New cars -- Renault Alpine A610 Turbo

Last Chance?

At a glance, Renault's new sports car, which has just been announced at the Geneva Show and which went on sale in France on March 19, looks little different to the current GTA. True, the headlamps are now of the flip-up variety and the design has been updated, but that is all.

Such observations, though, are fallacious. From the revamped original logo on the nose of the car to the tip of the rear spoiler, the car has been changed, some 80% of the total altogether. All the bodywork except for the roof, for example, has been altered.

Although this Renault is the product of Renault's Alpine subsidiary in Dieppe, the actual research and development work has been undertaken by Berex, another Renault satellite company, also based in Dieppe.

As a suitable replacement for the turbocharged Renault GTA V6, it was decreed that the successor had to be an improvement in three areas: Quality — in assembly and materials; the handling and ride; and the comfort. Nowhere, you will notice, does engine performance get a mention, but it is in this area that there has been a great leap forward, which in turn has affected the handling characteristics.

The powerplant itself is basically the same unit from the older model, but in the quest for greater torque, it has had an increase in stroke from 63mm to 73mm to bring the displacement to 2975cc. This has boosted bhp by another 50 despite the addition of increased emission control equipment enabling the A610 to comply with the tough US 87 regulations. Maximum torque has meanwhile been increased to 256 lb ft at 2900 rpm, figures which represent an improvement of 25% and 20% respectively on the superceded engine. Significantly, though, 248 lb ft is available from as low as 2000 rpm which endows the car with a far smoother power delivery and virtually eliminates turbocharger lag.

Computers play a primary and secondary role in this new Alpine. Whilst the boost pressure, ignition and fuel injection are controlled by an engine management system, much of the rest of the car's electrical equipment is determined by a Central Accessory Unit. In other words, if this secondary unit goes "down" for any reason, so do the intermittent windscreen wiper operation, the electric water pump and cooling fans, the electric windows etc.

To keep pace with the greater torque and greater power, the clutch, gearbox, transmission, anti-roll bars, springs and spring rates, dampers and brakes have all been revamped. The ventilated discs, for example, have been increased in diameter from 260mm of the GTA to 300mm of the A610 while the calipers have been uprated from 57mm to 60mm at the front and from 50mm to 54mm at the rear. A larger air-to-air intercooler, more efficient radiator ventilation and oil radiator, electric water pump and an electric fan which continues to operate after the engine has been switched off, have also all been reworked.

Even to casual observers, the replacement of the perspex headlamp covers by retractable ones is obvious, but it was a modification undertaken through necessity, not dictated by fashion or the desire to distance the new model from the GTA.

Even before the Renault/American Motors debacle, which saw the French manufacturer take a bloody nose in the United States, the A610 was under development, and at that time the American market figured highly in its sights. Renault/Alpine/Berex had even gone to the extent of producing a chassis specifically for them as neither the previous box-type construction nor the glassfibre floorpan met US regulations and their infamous impact test.

It is rather ironic then that the GTA was not sold across the Atlantic as it did not comply with American standards, and that the A610, which has been built to meet those regulations from the word go, will still not be sold there as Renault has completely withdrawn from that market.

New front and rear subframes have been attached onto the traditional Alpine backbone while the opportunity of revising several sections, such as reinforcing the doors and increasing passenger safety, has been taken with the incorporation of an integral roll-over bar within the rear part of the car. In the quest for a more balanced car, the spare tyre has been moved from the very rear of the car to the nose and the battery has been relocated further forward under the bonnet.

The car's shape has meant that the A610 has the same 0.30Cd factor of the GTA, no doubt due in part to the retractable headlamps, the wrap-around bumper and the rubber bib at the front beneath the skirt which also creates negative lift on the front axle. 16 inch wheels are fitted with low profile Michelin MXX 205/45/ZR16s on the front and 245/45/ZR16s on the rear.

After a shortish cross country route through South West France, during which we had to put the new 5-point ABS brakes into use after cresting a brow at some speed and finding the road ahead blocked with a herd of cows, while "I Can See for Miles" was playing on the cassette, we ended up at the short and twisty Pau circuit.

If this had been the turbocharged GTA V6, it would have been a mistake on Renault's part to allow a number of these cars onto the track at the same time. The sudden cut-in of boost at 3500 rpm and the delicacy with which the car generally needed to be handled on twisty roads would have been a recipe for a disaster, but not so with the A610. With virtually all the torque available at 2000 rpm, the car's more bestial traits have been eliminated. The ABS brakes, which certainly add an extra dimension to the sense of security, and the gearchange, which has been significantly improved, enable the driver to make full use of the improved handling. It still is possible to get the tail to whip out of line, but that is due more to the g forces rather than the stability of the car being upset by a sudden power surge from the engine. Noise suppression is acceptable for a rear-engined car, the roar of the tyres generally more intrusive than the growl of the V6 on the open road. Top speed is academic, but the makers claim 265 kph and to 100 kph in 5.7 seconds, figures we cannot substantiate, although we did reach an indicated 240 kph on one flat stretch of road with seemingly little left to come.

So if one accepts that the quality has been improved as far as the chassis and mechanicals are concerned and that the ride and handling are also better, what about the third area that was on the list for improvement — comfort? This falls basically into two areas: comfort while on the move and a sense of well-being within the cabin. Since the handling and ride are far superior, there is no doubt that it is more user-friendly, so it is all the more disappointing that the interior has not been revamped to the extent of the rest of the car. There have been some very minor cosmetic changes, and the former weird wiper pattern has been made more conventional, but otherwise the interior of the GTA and A610 is almost interchangeable. Whilst this is not bad, there is room for improvement. The only optional extras are leather trim and a CD player, the car already equipped with a 6 speaker Pioneer system with Renault's fine column stalk control.

The price of the new Alpine has yet to be decided upon by Renault UK when it arrives in Britain this autumn, but in France the car is selling for approximately £40,000, which makes it far cheaper than comparable Porsches and on a par with the Nissan 300SX. It is fighting an uphill battle, though, because as we mentioned in our road test of the Alpine GTA V6 last year, the Alpine marque has never really been accepted in this country. However if the A610 doesn't rectify the situation, nothing will. -- WPK