Features

Alpine A610 Turbo: review, history and specs of an icon

France’s answer to the Porsche 964 Carrera 2 is as enthralling today as it was back at its launch in 1991

You can’t escape the Alpine. It’s very much the car of the moment. The Porsche alternative made in Dieppe has been the subject of numerous comparison tests and drive stories and, unsurprisingly, starred in our 2018 Car of the Year gathering too, only just missing out on the win. But this isn’t about the A110. This is what happened in the early ’90s when Alpine launched the A610 Turbo.

It’s probably hard to believe that the A610 Turbo was as feted then as the A110 is now, because despite all the positive press very few were sold here. I haven’t seen one for over a decade and it’s been more than 25 years since I drove one. Yet I have a vivid recollection that dynamically it was really special, even though it had its engine hanging out the back.

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Few car makers have taken on the 911 on its terms, but Alpine has a long history of skirmishes with Porsche, in competition and in the marketplace. Like the 911, the A610’s six-cylinder engine occupies that unlikely space between the rear axle and the rear bumper, and in the Alpine it’s a tall V6 with a single turbo and 247bhp. It sounds like a challenge just to get that combination to work, let alone make the A610 better to drive than the 911 of the day: the 964 Carrera 2 with its 247bhp, 3.6-litre, air-cooled flat-six. We’d had plenty of exposure to the Carrera and reckoned it was the best 911 yet, so we were quite unprepared for the A610 to come along and blow our socks off.

At Performance Car we loved the A610. I drove a yellow one to Land’s End in a feature woefully titled ‘Cornish Fasty’, and another starred in a massive coupe group test in south Wales with a 968, RX-7, Esprit, 300ZX and a few oddities including the Subaru SVX and MVS Venturi (what a great time for coupes the early ’90s was!). We bagged a long-termer for six months too.

Back then, PC’s Car of the Year contest was a much more personal affair. One of our columnists came up with the idea of us each picking our favourite car, then meeting up and deriding everyone else’s choice. We gathered at a chilly Bruntingthorpe for that first CotY in 1990, which was won by the Audi Quattro 20V, suspiciously the choice of said columnist (Jeffery Clarkson, I think it was). It was beginner’s luck; he never picked another winner and a few years later disappeared off to work in TV and obscurity.

The contest was upgraded and in following years took place at Cadwell Park, Lincolnshire. In ’91 I chose the Lotus Carlton and it came second to the Honda NSX. I bagged my first win in ’93 with the 968 Club Sport, and to celebrate, piled it into the tyre wall down by the Gooseneck. But I digress. In ’92 I chose the A610 and remarkably, given that other contenders included the Integrale Evo II, Escort Cosworth and TVR Griffith 4.3, it came home a strong second. And not to a 911! The winner was the BMW M5, the 3.8 E34 model. Clarkson had brought along the Aston Martin Virage, which handled Cadwell’s dips and curves with all the finesse and agility of a stately home.

Amazingly, given the A610’s drivetrain configuration and the trickiness of Cadwell, the Alpine proved as accurate, absorbing and faithful on track as on the road, which cemented its brilliance for me. Obviously it impressed the other judges too, though not all. Contributor Kevin Blick (who would go on to edit niche title Top Gear) summed it up thus: ‘Well, it’s plastic and it’s French and the engine’s at the wrong end and it’s very poor and I don’t like it at all.’ And then placed it fifth out of ten, ahead of the Lancia and TVR.

Despite positive coverage in almost all motoring mags, sales were slow. In the end, just 68 right-hand-drive cars were made out of a total of 818. Clarkson’s CotY summing up identified a couple of reasons why the Alpine struggled to convert its ability and critical acclaim into sales: the cheap interior and the fact that it came from the same stable as the Renault 5 Campus. There wasn’t a Renault badge on it because by the time it was launched in mid-’91, the dispute with Chrysler/Talbot over using the Alpine name in the UK had been resolved. But it did look a lot like the car it replaced, the Renault GTA V6.

As with the 911, the A610 was the product of a long and sustained developmental evolution. This really got going with the original, teeny A110 and its rear-mounted, Renault in-line four, which won the World Rally Championship outright in ’73. The A110 was superseded by the bigger A310 with the same running gear, and then (more successfully) with a V6. Then came a further upscaling to make the GTA, initially with the V6, and later (again, more successfully) with a turbocharged V6.

