Alpine A110 VS McLaren 540C
- Modest safety tech
- So-so warranty
- Brilliant dynamics
- Impressive performance
- (Relatively) approachable price
- Tricky entry/egress
- Drinks a bit when pushed (don't we all)
- Practicality not a strong suit
Dieppe. A pretty seaside community on the northern French coast. Established a mere thousand years ago, it's copped a hammering in various conflicts, yet retained its beautiful 'marine promenade', a handy reputation for top-notch scallops, and for the last 50-odd years, one of the world's most respected performance carmakers.
Alpine, the brainchild of one Jean Rédélé - racing driver, motorsport innovator, and automotive entrepreneur - is still located on the southern edge of town.
Never officially imported into Australia, the brand is virtually unknown here to all but committed enthusiasts, with Alpine having an illustrious rally and sportscar racing back-story including victory in the 1973 World Rally Championship, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1978.
Rédélé was always committed to Renault, with the French giant eventually buying his company in 1973, and continuing to produce brilliant, lightweight road and racing Alpines until 1995.
After a close to 20-year hibernation, Renault reanimated the brand in 2012 with the stunning A110-50 concept racing car, and then the two-seat, mid-engine machine you see here, the A110.
It's clearly inspired by the Alpine of the same name that wiped the rallying floor clean in the early 1970s. Question is, does this 21st century version build or bury that car's iconic reputation?
|Engine Type||1.8L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Believe it or not, the McLaren 540C is an entry-level model. But you won't find anything remotely resembling rubber floor mats, steel wheels, or cloth seats here. This is a 'base' car like few others.
Revealed in 2015, it's actually the cornerstone of McLaren's three-tier supercar pyramid, being the most affordable member of the Sport Series, with the properly exotic Super Series (650S, 675LT and now 720S), and pretty much insane Ultimate Series (where the P1 hypercar briefly lived) rising above it.
Only a few years ago, McLaren meant nothing to anyone outside the octane-infused world of motorsport. But in 2017, it's right up there with aspirational sports car big guns like Ferrari and Porsche, both of which have been producing road cars for close to 70 years.
So, how has this British upstart managed to build a world-beating supercar brand so quickly?
Everything you need to know to answer that question resides inside the stunning McLaren 540C.
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Don't let the overall score fool you. The Alpine A110 is an instant classic. While practicality, safety and ownership costs don't set the world on fire, it delivers a driving experience that makes everything right with the world every time you get behind the wheel.
Would you like an Alpine A110 in your toy box? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.
The 540C is desirable on so many levels. Its dynamic ability, blistering performance, and stunning design make the cost of entry a value-for-money ticket. And the refreshing thing is, choosing a McLaren, with its focus on function and pure engineering, sidesteps the wankery that so often goes with ownership of an 'established' exotic brand. We absolutely love it.
Do you think McLaren is a genuine competitor for the usual supercar suspects? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
The final example of the original Alpine A110 rolled out of the Dieppe plant in 1977, and despite more than four decades separating it from this newcomer, the 2019 A110 is effectively a new-generation version.
Much more than a tip of the hat to a special predecessor, the new A110 perfectly updates the distinctive, purposeful look of its not-so-ancient ancestor.
In fact, head of the A110 design team, Antony Villain says, "We wondered; if the A110 never went away, if this new car was the sixth or seventh generation A110, what would it look like?"
Appropriately finished in a very French shade of 'Alpine Blue', our test example was one of 60 'Australian Premiere Edition' cars, and the design is full of intriguing details.
At just under 4.2m long, 1.8m wide, and only a touch over 1.2m high the two-seat A110 is compact to say the least.
It's raked LED headlights and round fog lights are recessed into the markedly curved nose in a complete and unabashed reload, with circular LED DRLs accentuating the throwback effect.
The overall look of the carefully scalloped bonnet is also familiar, with a huge under-bumper grille and side ducts creating an air curtain along the front wheel wells to finish off the treatment with a focused, technical touch.
A steeply raked windscreen runs up to a small turret with a broad channel running down its entre, and the flanks are narrowed by a lengthy, aero-influenced indent.
A case study in tightly wrapped surfacing, the rear-end is equally taut, with elements like 'X-shaped' LED tail-lights, tightly curved rear screen, single central exhaust outlet and aggressive diffuser continuing the expressive design theme.
