Renault’s Recursive Gamble

Renault is an often (and unfairly, we think) overlooked manufacturer. The company has a long history, having been established in the final year of the 19th century; by 1908, it was already pushing well over 3500 units out the door, an impressive feat for the time. The second half of the 20th century was filled with home-runs for Renault, with models like the 4, 5 and 12 proving extremely popular with the public, successes followed in the 90’s and 00’s by equally popular stuff like the Twingo, Clio, Mégane and Espace.

For such a massive company which made its name manufacturing and selling broad appeal models, it’s funny to go back though Renault’s history and come across a number of funky little coupes which seem truly out of place in the family tree.  From the mid 70’s to the mid 90’s, Renault seemed to be a bit of a risk taker, a trait which always leads to interesting, if not necessarily successful stuff. This trend died a very public and notorious death with the failure and demise of the Avantime in 2003. Since then, Renault has focused on turning back to the broadest appeal possible models, something which resulted in a current lineup so incredibly similar that we cannot for the life of us tell one Renault model from the other.

That’s why today, we’re taking a look at some of the company’s more…unorthodox decisions which, although striking design-wise, were hindered by the same issue every – single – time. Renault fine tuned the hot hatch concept to perfection, so why hasn’t the same happened for the sporty coupe?

Renault 15 and 17 (1971-1979)

The 15 and 17 are pretty much the same car with the exception of a couple of lines at the back, the rear side windows being open on the 15 and louvered on the 17 and the headlights being square on the first model and round on the second. Well that and, of course, the engines. Now, you’d expect a small, stylish, sporty looking coupe to pack a bit of a punch, but the underpinnings of the 15 and 17 were shared with the Renault 12…so you can see where this is going. The 15 was equipped with a 1289cc engine putting out 59hp, had a top speed of less than 95mph and needed almost 14 seconds to go from 0 to 60. The 17 was an improvement performance-wise; it featured a 1565cc engine, which meant a bump in horsepower to 89 (107 in the spicy, desirable Gordini version). The Renault 15 especially marked the start of a curious trend for Renault: making interesting and pretty but underpowered coupes. Funny enough, the launch of the 15 occurred shortly before the oil crisis, so the base model ended up being the most popular, with more than two thirds of the 300.000+ Renaults 15 and 17 sold being 15s. Still, simply being quirky and economical doesn’t make for a particularly noteworthy legacy in the auto world, so today the 15 and 17 are mostly forgotten models because so few survived, which is a real shame since they really are very nice to look at. Due to rarity, they’re also a good way to be noticed because obscurity + good looks is always a winning combo. Plus, surviving examples are usually pretty cheap, even in decent condition.

Renault Fuego (1980-1986)

The Fuego is perhaps the most well know and well loved of the odd Renault coupes. A successor to the 15/17, the great, recently departed Robert Opron (Citroen SM, CX, GS…) had a hand in its design, so it’s not surprising that it looks so damn good. As was the case with its predecessors, the Fuego wasn’t a new platform; instead, it was based on the Renault 18. Now, Renault did learn a bit with the 15/17; engines were still very – very – modest for the base models, with a 1.4L, 64bhp power plant as an entry spec, but this time, there were more options including a couple of 1.6s, a 2.0 and even a 2.1 diesel, a true novelty. However, the more desirable Fuego was the Turbo, a special variant which despite being very good looking, only had 132bhp. The Fuego’s main issue was that despite pretty well equipped and innovative, it was still relatively expensive for what it could offer in terms of performance, especially in the entry level models. That and a few reliability issues, especially when compared to some of its competitors turned into a bit of a hard sell. Still, it gained an impressive cult following and today, the Fuego is still a bucket list car for a lot of people. With a production run of a little over 200.000 units, the Fuego isn’t the rarest thing Renault ever did, but it was a limited enough run to make finding a decent one now difficult. Despite often being unfairly chucked in to “worst sports car” lists and seen as a poor(er) man’s 924, we believe that by its very FWD nature, the Fuego should be more accurately perceived as a sporty couple than a sports car. In a way, the Fuego got so tangled up in its poor reputation as an unreliable, underwhelming car that few people actually got to give it a fair chance and see what it was really about, the good and the bad. The Fuego came out at a time when the tide was already changing for this kind of model; the hot hatches were taking Europe by storm and something more demanding, more difficult to maintain and with limited service support…just wasn’t convincing anymore. It’s not to say the Fuego had a bad run, it stayed in production in Argentina till the early 90’s, but it was curiously and simultaneous, very of its time but also past it.  