It’s obvious that there’s much of the GTA in the A610. The stepped glasshouse is shared and the looks are changed only by adding pop-up quad headlamps and lower body scoops and skirts. But there were much more significant changes beneath the glassfibre and polyester panels. The backbone chassis was strengthened, there was new computer-designed suspension, and to help weight distribution as many components as practical were moved to the front. The result was that the front end’s share of the 1420kg kerb weight went up from just 37 per cent to a much better 43 per cent, making a significant contribution to a dynamic transformation that was every bit as complete as with the Phase 1 to Phase 2 Renault Sport Clio V6 a decade later.

Meanwhile, the power-to-weight ratio got a massive boost too, the stroke of the 2.5-litre V6 being increased by 10mm, raising its capacity from 2.5 to 3 litres and helping lift power from 197 to 247bhp, a competitive figure for the time. How does it feel 30 years later? Indeed, how does it all feel three decades on?

It was an unusual-looking car back then and time has not dulled its impact. Like chocolate bars, cars from your youth are always smaller than you recall and the A610 is no exception, though what looks more odd today is how short the wheelbase is, or alternatively how large the overhangs are. The glasshouse sits quite tall too, yet the GTA was very aerodynamic (Cd 0.28) and the A610 with its wider front tyres still managed Cd 0.30.

It’s a big car compared with the 964 Carrera 2, casting a much bigger shadow, yet it offers little more interior space. I’d forgotten this. I’m only average sized but dropping into the driver’s seat, which is as avant-garde as a swivel chair from the 1975 Habitat catalogue, I find my knees up against the steering column. The best that can be said of the interior fittings, trimmed and moulded in 50 shades of grey, is that they haven’t fallen apart as their appearance suggested they might. Even the vulnerable, sill-mounted bobble of a mirror adjuster is intact.

It was vexatious mechanical issues that dogged enjoyment of the A610, as Jonathan Butterworth, owner of this very well-presented example explains. UK cars suffered with a random cutting out issue that was never resolved by the factory and was eventually identified as a poor signal from overheating wiring from the crank sensor. To cure all potential ills in one go, and integrate a replacement turbo (originals are unavailable) and a stainless steel exhaust, Butterworth’s car has an Emerald ECU and makes about 280bhp.

The non-availability of parts is the greatest threat to the survival of A610s. Butterworth’s is kept in fine fettle by skilled specialist John Law Engineering in Dunmow, near Stansted airport, and he has also benefited from the unstinting help of Stephen Dell at the Renault Alpine Owners’ Club, a man exceptionally skilled in tracking down new old stock.

Butterworth is passionate about the A610, of course, and as is so often the case, his obsession can be traced back to a childhood encounter. Aged 11, he was on a family holiday in Italy, and emerging from a pizzeria in Rimini in the early evening they found parked in the square a mysterious black coupe with wide arches, badged only with an enigmatic ‘A’. ‘Locals were walking round it, jabbering and taking photos with disposable cameras,’ Butterworth recalls. ‘They didn’t know what it was and neither did we.’ Later they identified it as an Alpine A310, and that was the moment that the hook went in, when the seed was sown.

Fast forward more than 20 years and Butterworth is driving through Portsmouth at midnight in his Renault 21 Turbo when he spots this very A610 spot-lit in the Renault dealer’s showroom. ‘I parked up, walked back and pressed my nose against the glass. Next day I went in and asked about it. The salesman said it was for sale for £40k, which was daft because it was a couple of years old and the price of new ones had just been dropped to £32k to stimulate sales.’

It was out of his price range then, but he kept tabs on the car. It went to Leatherhead and then, in an amazing fluke, he found it was for sale in Norwich. ‘I was looking in the salvage section of Exchange and Mart for a new turbo for the 21 and the for-sale ad for the A610 had been put in the wrong section. I recognised the registration of course.’ That was 2011. ‘The seller was honest and told me it cut out.’ Butterworth paid £12.5k and since then has invested a lot of time and money getting the car to its current state, including a full respray, full suspension rebuild, air conditioning overhaul…

We meet on the B660, just outside Kimbolton, and I’m transported back to ’92 when I rented a house with a car-savvy girlfriend just a stone’s throw away. I chose it mostly because it had the equivalent of a slip road onto the B660, a road I used for road testing and which led to PC’s office in Peterborough. I was also racing a Caterham Seven, and so this year into which the A610 was woven was a very good one.

