It was a motoring lesson, of sorts. Two visits to France in the space of a week to drive two very different cars from the same source. The first trip was to reacquaint ourselves with the fascinating mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo, the second to sample the Regie’s new three-box medium sized saloon. The former provides a road going link with Renault’s efforts in Grand Prix racing, the latter a foothold in a section of the European medium sized “three box” car market with its projected sales of three million plus next year. Announced last June, the Renault 5 Turbo is in many ways a motoring flag ship for the company. Built to provide the organisation with a chance of success on world rallies it has taken rather a back seat whilst the F1 crown is still out of Renault’s grasp. However, as if to prove a point, the factory did appear with the 5 Turbo on the Monte Carlo Rally this year and took outright victory in rallying’s promotional jewel.
As for the new Renault 9, it may be conventional but it does provide the wherewithal for any future projects of a similar ilk to the 5 Turbo. However, in itself the front-wheel drive saloon marks new ground for France’s leading manufacturer. Surprisingly, it is the first time Renault has utilised a transverse engine/gearbox lay-out. Such a scheme was first mooted more than 20 years ago for the Renault 4, but was dropped on technical grounds.
It is however a sad sign of the times that during our pre-launch test not a single person gave the R9 a second glance. Even for such noted avant garde designers as Renault, styling is gradually becoming more restrained. Indeed the model has something of a Peugeot rear and an Alfa Romeo front, so there is certainly a cosmopolitan look about the whole appearance. If it hadn’t been for our Turbo experiences the previous weekend we could have thought that France had accepted the philosophy that the motor car is simply a mode of transport offering nothing more than a means of getting from A to B in your own time without the company, of strangers. Fortunately, the ugly duckling Renault 5 Turbo dispelled such thoughts. With its bulging rear wheel arches — they protrude by more than eight inches — mass of aerodynamic aids, garish foot high “Turbo” letters on the doors, this hybrid stopped Frenchmen, young and old, in their tracks. Whether they were smiling at the audacity of this 124 mph projectile or being filled with feelings of Gallic pride we don’t know, but they certainly new exactly what the car was all about. Something as unusual as the 5 Turbo can do as much for a company’s image as a thousand launches of Euroboxes . . . however, not everyone can live with such impracticabilities. Strictly a two seater, this mid-engined car has a large, carpeted box where the rear seat used to be. Underneath a mass of sound-deadening and heat absorbing materials nestles a 1,397 cc Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injected, Garrett turbocharged four cylinder engine pumping out 160 bhp at 6,000 rpm. With a kerb weight of 2.137 lbs performance is quite amazing. Sixty miles an hour is reached in around 6.5s, the standing quarter mile covered in 15s. However, with little or no power below 3,000 rpm you have to work the five-speed gearbox hard. It was therefore a relief to discover that since our initial drive last year, Renault have put a lot of work into improving a pudding of a change into a silky smooth unit which was a joy. There is, incidentally, an ignition cut-out at just over 6,000 rpm and very necessary it was too. In every gear — including fifth! — we had cause to thank its intervention.
Despite the close proximity of the engine, the interior is largely free from mechanical noises and grumbles and the occupants are able to relax (well, almost) in what is a surprisingly high level of trim and fitting. No stripped down rally special this! The seats are a revelation and despite no rake adjustment are extremely comfortable and hold one firmly during the high-speed cornering which the car encourages.
There is little or no room for luggage, two small compartments aft of the engine are the only concession to such needs. Under the bonnet itself there are air cooling pipes and the spare wheel which take up the space vacated by the engine on a normal R5.
Independent double-wishbone suspension at all corners, plus fat Michelin TRX tyres on 5.3″ front wheels and 7.7″ rear rims, naturally produces high standards of handling and road-holding. In the dry the handling is virtually neutral, one detecting just a trace of understeer when trying stupidly hard. It is just like driving a somewhat civilised kart, and like a kart there is no ride to talk about. You leap from undulation to undulation. As far as wet weather handling is concerned it is best to execute extreme caution. The pronounced turbo lag below 3,000 rpm can result in a sudden lump of power at highly inopportune moments, understeer suddenly snapping into a full blooded opposite lock slide.
The Renault 5 Turbo as an everyday vehicle is essentially a fun car, and although one would hate to be faced with a major mechanical problem it does appear to be reliable and surprisingly economical. During our weekend we averaged 23.3 mpg, and as you can imagine we didn’t dawdle often. There are no plans to bring it into the UK, and judgng by the production plaque on the test car (no 1204), sales have gone well. Price is around £12,300 and production should now be running at around 1,000 units a year. Production of the Renault 9 is currently around 1,000 units a day! It can be doubled if the projected assault on the North American market goes according to plan with a derivative of the European model. In Europe there are no less than ten models, but for the UK there are eight, including a yet to be seen automatic. Starting with the basic 9C with its 47.5 bhp 1,108 cc engine, the UK range moves up through the more luxuriously appointed TL, GTL and ILE models with single choke 1,397 cc power unit (rated at 60 bhp at 5,250 rpm) to the top of the range GTS and TSE which have 72 bhp available thanks to a twin choke carburetter on the 1.4-litre unit. A five speed gearbox — the best of any mass produced Renault in terms of action — is standard for the TL upwards.
The engine uses the block and main rotating parts from the Renault 5 and smaller capacity 18 models, but the cylinder head is new and combustion chambers have been re-shaped to improve gas flow. The camshaft has also been modified to reduce overlap. The result is a nice, free revving engine in both sizes, the 1.1-litre having an 86 mph maximum, the single choke 1.4 93 mph and the twin choke 99 mph. The Renault 9 is a pleasant car. It rides nicely without the usual Renault roll (suspension is idependent all-round), and the steering is light yet refreshingly positive. Renault make great claims for economy, and we ourselves managed more than 36 mpg with the single choke 1.4-litre model.
There were no price details when we went to press, but it is going to be very competitive compared with the VW Jetta, Ford Escort or Fiat Ritmo. Renault should grab a large slice of the market with the 9 range, but it is sad to note a lack of the Gallic charm we’ve come to expect. We don’t consider an apparent sales gimmick of front seats which have a rocking chair type action Gallic charm, more mid-summer flights of fancy. MRG.