Aero efficiency is a major influence, and as well as the diffuser careful inspection of the rear side window reveals a neat duct at its trailing-edge funnelling air to the mid/rear-mounted engine, and the underbody is smoothed near flat. An overall drag co-efficient of 0.32 is impressive for such a small car.
The A110 also proudly wears its French heart on its sleeve, with an enamel version of Le Tricolore attached to the C-pillar (and various points around the interior).
Eighteen-inch Otto Fuchs forged alloy rims fit the car's style and proportions perfectly with body-colour matching blue brake calipers poking through the delicate split-spoke design.
The interior is all business with racy Sabelt one-piece bucket seats setting the tone. Trimmed in a combination of quilted leather and microfibre (which extends to the doors) they are separated by a floating, flying buttress-style console housing key controls above and a storage tray (including multi-media inputs) below.
Highlights include cool body-colour panels in the doors, a Ferrari-like push-button gear selection set-up, slender alloy manual shift paddles attached to the steering column (not the wheel), matt carbon-fibre accents on the console and around the circular air vents, and a 10.0-inch TFT digital instrument cluster (which morphs to suit Normal, Sport or Track modes).
The A110's chassis and body are made from aluminium, with a brushed form of that material adorning everything from the pedals and perforated passenger footrest to multiple dash trim pieces.
Quality and attention to detail is outstanding to the point that just getting in the car feels like a special occasion. Every time.
In 2010 the recent rise (and rise) of McLaren Automotive really began, when its design director, the hugely respected Frank Stephenson, started to send things in a compelling direction.
He says McLarens are 'designed by air' and that intricately sculpted, wind-tunnel-driven approach to supercar beauty is clear in the 540C's shape.
A serious front spoiler and a mix of large intakes low in the nose create a delicate balance between downforce and corridors for cooling air.
Broad strakes down the side, standing proud of the main bodywork, are reminiscent of a formula one car's turbulence reducing barge boards, and giant intake ducts channel air through to the radiators in the cleanest, most efficient way possible.
And the look is suitably spectacular. You could hang the dramatically carved doors in a contemporary art museum.
There's a delicate lip spoiler on the trailing edge of the main deck, and a giant multi-channel diffuser proves air flow under the car is just as carefully managed as that going over it.
But the 540C doesn't lack traditional supercar drama. The dihedral design doors swinging up to their fully open position is a camera phone attracting, jaw dropping, traffic-stopper.
The interior is simple, striking and single-mindedly driver-focused. The chunky wheel is completely unadorned, the digital instruments are crystal clear, and the seats are the perfect combination of support and comfort.
The vertical 7.0-inch 'IRIS' touchscreen is cool to the point of minimalism, managing everything from audio and nav, to media streaming and air-con, with low-key efficiency.
Practicality is the oil to a two-seat sports car's water. If you want day-to-day functionality, look elsewhere. Quite rightly, the Alpine A110 puts driver engagement at the top of the priority list.
That said, with limited real estate to work with the car's development team has made it liveable, with a surprising amount of boot space included, and modest storage options snuck in around the cabin.
The heavily-bolstered, high-sided sports seats, necessitate use of the 'one hand on the A-pillar and swing in/out' technique for entry and exit, which won't suit everyone. And once inside several things are missing.
Glove box? No. If you need to refer to the owner's manual or grab the service book, they're housed in a small satchel attached to the bulkhead behind the driver's seat.
Door pockets? Forget it. Cupholders? Well, there's one, it's tiny, and located between the seats where only a double-joined circus contortionist could reach it.
There is a long storage bin under the centre console, which is helpful, although it's hard to reach in and actually extract things placed in it. Media inputs run to two USBs, an 'aux-in' and an SD card slot, but their location at the front of that lower storage area is tricky, and there's a 12-volt outlet just in front of the unreachable cupholder.
However, if you and a passenger want to head off on a weekend road trip, amazingly, you can take some luggage with you. With the engine located between the axles there's room for a 96-litre boot at the front and a 100-litre boot at the rear.
We managed to fit the middle (68-litre) hard suitcase from our three-piece set (35, 68 and 105 litres) in the broad but relatively shallow front boot, while the wider, deeper, but shorter rear boot is best for soft bags.
Another missing item is a spare tyre, with a neatly packaged repair/inflator kit your only option in the case of a puncture.
There are some cursory concessions to practicality… like a glovebox, a single cupholder under the dash at the leading edge of the centre console, a small bin between the seats, housing multiple USB outlets, and other storage options here and there.
