Six appeal - Renault A610 Turbo

The Dieppe-based specialist Alpine has earned our respect over the years, thanks to a succession of fabulous cars created on behalf of parent company Renault. Alpine's merits are generally underrated in Britain, both on road and track, if only because the trademark cannot be used in this country.

It is sad to hear persistent rumours of the A610 Turbo's possible demise.

As it stands, the Renault-Alpine co-operation has produced a worthy adversary to both the new Lotus Esprit S4 (see page 343) and the Porsche 911. On paper it competes with both in terms of maximum speed (a fraction over 160 mph) and acceleration (from standstill to the 60 mph benchmark in just under six seconds). This very special Renault has a relatively modest thirst (we returned 21.8 mpg overall) and, at £36,930, it's almost £10,000 cheaper than either of the aforementioned Porsche or Lotus alternatives, so it is worth investigating - especially if you covet a fast two-plus-two with comparatively low engine noise levels and a compliant chassis that delivers extraordinary driving pleasure with enormous margins of braking safety.

UK range

This is the only Alpine offered by Renault UK. Equipped with the effective, and original, Renault 'plip' remote control locking system, steering column controls for the powerful six-speaker hi-fi, Bosch anti-lock braking, air conditioning, theft alarm, electric windows and a multiple readout trip computer, the current price has dropped a little (from around £38,000) since we received the first example of the three A610s we needed to evaluate performance figures.

The only listed options are metallic paint, leather upholstery and a CD player. Our various different demonstrators came with either metallic paint or leather trim (or both), which share a £1128 price tag.

Doubtless the budget will have altered things once again by the time you read this, but it is also worth bartering with dealers. The A610 has never been a big seller, and you should be able to do a very much better deal than the list price suggests.

Technical analysis

The principles of this model were established at Geneva in 1985, when Alpine unveiled its glassfibre bodied two-plus-two with an uprated 2.5-litre 'co-operative' PRV (Peugeot-Renault-Volvo) V6 aft of the back axle line.

In the UK it was marketed as the GTA.

There was an 'entry level', 160 bhp model (£19,040 at launch), or the immediate parent of the car tested here, the 2458 cc, 200 bhp turbo capable of over 150 mph, for which Renault UK asked a modest by (Porsche/Lotus standards) £23,635.

Six years on, the current model was displayed at the same venue prior to its spring 1991 launch in left-hand drive. Like Lotus, the French had found no appreciable customer demand for the normally aspirated model. Despite its greater flexibility and performance that was not far that was not far removed from its more potent sister's, it was dropped.

As seems traditional in the emissions conscious '90s, power and weight have risen as the GTA's outline has been considerably softened. So far as we are aware, the claimed Cd (0.30) is considerably better than anything sculpted by Lotus or Porsche. This is aided by a new nose section and a considerably elongated back spoiler.

The body continues to clothe a steel backbone. Heuliez's framed girder chassis features improved torsional stiffness, but was designed as much to maximise front end safety as it was to aid dynamics. Indeed, a replacement front chassis (in pressed steel, rather than square tube) was installed, along with a steel central floor panel in place of the previous glassfibre item. The B-pillar was thickened and the standard roll hoop, body and chassis mounting points were also reinforced.

The body panels can be referred to as composites, in that three types of construction were used: common glassfibre in the RTM (Resin Transfer Moulding) process; polyurethane for the bumpers; and thermoplastic co-polymers, which offer minor impact protection and were the basis for the front wing panels.

Despite the inherent strength-to-weight advantages of glassfibre over equivalent steel, neither Lotus nor Alpine Renault is selling anything even remotely flyweight for 1993, with kerb weights of around 3000 lb for both the A610 and the Esprit S4.

As you would expect, the bulk of the Alpine's mass is at the rear, though the extensive use of alloy (for both block and sohc heads) in the PRV V6 means that the split is only 43/57 per cent nose-to-rump (the old car's weight distribution was 40/60).

The engine was extended from 2.5 to three litres via a 10 mm stroke extension, although the 120-degree offset crankshaft was retained for smoother operation. To sweeten power delivery further, a single balancer shaft is also used on one bank further to improve power delivery, which peaks at 5750 of the 6100 available rpm (at this point, an electronic limiter intervenes).

Power does not seem to have been a major preoccupation, although it has risen in catalysed trim. It now nudges 250 bhp at 5750 of the 6100 available rpm. Compression has been lowered (to 7.6:1), but enlarged bi-metallic valves, straightened inlet tracts and an uprated Garrett T3 turbo provide suitable compensation.

