French Without Tears

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If one needs an excuse at all to drive supercars, then it was the arrival of the GTA ‘Le Mans’ in August which triggered our desire to drive the GTA V6 Turbo, the model from which Renault’s latest special edition is derived.

This most Gallic of sports cars is one that hides its light under a bushel in this country, but one which is popular and respected in mainland Europe. Does it deserve to be overlooked in Britain, the land of the Lotus, the Jaguar, the TVR and even the Ginetta, or is there more to it? A reacquaintance (see MOTOR SPORT, February, 1987) was felt to be more than justified.

As a marque, the Alpine took a long time to reach these shores, and as a model, the GTA took its time as well. Announced at the Amsterdam Show in early 1984, it took another two years for the car to cross the Channel, and then when it did, it was minus part of its nomenclature.

Due to the copyright of the Alpine name being held by Peugeot in this country (formerly Chrysler UK née Rootes), it has been robbed of the essential part of its inheritance. In the early Sixties the Dieppe concern ran A210/A220 models in French events and also at Le Mans, even winning the Index of Thermal Efficiency in 1964, but it was at the end of 1969, when Alpine withdrew from racing to concentrate on rallying, that the Alpine name became internationally famous. The fabulous little Alpine A110 Berlinettes encompassed everything that was good about rallying at the end of the Sixties, being pretty, successful and, as it turned out, representing the dawn of the supercar in rallying.

Such was the impact of the model that it remained in production until 1976, long after its scheduled retirement. Indeed its planned successor, the A310, which was shown to the world in 1971, was actually produced alongside the A110 for the next five years.

By this time the involvement with Renault had greatly increased. In the Sixties, Alpine-Renaults were sold through the Regie’s dealer network in France, in 1970 Alpine became responsible for the entire Regie Renault competition department and then in 1978, Renault completely took over the Dieppe company. Although Alpine-Renaults were still manufactured, the Dieppe factory produced the highly specialised, but low volume, cars such as the 5 Turbo One and Two and the Maxi 5 Turbo. It was still years away, though, before the first Alpine would be officially imported into Britain.

Everything about the GTA range differentiates it from the normal Renault: looks, construction and price. Even the normally aspirated GTA V6, at £25,135 is £1200 more expensive than the top of the range 25 Baccara V6, while the GTA V6 Turbo, at £29,995, is almost £5000 dearer. The newly announced GTA Le Mans is a cool £36,995.

The proportions of the sleek glass-reinforced-plastic (grp) disguise the fact that, unusually, this is a rear-engined car and not mid-engined. The all-aluminium, single overhead cam per cylinder head unit is mounted longitudinally, supported by three mountings in a detachable subframe, in the rear with the five-speed transaxle gearbox in front of it.

The engine itself is a development of that found in the Renault 25 V6 Turbo, but produces 10 per cent greater power and 3 1/2 per cent more torque at 214 lb ft at 2500 rpm.

Integrated into the fully mapped Renix engine management system is the Garrett AirResearch T3 turbocharger which works in conjunction with an air-to-air intercooler. Unlike the earlier versions, the latest models are fitted with a three-way catalytic convertor, shaving the maximum brake horsepower from 200 to 185 at 5750 rpm, but necessary in the name of ecology. Unleaded fuel is obviously mandatory.

The transmission is actually located behind the driver, as it was on the A310, and is operated by a twin-tube gearlever mechanism. The gearbox is driven through a hydraulically operated, single dry plate, diaphragm spring clutch.

The engine bay is accessed via a glass hatch, which is raised on gas struts, and is underneath a carpeted and insulated engine cover. Despite the incorporation of air ducts leading out of the area, the heat dissipation is still inadequate and can cause the engine lid to become too hot to touch after a lengthy and fast run. The space-saver spare wheel, located on the nearside of the engine compartment, is insulated to a certain extant by a heat-protective cover.

Overall, the method of construction is quite noteworthy. It was on the A108, the Dauphine-based model of 1957, that Jean Redelé, the founder and designer, first used fibreglass, and it was on a notable variant of that model, the Berlinette Tour de France of 1961, that a backbone-type chassis was first used in the construction of the car, and both factors have been retained in the construction of Alpines ever since.