Turns out it’s not just the cramped cockpit that has slipped my memory. The floor-hinged pedals are strongly offset to the left and the steering wheel is smaller than I recall too. The vibe is definitely more Lotus than Porsche, a realisation prompted by the oddly familiar gearknob, which I think I’ve wielded more times in Lotus Esprits. Butterworth hops into the passenger seat for the run to the first photo location.

Dob the immobiliser (how ’90s!), give the key a twist and the V6 catches gently and idles slowly and smoothly with a low, bassy rumble, like the distant throb from the engine room of a cross-channel ferry. The lever moves with a slick weightiness and engages more positively than in most Lotuses I’ve driven. In fact, there’s a satisfying, consistent heft to all the controls – gearshift and steering, clutch, brake and throttle. I’m being won over all over again.

Initially, the performance feels relaxed, thanks to long gearing and an engine that comes on boost very gradually, as if it’s supercharged rather than turbocharged. The shove from behind builds like a wave, with none of the usual indicators of a turbo drawing breath until you’re heading past 3000rpm. Then the hissing and whistling join the motor’s strengthening V6 burr and the Alpine starts gaining speed like a snowball rolling down a hill.

It’s a big shove, quieter and more stealthy than the one delivered by the similarly powerful Carrera, but utterly irresistible. Butterworth’s car feels good for the claimed 280bhp, the character of its delivery unchanged from standard, at once lazy and relaxed but also insistent in that delicious way that big-capacity turbo engines are when you give them long gearing or a steep gradient to work against.

The dynamics are in sharp contrast to this, though even before you’ve pressed the A610 you’re struck by how terrifically well-built it feels, how solidly constructed; it’s shake and rattle-free over the trickiest of surfaces.

Given where the engine is, the crispness of the A610’s front-end response is remarkable. You somehow expect it to be protective of the mass behind, to not provoke it, with maybe a touch of understeer as you commit the nose to the turn, but it’s not, and nor does it need to be. It’s direct but not nervous, grippy and well balanced front to rear. The steering feel, weight and gearing is superb. ‘You can’t beat non-assisted steering,’ I say to Butterworth, who reminds me that they went to power steering for the A610…

Before heading for Land’s End in that PC feature, we stopped off at our favourite corner on the B660 to grab an action shot, and in it the A610 looks planted and poised, with the inside front wheel just off the deck. And all these years later, we’re bearing down on that same corner. I mention this so that it doesn’t come as a complete surprise to Butterworth, and then drop his car in with some commitment. On the exit the tail kicks out a bit and it’s easily and neatly gathered up with a single input.

I wrote at the time that the A610 was better handling than the Carrera and that still stands. I love the 964 and loved it then. It was one of the firmer, more positive 911s, all slack seemingly eradicated, front wheels there for the lifting mid-corner on the power. But Alpine absolutely nailed the dynamics of the A610; it manages to harness the traction advantages of the rear-engined layout while at the same time giving a positive front end and balanced handling.

I’m falling in love with the A610 all over again. How good is it? Well, after a stirring drive all the way up the B660, enjoying the grip, poise and relentless performance, we pop over the A1 to where the fens start and park the car up to shoot statics and details. It’s here that I make the discovery that the Toyos fitted are, um, a bit old; the date stamps reveal that the fronts will have their 13th birthday in a couple of weeks’ time, and the rears aren’t much younger. Treated to a set of new Michelins, this A610 would be sensational, and that’s exactly what Butterworth has planned. I envy him greatly. It really is that good.

Alpine A610 Turbo

EngineV6, 2975cc, turbocharged
Power247bhp @ 5750rpm
Torque258lb ft @ 2900rpm
Weight1420kg
Power-to-weight177bhp/ton
0-62mph5.7sec
Top speed166mph
Price when newc£40,000
Value today£24,000-43,000

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