Alfresco flair

The Renault 19 is one of those essential staple products that any mass manufacturer must offer in the ’90s, one of a breed stamped out by the hundred thousand. It comes with myriad derivatives to make more money per unit. The 16-valve version is the writer’s personal value for money favourite in this recently crowded sector, its suave 137 bhp complimented by an enjoyable and supremely competent chassis. The chance to drive its convertible cousin was thus promptly accepted.

When it arrives this spring, the 19 16v Cabriolet (there is also a cheaper, 1.7-litre/95 bhp model of insipid character) will be fighting for sales against convertible variants of the new Escort, old VW Golf and BMW 3-series, plus less successful (commercially) offerings from Vauxhall and Peugeot. At an estimated £16,500 (some £2000 less for the drab sister) the Renault will be no bargain price special which some of its saloon car models most definitely are but it will be an attractive contender. For a start, it has exceptionally distinctive lines. The Porsche Speedster contours crouch over the hidden double layer hood. These hillocks are a bit cheeky, but they do serve to distinguish a convertible that is about as far you are likely to get from the clichéd ‘hairdresser’s car’.

Thanks to the proven powertrain and an adaptation of the sports suspension tuned to cope with an extra 200 lb body weight, this Renault is a positive joy to drive hard. Goodyear Eagle NCT tyres of 195/50 R15V section hang on under extreme duress: when they do relinquish their grip, the torsion bar rear suspension moves out of line in four-wheel accord with the gently understeering conventions of a MacPherson strut front. At all bar town speeds, the ride remains a credit to French traditions, without the extreme roll angles of yore. The extra body weight predictably saps acceleration (9.4 sec is conservatively quoted for 0-62 mph), but top speed remains around 130 mph. We would expect the urban fuel consumption prediction of 26.1 mpg to be close to the overall truth for those who enjoy their driving. However, more than 43 mpg is delivered at brisk open air trot, around 56 mph.

Main attraction for many buyers will be the Renault designed, Karmann executed convertible element. The hood is easy to raise and lower, after a couple of trial runs, but has the usual claustrophobic feel when erected. Hood quality and finish is generally better than the erratic plastic finish and instrument legibility afforded in the largely standard cabin. Leather trim was a nice finishing touch on our demonstrator, but that will be an expensive option, along with effective Bendix electronic ABS braking. That will nudge this small four cylinder convertible past £18,000 in total. Considerable strengthening moves have been made, particularly in double and treble skinning the basic steel structure, but they are amongst the least effective I have encountered in a recent convertible.

There was visible facia and steering wheel movement on the smooth airport approach roads. In mitigation I can only say that the apparent floppiness got no worse in harsh use over bumpy Spanish foothills, and there was never the remotest hint of any handling waywardness, even under extreme pressure.

We also tried a turbo diesel 19 hatchback and the lower powered convertible. The quietly quick turbo diesel was major surprise and will surely make a major impact in Renault’s UK assault on this burgeoning sector. The lower powered 19 convertible (based on a 19 TXE mechanical layout) was precisely what you would expect: a bit lethargic, slightly floppier and a lot less fun than the 16v. On the plus side you save about £2000 and the ride is even more comfortable than before, without losing fresh air comforts. All open air 19s share power steering, fashionable catalytic converters, six-speaker stereo systems (with Renault’s uniquely effective steering column controls) and remote control locking that also extends to the boot and petrol cap.

Considering the drop-top market as a whole, the Renault struck us as a civilised choice for those who actually enjoy driving as well. I am not suggesting a Caterham Seven owner would give it a second glance, but as a comfortable compromise between current hatchback abilities and fresh air fun, I thought it the best of an increasingly expensive bunch. JW