The latter includes a shelf at the top of the bulkhead behind the seats, marked with a specific label saying (words to the effect of) 'don't put stuff here', but that's more about objects flying forward in a high-G deceleration, which in this car is more likely to be the result of hitting the brakes, rather than a crash.
But the 'big' surprise is the 144-litre boot in the nose, complete with light and 12 volt power outlet. It easily swallowed the CarsGuide medium sized, 68-litre hard shell suitcase.
In terms of getting in and out, make sure you've done you warm-ups because frankly it's an athletic challenge to maintain composure and get the job done either way. Despite best efforts, I hit my head a couple of times, and aside from the pain it's worth pointing out that being a follicularly-challenged person I'm forced to display abrasions in full public view.
Price and features
At $106,500 before on-road costs the Alpine A110 Australian Premiere Edition competes with an interesting range of similarly specified lightweight two-seaters.
The first that springs to mind is the achingly beautiful, mid-engine Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe at $89,000. For some, its exotic carbon chassis is underpinned by a too-firm suspension and the unassisted steering is difficult to deal with. For others (including me) it offers an exceptionally pure driving experience (and those that can't cop its physical nature need to harden up).
Lotus founder Colin Chapman's engineering philosophy, "Simplify, then add lightness" is alive and well in the form of the Lotus Elise Cup 250 ($107,990), and less than $10k more than the A110's MRRP delivers access to Porsche's thoroughbred 718 Cayman ($114,900).
Of course, part of the A110's substantial price tag relates to its all-alloy construction and the low-volume production techniques required to execute it. Not to mention development of an all-new design and global kick-start of a respected but dormant brand.
So, it's not all about bells and whistles, but for the record, a breakdown of this lightweight screamer's standard equipment list includes: 18-inch forged alloy rims, an 'Active-valve' sports exhaust system (with engine noise aligned to drive mode and speed), brushed aluminium pedal covers and passenger footrest, leather-trimmed Sabelt one-piece sports seats, auto LED headlights, satellite navigation, climate control air, cruise control, rear parking sensors, and electric heated, folding wing mirrors.
The 'Alpine Telemetrics' driving data system provides (and stores) real-time performance metrics including power, torque, temperatures, and turbo pressure, as well as lap times for track day warriors. And you'll also pick up a leather and microfibre-trimmed sports steering wheel (complete with 12 o'clock marker and Alpine Blue topstitching), stainless steel door sills with Alpine branding, dynamic (scrolling) indicators, auto rain-sensing wipers, and a 7.0-inch multimedia touchscreen including 'MySpin' mobile phone connectivity (with smartphone mirroring).
Audio comes from French specialist Focal, and although there are only four speakers, they're special. The main (165mm) speakers in the doors use a flax cone structure (flax sheet sandwiched between two glass fibre layers) and (35mm) aluminium/magnesium inverted dome tweeters sit at either end of the dashtop.
Certainly enough to be going on with, but at more than $100k we'd expect to see a reversing camera (more on that later), and the latest safety tech (more on that later, too).
Standard kit runs to climate control air con, an alarm system, cruise control, remote central locking, LED headlights, tail-lights and DRLs, keyless entry and drive, a limited-slip differential, leather steering wheel, power folding mirrors, four-speaker audio, and a multi-function trip computer.
'Our' car featured close to $30,000 worth of options; headline items being the 'Elite - McLaren Orange' paint finish ($3620), a 'Sport Exhaust' system ($8500), and the 'Security Pack' ($10,520) which includes front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, alarm upgrade and a vehicle lifter that raises the front of the car an extra 40mm at the push of a column stalk. Very handy.
And the signature orange shade follows through with orange brake calipers peeking out through the standard 'Club Cast' alloy rims, and similarly coloured seatbelts inside.
Engine & trans
Alpine has modified the intake manifold, exhaust and overall calibration, but the big difference here is that although it's still transversely mounted, in the Alpine the engine sits in a mid/rear position and drives the rear wheels (rather than in the R.S.'s nose driving the fronts).
Featuring direct injection and a single turbo it produces 185kW at 6000rpm, and 320Nm of torque from 2000-5000rpm, compared to 205kW/390Nm in the Megane R.S. But the Alpine's 356kg weight advantage means it boasts a 169kW/tonne power-to-weight ratio, while the Megane sits at 141kW/tonne.
Drive goes to a Getrag-sourced seven-speed (wet) dual-clutch auto transmission, with Alpine-specific ratios inside.
