McLaren Senna vs. Alpine A110: can less be more?
Which of these two, honestly, would you pick for B-road fun?
We drive a Senna and A110 on a mountain road to see when enough is enough in the race for more power, speed and grip
This is not a twin test. There will be no winner or loser, the cars featured merely illustrative of a point I thought I wanted to make.
The McLaren Senna seen here could as easily have been any other hypercar or, indeed, top-flight supercar like a Ferrari 812 Superfast or Lamborghini Aventador SVJ. Similarly, although the Alpine A110 is undeniably well suited to the task in hand, a Lotus Elise would have sufficed.
So those hoping for a David and Goliath contest where the little £50k sports car fells three-quarters of a million quid’s worth of carbonfibre-bodied hypercar are going to be sorely disappointed. There are some architectural and conceptual similarities between them – mid-engine configurations, seven-speed paddle-shift transmissions, an admirable focus on lightweight construction and so on – but probably the most significant thing they share, and what puts them in one of the most exclusive of automotive clubs, is that both come complete with five-star Autocar road test ratings. And nothing you’re about to read changes that in any way.
Instead, we’re here in the Welsh mountains to ask a question and, hopefully, provide an answer. The question is simple: what is ‘enough’? I don’t really want to be more precise than that, because the moment I say ‘enough power’, then that has to be tempered with considerations of weight, torque and delivery. It would be better to call it ‘enough performance’, but to most people, that is simply a straight-line measure. Hold a gun to my head and I’d define the question as this: how much dynamic ability of all kinds can be used on even world-class public roads like these, and are those that provide more just wasting it, or is there a delicious pleasure in the simple knowledge that it’s there, which, in a very real way, adds further to the enjoyment of such cars?
So the real point of having these two here is that they are the absolute best at what they do. The Alpine is that rarest of things today: a genuine game changer in the way it combines extraordinary feel and response in daily-driver civility. I expect we’ve not seen an all-new car do that job so well for merely mortal money since the launch of the Porsche 911 55 years ago, and I don’t exaggerate one bit. The Senna? It may not actually change the game, but by moving it so far away from the reach of normal supercars, it might as well have done. In terms of genuine road car ability, pure, outright and all-round pace, I doubt a car has expanded the envelope of supercar ability so comprehensively since McLaren launched another quite useful device called the F1 almost a quarter of a century ago.
There was a time, not that long ago, when a simple road tester like me would have approached a car of even the Alpine’s potential with a sense of, if not actual trepidation, then at least a certain nerviness derived from the fact that here was something different, something with a potential that it would be hard to find elsewhere. When I started doing this job 30 years ago, the fastest machine Autocar had a hope of being able to borrow was a Ferrari Testarossa. You took a big breath before aiming that up a mountain road, believe me, for I remember doing exactly that on exactly this road. And yet both its power-to-weight ratio and torque-to-weight ratio are only a fraction ahead of where the Alpine sits today. And the Alpine, with its Mégane powertrain, is a car that deliberately, almost wilfully, thumbs its nose at the more-more-more brigade. That is how far we’ve come. Indeed, the very purpose of its existence appears to act as an antidote for those who feel the arms race is out of control.
So join me for a moment in its snug, compact yet surprisingly spacious cockpit. There’s a happy bark when you hit the button that brings it to life and it deepens a shade when you press the red ‘Sport’ button on its steering wheel. The road is long and quick, but sinuous, constantly moving in all three dimensions.
The car feels right from the exit of the car park. Confidence courses through your arteries. Short shift into second and let it go. The car is accelerating hard – Testarossa hard, remember – its motor starting to howl, so you grab another gear. From now on, you’ll only be in third and fourth. It’s that kind of road.
Underneath you, the Alpine feels so supple, so different from other cars. It’s breathing with the road, flowing across its surface and talking, always talking to you, through the steering in part but its chassis in the main. There’s no other car on sale in which it’s easier to establish a rhythm of driving.
It’s a car that quite brilliantly turns back the clock in not just what it does but also how it encourages you to think. At first, you’re disappointed in yourself because those thoughts are time-expired road testing clichés – man and machine in perfect harmony, how you need only think it around corners, all that hoary old guff – before you realise there are two reasons we don’t communicate in such terms any more, and only one of them is because such terms were worn out decades ago. The perhaps more pertinent reason is that cars don’t feel like that any longer.
Not once on that road did I crave another horsepower. Not once did I find myself lamenting its lack of apex speed. Out here in the real world, the £50k A110 with its 248bhp motor was the very definition of ‘enough’. Who could possibly want more?
