Light refreshment

Renault was adamant, when it launched the new Clio, that it wouldn't be offering yellow as a colour option in the UK. Yellow cars don't sell this side of the Channel, they said, Renault 4 notwithstanding.

While violent canary may be considered gaudily inappropriate for town-friendly hatchbacks, it's clearly all the rage for Renault's impressive new technological showpiece the A610 by Alpine, to give it its full title. (In France, the car is simply the Alpine A610, an appellation which isn't permissible in this country as the Alpine name, a hangover from the Rootes era, is still registered by PSA.) At the recent launch of the UK specification A610, all but two of the 10 test vehicles were thus hued. Unless you're driving through a field of sunflowers, you're unlikely to pass unnoticed in one of these.

Actually. A610 buyers will still stand out from the crowd even if they opt for a subtler shade of bodywork. Sales forecasts for the UK are not great. Only 534 examples of its immediate predecessor, the GTA, are registered on the roads of Britain. That was launched here in 1986, and reached the peak of its popularity three years later, when 140 units were sold.

The Alpine factory in Dieppe turns out just four A610s per day, a grand total of around 900 per annum (France is closed during August). Germany, the last bastion of civilisation where cars of the A610's awesome potential (Renault claims a top speed of just over 165 mph) can still be exploited to their maximum in public, accounts for the bulk of the export market, with Japan not far behind. British targets are more modest: Renault hopes to shift 50 cars this year, 100 next. Like everything else at the moment, the sports coupe market is in a slump: a sector which accounted for: overall sales of 8000 cars in 1990 could boast only 3000 12 months later. .

The A610's predecessor, the GTA, was available either as a 2.5-litre turbo or a naturally aspirated 3.0 V6. In a previous journalistic existence, I ran a turbocharged GTA for a year. It was a fast, exciting car, though it had a few raw edges which demanded respect. If you wanted acceleration, for instance, it was best to book it a week or two in advance. Though it was endowed with phenomenal acceleration, all the power arrived as a lump sum. Not what you needed halfway through a wet roundabout. Although slightly less powerful, the 3.0 was more flexible and just as satisfying to drive.

The A610 is far more than a simple cosmetic update. It offers the best of both worlds from the previous range. It has the old turbo's searing pace, with the added bonus of smooth, and instant, throttle response.

Renault was acutely aware of the GTA's deficiencies in this respect, and has tuned the brand new, turbocharged, 3.0 V6 that powers the A610 for torque, above all else. In addition to 250 bhp at 5750 rpm, the new company flagship has a torque peak of 258 lb ft at just 2900 rpm. Even more usefully, over 246 lb ft is available all the way from 2000-5200 rpm . . . The benefits were clear on the test driving route, most of which was conducted on labyrinthine Alpine roads overlooking Monte Carlo, including fragments of the World Rally Championship route. In the old GTA, you'd have been up and down the gearbox out of necessity. In the A610, you stir the ratios purely for your own amusement. If you aren't in any particular hurry, the car will pull strongly from around 1200 rpm in third gear. It's all very restful.

With so little weight over the front end, the GTA's unassisted steering was always direct and provided plenty of feel. For the A610, Renault has resorted to power assistance, even though the only extra frontal mass is provided by the relocation of the 'get you home' spare wheel (to retrieve the emergency wheel from the engine compartment of a GTA, you needed to call out the fire brigade . . . once you'd allowed an hour for the bay to cool down).

Whilst some may mourn the demise of such unassisted purity, there is no doubt that the A610's system electrically-operated, and of Renault's own design, similar to that seen earlier on Clio diesels is one of the best on the market. Although you can no longer feel changes of road surface through your palms, the steering is direct and provides plenty of feel. Indeed, if you hadn't driven a GTA before, you'd be hard-pushed to detect the presence of a powered system. It's that good.

There is one further bonus, too. With Michelins the size of 45-gallon oil drums all round (205/45 ZR I 6 front, 245/45 ZR16 rear), the art of parking has been quite markedly facilitated.

Another sop to the requirements of a modern showroom specification list is the adoption of ABS, in this case a Bosch fivechannel system. Like the steering, however, the ABS is unintrusive, and the brakes are both progressive and powerful.

Although the A610 is similar in profile to the GTA, Renault claims that 80 per cent of its constituent parts are brand new. Certainly the frontal aspect is visibly different, with the adoption of pop-up lights. From some angles, it is redolent of the Nissan 300ZX.

Interior modifications are equally subtle, though welcome. Where the GTA was all sharp edges and cheap plastic, the A610 exudes an classier air. is still the dominant material and the switchgear is little different, but there are now more curves and rounded edges within the cabin. Standard equipment within fingertip reach includes electrically operated windows and mirrors, air conditioning and Renault's superb satellite in-car entertainment system, which allows a driver to change radio stations and adjust volume via a column stalk, thus alleviating the need to avert his or her eyes, even momentarily, from the road.

With a remote control central locking system-cum-alarm also a standard fitment, there isn't much scope for options. The list stretches to just two items: leather upholstery (£1220) and a CD player (£410).

The main item of hardware? That retails at £39,500, undercutting the Lotus Esprit SE and Porsche Carrera 2 by around £10,000 apiece, give or take the odd few quid either side of 50 grand. Further down the evolutionary scale, there are cheaper, and tamer, grand tourers available from Nissan (300ZX), Toyota (Supra Turbo) and Mazda (RX-7), not to mention Lotus's lower-spec Esprit and Porsche's 944 (nowadays the Stuttgart giant's entry-level model!).

In many ways, the A610 is a remarkable achievement. Although vastly more refined, and user-friendly, than the GTA, it retains its immediate forebear's effervescent character. It is particularly refreshing in that it proves that the evolutionary process doesn't necessarily indicate impending anonymity or sterility. Amen to that.