Aside from you and a passenger, the most important thing sitting between the 540C's axles is the 3.8-litre (M838TE) twin-turbo V8.
Developed in collaboration with British high-tech engineering specialist, Ricardo, McLaren's used it in various states of tune across different models, including the P1, and even in this 'entry-level' spec it produces enough power to light up a small town.
In 540C trim, the all-alloy unit delivers 397kW (540 metric horsepower, hence the model designation) at 7500rpm, and 540Nm from 3500-6500rpm. It uses race-derived dry sump lubrication, and a compact flat plane crank design, favoured by Ferrari and others in high-performance engines.
While vibration damping can be an issue with this configuration, it allows a much higher rev ceiling relative to the more common cross plane arrangement, and this engine screams up to 8500rpm, a stratospheric number for a road-going turbo.
The seven-speed 'Seamless-Shift' dual-clutch transmission sends drive exclusively to the rear wheels and comes from Italian gearbox gurus Oerlikon Graziano. It's been progressively refined and upgraded since its first appearance in the MP4-12C in 2011.
Claimed fuel economy for the combined (ADR 81/02 - urban, extra-urban) cycle is 6.2L/100km, the 1.8-litre four emitting 137g/km of CO2 in the process.
Over close to 400km worth of often 'enthusiastic' driving, taking in city, suburban and freeway running we recorded an average of 9.6L/100km.
Definitely a miss, but not bad when you consider we hit the off switch for the standard stop-start system on a consistent basis and regularly took advantage of the accelerator pedal's ability to move towards the floor.
Minimum fuel requirement is 95 RON premium unleaded, and you'll need just 45 litres of it to fill the tank.
McLaren claims 10.7L/100km for the combined (urban/extra urban) fuel economy cycle, emitting 249g/km of CO2 at the same time.
For the record, that's six per cent better than the Ferrari 488 GTB (11.4L/100km – 260g/km), and if you take it easy on a constant freeway cruise, you can lower it even further.
But most of the time, we, ahem, didn't do better than that, averaging 14.5L/100km via the trip computer in just over 300km of city, suburban and freeway running.
Weighing at just 1094kg (target weight was 1100kg), with a 44:56 front-to-rear weight distribution, the all-aluminium A110 is every millimetre the mini-supercar you'd hope it to be.
It only takes two to three rotations of the Alpine's wheels to realise it's exceptional. The Sabelt seat is superb, the chunky steering wheel perfect, and the engine instantly eager to get on with it.
The electro-mechanical power-assisted steering feels just right from the first corner. The rack is quick and road feel is intimate without the crashy feedback penalty paid by the Alfa 4C.
Engage launch control and you're blasting from 0-100km/h 4.5sec, with the engine adding a suitably raucous backing track, a full charge of air rasping through the inlet manifold just behind your ears. Spinning up to the close to 7000rpm rev ceiling is pure pleasure, with peak torque available from just 2000rpm all the way to five grand.
Pressing the wheel-mounted 'Sport' button sharpens gearshifts and holds low ratios for longer, with the already slick dual-clutch really getting its race face on. Hold in the down lever in manual mode and the transmission will instantly shift through to the lowest gear engine revs will allow, the Active-valve sports exhaust chipping in with rude pops and bangs on the over-run. 'Track' mode is even more hardcore, allowing a greater element of slip in cornering. Brilliant.
The engine's mid/rear location delivers a low roll-centre and the double wishbone suspension set-up (front and rear) manages to combine super-sharp dynamic response with a surprisingly civilised ride.
Alpine says the A110's light weight and ultra-rigid chassis mean its coil springs can be reasonably soft and anti-roll bars light so even our truly ordinary urban blacktop doesn't cause too much distress.
The A110 is beautifully balanced, amazingly agile, and satisfyingly precise. Weight transfer in quick cornering is managed to perfection, the car remaining stable, predictable and hugely entertaining.
Grip from the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber (205/40 fr - 235/40 rr) is tenacious, and the torque vectoring system (by braking) quietly keeps things pointing in the right direction if an over-zealous pilot begins to overstep the mark.
Despite the A110's modest kerb weight braking is professional grade. Brembo provides ventilated 320mm rotors (front and rear) with four-piston alloy calipers at the front and single-piston floating calipers at the rear. They're progressive, powerful and consistent.
The only downsides are a clumsy multimedia interface, and the annoying lack of a reversing camera. But who cares, this car is amazing.