The bodyshell of the GTA is both light and strong, having been manufactured out of grp, which is reputed to be three times stronger than steel by weight. It also has the side benefit of having a greater resistance to corrosion. Extra passenger safety is provided for by the addition of a tubular safety cell made up of reinforcing tubes, steel-reinforced body sides and front and rear panels. The wings have been made by the reinforced reaction injection moulding process to give better resistance to deformation. Altogether the car tips the scales at 23.3 cwt (1187 kg), which actually is not any lighter than comparable cars.

Great attention has been paid to design detail to keep the drag factor to a low 0.30Cd. The front air dam, flush windows, flush door handles, headlamps, air intakes and generally slippery shape have played their part here and helped caress a superb performance out of the ‘modest’ 185 bhp that is available.

Double wishbone suspension front and rear, ventilated discs all-round and constant velocity universal joints fitted to both ends of each driveshaft ensure that the car has the best set-up for a rear-drive performance car.

Inside, the dashboard and layout is quite unlike any other car. The ergonomics are reasonable, but there is room for improvement. The two large dials directly in front of the driver are the speedometer on the left and the rev counter, red lined at 6100 rpm, on the right and in between them is a turbo boost gauge and the LCD computer display. The binnacle containing these dials is flanked by switchgear. Above is the heating and ventilation control, and housed underneath on the left is the water temperature gauge, oil pressure gauge and, sensibly, an oil level indicator. Beneath these are switches for the rear screen heater etc while on the right are a row of four other switches.

The central console houses a Philips stereo radio/cassette system which can be remotely controlled from a stalk on the steering column which is just as well as the control panel is so complicated that you would need to sit in a traffic jam of Dartford Tunnel rush hour proportions to justify the time spent in mastering it. The switches for the electric windows are to the left of the short stubby gearlever and the handbrake is unusually on the right, between the driver’s seat and the door. There are no door handles, but as you press a switch, the door slightly comes ajar, a method of opening which also applies when gaining entry from the outside.

The driving position is reasonable, despite the steering wheel not being adjustable, but it is not helped by the poor pedal arrangement. To start with, the pedals are located too closely together. Worst pedal is the clutch which, being hinged at the bottom, as are the brake and accelerator, too often cause the driver’s foot to get caught up in the bottom of the fascia. It was never hazardous when driving, just immensely irritating as the toes on the left foot were momentarily wedged out of position. Another astonishing oversight is the lack of a footrest for the left leg. There is a slight gap between the clutch pedal and the central console, but it is designed for only the daintiest of feet. Motorway journeys entail placing the left foot in front of the pedal, which becomes tiring after a while.

The wipers are extraordinary. Press the left-hand switchgear down and the wipers appear as if a giant, slightly drunk, butterfly has decided to spread its wings. The two blades meet up in the centre, travel together slightly off-centre to the left, then flap down again. They really did remind us of a daddy longlegs in that they were ungainly, spindly and slightly uncoordinated. They also did not do a very efficient job as we found when the screen dried out and we saw the subsequent thick muddy stain on the screen left after the wipers had performed their mating ritual.

The sun visor for the driver is not particularly good either because it doesn’t actually flap forward onto the windscreen, in fact there is a gap of about two inches between the forward movement of the visor and the windscreen. It also has a mirror on the back which is very off-putting.

In front of the passenger there is a sort of leather pouch, too slim for anything but the odd parking ticket, but underneath there is the usual cubbyhole, although it is not particularly large. Other oddment space includes hinged shelves in both the doors and in the centre console between the seats there are two compartments suitable for cassettes.

Unlike most mid-engined cars, the rear seating is actually not too bad. Admittedly you have to be under 12 years of age not to be too uncomfortable, but a six-footer can be seated at a pinch. The front seats are supportive and adjustable for rake and height and I found them to be almost as comfortable as the Recaros in my RS Turbo.

Visibility to the front and side is good, but the C pillars obscure the rear threequarter view, while the engine cover takes up a portion of the area visible through the rear-view mirror.

