tyre dirt and – more importantly – the very dregs of my ‘driving talent’ reserves spelled disaster.
Where grip had previously been in abundance, the rear of the car rapidly broke away and there ensued an almighty tank-slapper. For a fraction of a second, my brain congratulated itself on such impressive reaction times, before my eyeballs overload my senses with visions of a barbed wire fence, a large mound and a muddy field.
The feeling can only be described as sickening. It only takes a nano-second to realise all limbs are intact, so the mind moves straight onto its in-built showreel of emotions. Guilt, embarrassment, shame, worry, more shame and, finally, burning anger.
The calm before the storm
Luckily, the car weighs about as much as a garden pea, so it wasn’t too difficult to wrestle it away from its wiry shackles and limp it to safer, less embarrassing surrounds. But before exiting the car, I’d reserved a sliver of hope for minor bodywork bruises. That wasn’t to be.
The lightweight Gris Tonnerre plastics of the Alpine A110 S had been cracked and scratched but amazingly, there was nary an engine warning light or mechanical issue in sight. It was possible to shamefully coax the car back to my driveway where it could be collected later.
Any self-respecting motoring journalist has nightmares about the ‘dreaded phone call of doom’ to the custodians of these cars. As always, the Renault press team’s primary concern was with safety and they were relieved to hear hospital trips weren’t required, but you just know colourful language is being used as soon as the phone call ends.
Filming for the movie that never was
Seeing any car in tatters is a little heart-wrenching, but witnessing the A110 Berlinette-inspired lines of this little fun machine all tattered and torn was next-level mortification.
It's better than you think
Up until that fateful point, the Alpine A110 S had proven faultless: fast, agile, surprisingly comfortable, fun and strikingly elegant on the road, taking all of the best bits of the A110 and making them more serious for those who like to foray onto a track at weekend.
It’s just a shame this driver wasn't a match for these deeply impressive facets.
Aside from the obvious remarks about crap driving, it would be great to hear about any embarrassing stories in the comments below. Let it all out, it feels better.