Out In The Open

It was just approaching six in the morning. It was foggy, with a touch of moisture in the air. As a couple of travelling companions waited at a prescribed meeting point just north of Dover, the Renault 19 loomed out of the mire, its convertible top tucked away beneath one of the neatest ‘keep your cabriolet tidy’ systems in existence. The hood, surely, had been lowered just around the corner, as a wind-up? Wrong: it had been like that for the past hour and 15 minutes. Surely, though, one couldn’t be planning to go all the way to the Nurburgring like that, on a grubby morning like this, could one…?

Actually, one could. I have always been a huge fan of alfresco motoring, and I have never been able to understand why, on mild and sunny mornings, London is full of soft-top Golfs, XR3s and MX-5s with their hoods still in place. What’s the point of buying a convertible if you aren’t going to make use of the very feature which hikes its price above that of the model which spawned it?

Thus the open 19 (the more powerful of the two versions available, featuring the acclaimed 1.8-litre, 16v, 137 bhp engine of the sportiest 19 hatch and saloon) remained unmolested. It completed the return trip (around four hours each way) with rninimal effort, and without blowing the occupants into the next stratosphere. MOTOR SPORT sampled the 19 cabriolet earlier in the year (see March 1992 issue), but this was our first opportunity to undertake serious, long-distance mileage therein, on a route which featured a variety of motorway surfaces, a lengthy run through the serpentine byways of the Ardennes and even a rough ride on the rallycross circuit which constitutes the stretch of No Man’s Land between Belgium and Germany.

Sure, there are the usual hassles you associate with cabriolets derived from a saloon, or hatchback, base. Despite substantial body strengthening, which gives the cabrio a 60 kg weight penalty over the equivalent hatchback, there is still marked body flex, which is most perceptible when you encounter the worst ruts that a Belgian motorway can throw at you, or when you undertake a lap of the old (ie real) Nurburgring.

Forget EuroDisney. For 14 deutschmarks, this has to be the best grin-per-penny offer in mainland Europe. The majestic Eifel circuit is open to the public every day; the antics of the motorcyclists attract a staggering audience. For two of our three days, there were more folk watching a succession of nutters attack the track with gusto than there were taking any interest in the F3000/F3 double-header at the sterile new facility alongside.

But back to the Renault. The French giant has marketed the tin-top 19 16v widely, which is understandable. At £13,175, this well-balanced saloon has an appealing blend of practicality and pace. When it first appeared, it was thought to be one of the first great performance bargains of the ’90s.

Rather less fuss has been made about the newer cabrio, which seems odd, although lopping off the roof has added more than just 60 kg to the equation. The price is up, too, to £16,540, but that doesn’t seem unreasonable when you contemplate the opposition. VW offers fresh-air Golfs, based on the Mk1 body that is now two generations old but which is still being pressed by Karmann, from £12,770, for the 1.8 Clipper, to £15,717 for the GTi Rivage.

Ford uses contemporary body styles for its XR31 cabrio, which is a touch pricier than the 19 if you want the 130 bhp version, at £17,380. A milder, 105 bhp Ford costs £16,040. The extra weight saps some of the vim that comes with the 19 saloon. Renault claims a top speed of 128 mph, presumably with the roof erected. Down the main straight at the ‘Ring, with the top still tucked away, it struggled to reach an indicated 115. At that point, the cabin is a touch blustery. At motorway cruising speeds, however, it remained civilised. Conversation could be conducted without recourse to raised voices.

Prior to departure, cynics doubted that the 19 would hold luggage for three without encroaching passenger space. There is no split rear-seat arrangement, nor is there a through-loading facility, and the boot aperture is shallow. Although getting large cases and camera bags in and out can be a fiddle, the hold is actually quite capacious if you pack it thoughtfully. In the end, everything fitted.

Our original assessment, that the 19 cabriolet looks like a fair deal, holds good. It’s elegant, fun to drive, seats four in reasonable comfort (though rear seat passengers are advised to bring a comb), has a quick and efficient hood mechanism and remains surprisingly practical. S A