Renault Revives Alpine Sports Brand That Once Beat Porsche

  • Sports car reaches 100km/hr in 4.5 seconds to add racing flair
  • Alpine's winning race cars are a `dim and distant' memory: IHS

Renault SA will roll out a new version of the low-slung Alpine sports car in 2017, reviving the mothballed nameplate in a bid to add racing flair to the French automaker’s lineup of utilitarian compacts.

The two-seater will be able to accelerate to 100 kilometers an hour (62 miles per hour) in 4.5 seconds, about as quickly as a Porsche 911 Carrera, and it’ll replace the Espace minivan as Renault’s most expensive car when it hits showrooms in Europe. Shuttered in 1995 because of poor sales, the niche Alpine brand was most known for the A110 Berlinette coupe, which beat Porsche models in rally competitions in the 1970s.

“Alpine represents racing glory,” and reviving the brand is a strategic opportunity to win over new customers, Carlos Ghosn, Renault’s chief executive officer, said at a presentation in Monaco. 

Ghosn is resurrecting Alpine to help balance out Renault’s alliance with more profitable Japanese partner Nissan Motor Co. The 16-year-old tie-up has been under strain since the French state unexpectedly increased its stake in Renault last year, giving it more control over the group than Nissan. France has since thwarted Nissan’s effort to gain more say.

The dispute over control highlighted weaknesses within the alliance structure and puts pressure on Ghosn, who also runs Nissan, to lift margins at Renault and narrow the gap with its Japanese partner.

Sporty Cachet

The new Alpine, which has been under development since at least 2012, is aimed at adding sporty cachet to the French manufacturer in an effort that also includes Renault’s return to Formula 1 racing. Still, sales of the model will probably be modest because of fading demand for niche sports cars and the limited appeal of the brand. Forecaster IHS Automotive predicts the Alpine will peak at about 1,300 deliveries in 2018, less than a rounding error for a company that made 2.3 million vehicles last year. About 30,000 Alpine cars were built between 1955 and 1995.

The Alpine is “sort of a halo exercise,” which could fall flat, said Tim Urquhart, an analyst at IHS Automotive. “They made some interesting and good cars in the 1970s and 80s, but these are very dim and distant memories.”

Renault, which owns the budget Dacia brand but lacks an upscale complement to its mass-market offerings, has broader plans beyond the Alpine Vision concept shown Tuesday. The company said it’ll be just the first of a new family of cars that may include high-end hybrids and sport utility vehicles.

“We’re flexible where to take the brand,” said Thierry Bollore, the automaker’s chief competitive officer. “Everything is on the table.” 

Renault plans to give the white Alpine Vision -- a break with the traditional blue used in the Berlinette -- time to prove itself, with a 10-year road map to build out the brand. A previous attempt to shift upscale with the Initiale Paris concept car, a plush crossover shown at the Frankfurt motor show in 2013, hasn’t yet translated into a line of new vehicles.

Still, some customers have already been calling to ask for the Alpine, said Ralph Saenger, brand manager for Renault and Dacia at the Auto Witzel dealership in Bochum, Germany.

“The success of such a revival depends on a healthy mix of referencing historical design and setting new, unique standards in technology,” Saenger said. “It’ll showcase what Renault is capable of.”

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