The best word to describe driving this McLaren is orchestration. The 540C's dynamic elements flow seamlessly together to transform its operator into a conductor guiding a well-honed mechanical orchestra through an energetic concerto.
And slipping (carefully) over the carpeted bulkhead into the driver's seat is like dropping into an ergonomic masterclass. It feels like you're putting the car on, rather than getting into it.
Like all other current McLarens, the 540C is constructed around a one-piece, carbon-fibre tub, which it calls MonoCell II. It's super stiff, and just as importantly, light.
McLaren quotes a dry weight (no fuel, lubricants, or coolant) for the 540C of 1311kg, with the kerb weight a stated 1525kg (including a 75kg passenger). Not featherweight, but with this kind of power sitting a few centimetres behind your head, it's not a lot.
A sophisticated launch control system means zero to licence loss is achieved in a flash (0-100km/h – 3.5sec), with jail time lurking if you ever decide to explore the 540C's 320km/h maximum velocity. And in case you're wondering, it'll blast from 0-200km/h, in just 10.5sec.
The engine sounds brilliantly guttural, with lots of exhaust roar managing to find a way past the turbos. Maximum torque is available across a flat plateau from 3500-6500rpm, and mid-range punch is strong. However, the 540C is anything but a one-trick pony, or is that 540 ponies?
The double wishbone suspension, complete with the adaptive 'Active Dynamics Control' system lets you channel all that forward thrust into huge cornering speed.
The switch from Normal, through Sport to Track progressively buttons everything down harder, and an ideal weight distribution (42f/58r) delivers fantastic agility.
Feel from the electro-hydraulic steering is amazing, the fat Pirelli P Zero rubber (225/35 x 19 front / 285/35 x 20 rear), developed specifically for this car, grips like a Mr T handshake, and the standard 'Brake Steer' torque vectoring system, which applies braking force to optimise drive and minimise understeer, is undetectable in the best possible way.
The steering wheel paddles come in the form of a genuine rocker, so you're able to change up and down ratios on either side of the wheel, or one-handed.
Hammer towards a quick corner and the reassuringly progressive steel rotor brakes bleed off speed with complete authority. Flick down a couple of gears, then turn in and the front end sweeps towards the apex without a hint of drama. Squeeze in the power and the fat rear rubber keeps the car planted, and perfectly neutral mid-corner. Then pin the throttle and the 540C rockets towards the next bend… which can't come quickly enough. Repeat, and enjoy.
But slotting everything into 'Normal' mode transforms this dramatic wedge into a compliant daily driver. Smooth throttle response, surprisingly good vision and excellent ride comfort make the McLaren a pleasure to steer around town.
You'll love catching a glimpse of the heat haze shimmering up off the engine in the rear-view mirror at the lights, and the (optional) nose-lift system makes traversing awkward driveways and speed bumps manageable.
In terms of active safety, the A110's sheer dynamic ability will help you avoid an unfortunate incident, and specific tech includes ABS, EBA, traction control, stability control (disconnectable), cruise control (with speed limitation) and hill-start assist.
And when it comes to passive safety you're protected by an airbag for the driver and one for the passenger. That's it. Weight-saving, eh? What can you do?
The Alpine A110 hasn't been assessed for safety performance by ANCAP or EuroNCAP.
In terms of active safety, the car's dynamic ability is one giant safeguard against a collision, and that's backed up by tech features including ABS and brake assist (no AEB, though), as well as stability and traction controls.
But if a crunching-type incident is unavoidable, the carbon-composite chassis offers exceptional crash protection with dual front airbags in support (no side or curtain airbags).
Not a huge surprise that ANCAP (or Euro NCAP, for that matter) hasn't assessed this particular vehicle.
The Alpine A10 is covered by a three-year/100,000km warranty with a twist. According to Alpine, the first two years are covered for unlimited kilometres. And if at the end of the second year total kilometres remain less than 100,000, the warranty continues into a third year (still to an overall cap of 100,000km).
So, you can sail over the 100,000km mark in the warranty's first two years, but that means you won't get a third.
Complimentary roadside-assist is provided for 12 months, continuing for up to four years if your Alpine is regularly serviced at an authorised dealer.
There are currently three dealers only – one each in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – and service is recommended every 12 months/20,000km, with the first two costing $530 each, and the third ramping up to $1280.
You'll also need to factor in a pollen filter ($89) at two years/20,000km and accessory belt replacement ($319) at four years/60,000km.
That's a lot of kays for a premium exotic like this, and some may not see 15,000km on the odometer… ever.