The old 2.5 V6 yielded 81.4 bhp per litre with the benefits of 8.6:1 compression and no catalyst. Today, the cleansed, enlarged six thumps out 84.03 bhp per litre and is notable for its super flexibility (the yawning lag of the GTA is a distant memory). There is more than 246 lb/ft of torque all the way from 2000-5200 rpm, climaxing at 258 lb/ft at just 2900.

Such pulling power would have threatened the durability of the old five-speed transaxle, with its Renault 25 origins, so the transmission has been overhauled as well. Primary changes were a stiffer light alloy housing, beefier fifth, first and reverse gears and the inclusion of synchromesh on reverse. The ratios themselves are unchanged since the GTA days, and much of this transaxle specification can be found in the Lotus Esprit.

The other major advance is in the handling department. This is credited to Renault's Berex engineering department and is due to the aforementioned weight distribution revisions, a stiffer structure, variable rate power steering, 16-inch Michelins on wider rims, increased track (front and rear) and revised mount location angles for the lower front wishbones and redesigned stub axles.

Action

The exterior is definitely eye catching, irrespective of whether or not you choose the banana yellow colour scheme (that BMW also now favours for the M3).

More surprisingly, perhaps, the 'plus two' element is definitely usable; I took four adults out for the day (one six-footer was wedged in the rear) and everyone said they had enjoyed the trip. A more general use of space will be to fold the back seats to create extra space for a couple of occupants.

The interior is a marked improvement, and leather aids acceptability. However, we still found the instrumentation a bit unclear. Idiosyncrasies such as the offset pedals and door sill handbrake will easily be mastered by those familiar with an Esprit cabin. At least the pedals themselves are bigger than those Lotus provides, and they are safely separated.

The engine starts with an undramatic note which is maintained at all speeds, although the sheer impetus of the turbocharger's boost (it kicks off at a lowly 1200 rpm) has a unique exhilaration that does not require a noisy fanfare.

Contrary to expectations, and greatly to Renault's credit, the three-litre A610 regularly exceeded 20 mpg and only descended to a thirsty 15.8 in test track use.

On the basis of price, performance and outstanding handling, I was deeply impressed by the A610, even though initial encounters were not too encouraging. Like the Esprit, and totally unlike Japan's user-friendly performers in the Mazda RX-7/Honda NSX mode, the Alpine takes a bit of acclimatisation before you appreciate its virtues. Items such as the aforementioned pedals and handbrake. the engine fan which runs for up to 20 minutes after you have switched off and the minuscule switches which dapple the control pad of the aurally impressive Pioneer sound system are notably peculiar to those of a conventional persuasion.

Our first two test attempts (with the same car) were frustrated when the gearbox started jumping out of second and later failed to select ratios without grinding. On neither occasion did the car even make it as far as the proving ground at Millbrook.

Nor did a fresher, metallic plum Alpine escape our jinx. It was lightly crunched the week before its scheduled delivery to MOTOR SPORT. When it did all come together, the car survived the rigours of Millbrook... and the test gear packed up as we exited the standing start strip.

Away from the track, the A610 was consistently impressive. The ride and handling balance is the best I have ever encountered in a sports coupe, the enormous brakes are efficient, and well modulated to resist undue ABS interference.

Aside from its test track performance, the modestly boosted V6 has strong appeal. The co-operative turbocharger makes for prompt overtaking responses without the constant need to fish for a lower gear which blighted the GTA. This, the serenity of the muscular motor and the remarkable chassis allow rapid progress that is much less tiring than it would be in the fabled Porsche 911.

The broad torque band can overcome the considerable traction of broad Michelins on damp roads, but more typical cornering and traction traits are impeccable manners and a decent helping of driver satisfaction.

Thanks to the redeveloped suspension and power steering, piloting the A610 is a joy comparable to that of taking the helm of a 911. The only missing ingredients are the fabulous flat-six soundtrack and the sheer quality of Teutonic assembly.

Verdict

When everything was on song, which it most definitely was with the third A610 we tried, there are few more inviting recipes than this. It is tempting to brand it as better tourer than sports car, so good are its road manners, but few of its more uncomfortable rivals offer any perceptible bonus in driving pleasure or performance.

The car's lack of customer appeal continues to puzzle us. We have a photographic colleague who has owned two GTA Turbos, and who continues to enjoy reliable 150 mph motoring at a bargain price. A few more people should take heed.

J W