Driving done, parked up next to the Senna, the answer is me, I’m afraid.
So let’s repeat the exercise in the McLaren. First thing you need to do is turn off the traction control, absurd I know, but I’ve learned from prior experience that if you leave it on, what you get is Diet Senna in such an unobtrusive form that you may not even realise you’re experiencing a fraction of its potential.
And now the rules change completely. This is no longer an exercise in unbridling your enthusiasm. I know from the start that, most of all, this is going to be an exercise in saintly restraint. What this car can do is so far beyond what this road can safely take that the most I can hope for is a taste, a mere flavour of what it has to offer.
We’ll forget the first two ratios straight away, and the top end of the power band, too. If this car is to be contained, it will be only on a gear-up, revs-down basis. Still, when the torque chimes in, you are instantly busy. Even like this, the Senna asks a lot of its driver. And do you know what? I don’t mind at all. It is a captivating, electrifying experience, a real challenge to your abilities as a driver. By which I don’t mean that it will spit you into the heather – although if you were casual with it, I don’t doubt that it would – but that if you’re to make the most of the experience, you’re going to need every mote of concentration you can gather.
Try not to grip the wheel too hard. Accept that, with tyres that wide, it’s going to hunt about a bit. Try to relax. Try not to leap like a startled rabbit every time that 789bhp motor thinks of a new way to propel you through an entire delivery round of postcodes at a single prod of the pedal. Try to enjoy it. Ignore the slight sweat and don’t worry about that strange sound. It’s not the car making it. It’s you. Concentrate on keeping it clean. Find the apex and don’t fret about the grip: however ludicrously over-specified this car is in straight-line terms, it is even more so when it comes to corners. Be smooth, of course, but deliberate, too. You’re in charge even though, at times, it may not seem that way. Feel what it is like to bathe in an ocean of excess and to know its depths lie many miles out of reach.
Is it glorious, or just frustrating? Well, both, but more the former than the latter, and this is what I found fascinating about the exercise. The single most significant factor in the sensation of speed is not actually how fast you’re going, but the environment in which you find yourself. Sit at 600mph in a Boeing 747 at 40,000ft and you’ll see what I mean. Just because you can’t savour all or even more than a small part of what a Senna can do when confined to the public road, this doesn’t mean that what it can do is any the less exciting for that. Indeed, knowing there is an effectively bottomless pit of ability provides a driving dimension all of its own. Just by seeing how deeply you can safely draw from it is a fascinating exercise in its own right, requiring techniques and rigour that simply don’t apply to the Alpine.
Don’t mistake me: I’ve been lucky enough to have done many laps of a long and fast race track in a Senna, put it in Race mode and driven it as rapidly as I knew how, which was where it showed me things I didn’t think a road car could do. But even that was slightly frustrating because at Estoril it was still being held back, but this time by the current limits of street tyre technology. More than any car wearing a numberplate that I’ve driven, the Senna simply screams for a slick on the track, and when the GTR version arrives next year, a slick it will get.
The point is that wherever you go, whatever you drive and however you drive it, there’s always going to be something sub-optimal. Not enough power, too much power, wrong sort of road, wrong kind of weather. The secret is to find a car that strikes the best balance and affords you the greatest opportunity to enjoy the best possible driving experience on the largest number of opportunities. And because it’s not interested in going fast, that is why the Alpine probably scores more highly in more areas than any other car on sale.
And yet the essential paradox remains: if I were to offer you a bottle of something nice from the Waitrose fine wine department or merely a taste of Château Pétrus, which would you choose? There is no correct answer: I’d probably go Waitrose because in wine, as in too many other things, I am a complete philistine. But there would be others who might have spent a lifetime wondering what it would be like to feel the world’s finest claret suffuse their taste buds. And the chance to experience it would be worth not a bottle or even a case of anything more mundane but a lifetime supply. The Senna is the Pétrus.
Which would I take along that road again? Has to be the Alpine, doesn’t it? It exists at the very limit of what can sensibly be deployed in public. It is a joyous thing to drive, a result of some exquisitely clear thinking, maybe even a work of genius.
But actually? I’ll take the Senna, thanks. And so would you. It’s a Senna for goodness’ sake. You’d not turn down that experience, any more than you’d not watch a five-star film on an aircraft because the screen’s not big enough. You get the chance and you take it, even if the circumstances are not ideal. So yes, the Alpine is the very definition of ‘enough’, the Senna the absolute embodiment of ‘too much’. And I won’t be the first to observe that too much of a good thing can sometimes be absolutely wonderful.
Source: Autocar Online