Even with ‘only’ 185 bhp at its disposal, the GTA V6 Turbo still has a top speed just in excess of 150 mph and is capable of sprinting to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and onto 100 mph in only 17.3 secs. With 63 per cent of the weight biased to the rear you can feel the 255/45 Pirelli P7s really dig in when the clutch is dropped. In fact so great is the grip, the clutch can be dropped from very high revs before prompting any wheelspin at all.

Quick as the GTA V6 Turbo is in a straight line, it is not this aspect which pleases most, for that is provided by the torque characteristic. It was a journey on the A10 between Ely and King’s Lynn that the brisk overtaking abilities of the car came to the fore. One would come up behind a couple of fully laden lorries, find the road ahead clear, and having ensured the engine speed was greater than 3500 rpm to get over any turbo lag, stab the accelerator pedal to catapult past the obstruction, until one reached the next mobile roadblock. Below 3500 rpm, one has to wait for the turbo boost to build up, which means that the rev range of the car is in effect limited to the 2600 rpm band between 3500 and 6100 rpm.

The gearbox was consistently superb, the gearchange in every case being one precise, slick movement. Indicated speeds at the 6100 rpm rev limiter were 38 mph in first, 60 mph in second, 95 mph in third, 130 mph in fourth and a top speed of 151 mph.

Despite the proximity of the V6 engine and the plastic body, the car’s refinement is really quite reasonable. Wind noise is almost non-existent, even to the extent of being able to lower the window at speed and not be drowned out by the roar of the wind. The engine noise is subdued and is easily drowned out by the roar of the tyres.

Despite a relatively soft suspension, the ride is quite hard, particularly at low speeds over pockmarked roads, small potholes and ripples showing up the deficiencies the most glaringly, but on the other hand, there is hardly any body roll when cornering hard.

Being a rear-engined car, one naturally has to treat corners with respect, especially in the wet. In the dry, the enormous grip of the tyres actually endows the GTA with the more predictable understeering characteristic, but enter a corner too quickly and lifting-off to tighten the line can result in the back of the car swinging way out of line into a massive oversteer before swinging back the other way as you fight to keep it in shape. Unnerving in the dry, the pendulum effect can be catastrophic in the wet.

Another aspect one has to be aware of is the effect of the turbo boost. Unleash the power too soon into a corner and the rear wheels will lose their grip as a sudden surge of power is transmitted to the road surface. In the dry, this can be contained by feathering the throttle, but in the wet you could be asking for big trouble. After much practice, and plenty of open space, it was possible to get the tail out in a controlled manouevre when cornering, but all it takes is the slightest ripple in the tarmac to upset the equilibrium and to set in motion the pendulum effect. Under normal traffic conditions, though, the car is quite predictable, although one should never become complacent.

The steering is rack and pinion and is very precise. There are almost three complete turns from lock to lock.

The ABS brakes stood up to quite an amount of abuse on the test, but the chance to do a few non-competitive laps around a circuit soon showed up the inadequacies of the all-round ventilated discs. Within no time at all, the brake warning light was coming on advising me to stop. In fact, the pads had not worn down, but had just become too hot and had lost their efficiency temporarily. Fitted with ABS, though, they give the driver a reassurance under normal road conditions.

This is a car more in the image of a Porsche than that of a Lotus, meaning that it can be used as an everyday car without causing the stress sometimes engendered in supercars on a daily basis. It is not an ideal town car, but in having good visibility, it is better than some. It thrives on cross-country runs and has the power to sustain fast motorway journeys, although the pedal arrangement takes away some of that pleasure.

The GTA V6 Turbo may be getting a little long in the tooth now, but it still remains a fine car. It does not have many rivals, although the obvious one is the Lotus Esprit Turbo, and at £5 under £30,000 represents quite good value for money. One does have to remember, though, that this is a driver’s car, and one that does not like being mistreated. If it is, it will react strongly and dangerously. One also has to remember that there are a few niggling little faults which may seem unimportant in a week’s drive, but which could become very irksome when living with the car. WPK

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