Renault 11 Turbo (1984-1989)

Speaking of hot hatches, the 11 Turbo was Renault’s first real shot at opening up a new field in that segment (or at least, adjacent to it). The Renault 9/11 platform was a sensible family sedan configuration, not unlike a lot of other stuff Renault had already done and was very good at. The 11 Turbo however borrowed the Super 5 GT Turbo’s powertrain, but cradled it in an overall more comfortable model, more grown up. The little 5 was the rebellious teenager of the lineup while the 11 was the still irreverent but more sophisticated older brother. Another of Opron’s designs, the 11 Turbo had Renault’s time-honored Cléon engine aided by a Garret turbocharger. Packing just over 100hp and experiencing some very contemporary turbo lag, the 11’s advantage however was being light. Really light, just a hair over 900 kg. But the (let’s call it) “XL hot hatch” recipe that Peugeot would also try out with the 309 GTi never really caught on. It’s not to say these cars are entirely relegated to history books, they’re still appreciated today, just very palely so when in comparison to the almighty Fives. And they weren’t bad cars at all either, despite their performance not being world shattering. In fact, back in their day the press raved about the 9/11 models and Turkey made them until 2000. The 11 Turbo marked a departure for Renault; it would no longer invest so heavily into stand alone models (despite shared mechanics) like the Fuego, but instead focus its attention in spicing up something from a main lineup.

Renault 19 16S (1990-1996)

That option was played out into the 90’s. Their latest sales hit was the 19, a handsome Giugiaro design which, as with all other Renault creations of the same nature, was a perfectly capable family car. Not terribly exciting, but it did its job very well. Beyond that though, things got interesting with the 16s. Fitted with a 1.8L, 16 valves, 138 (phase 1) / 135 (phase 2) bhp straight 4, this model followed right along Renault’s history: interesting looking coupe, popular platform, lackluster performance. Yes, the 16S had more power, but it was also almost 200kg heavier than the 11 Turbo. For comparison, the 16S’s 0 to 60 time was under one second faster than the 11 Turbo’s.  This constitutes a real shame, because the Renault 19, especially the phase 2 looks were so damn nice; the cabriolet versions are just beautiful and the hatchbacks, although a little bulky at the rear, certainly weren’t ugly. We’re unsure of how many 16S’ Renault sold, but it certainly didn’t fly off dealerships. So this would certainly be Renault’s last shot at this sort of thing, right?

Renault Mégane Coupe 2.0 16V (1995-2002)

Well, no. The final Renault adventure through this curious segment (or what we think can be categorized as the final one of this series of models anyway) was the Mégane Coupe 2.0 16V. This was, again, slightly more powerful (140/150bhp), slightly faster and slightly heavier than the model which it replaced and, again as well, there were smaller, lighter, rawer alternatives available; in this case the brilliant Clio Williams from which the Mégane Coupe borrowed it’s engine from for a couple of years and which was still fairly readily available on the used car market at the time the Mégane came out. The Coupe’s production ended up being plagued by mechanic problems which make maintenance costs a pretty unappealing prospect. Plus, as with its predecessors, the base models had under 100hp, making them much less dynamic than you’d hope. Renault seems to have broken out of the cycle with the Phase II Mégane RS in the early 2000’s, with horsepower figures jumping about 75% from the best the Mégane Coupe had to offer.

Stuff like the mad Turbo 5s, the Spider and the Clio V6 later on had a reason to exist; it was tied to motorsport, homologation issues and whatnot, but these small coupes were just experimentation for the sake of it. There’s always been stuff in Renault’s lineup to more than satisfy the small and angry car market niche, but the models we talked about today were always a bit of a mystery as to who exactly they were aimed at. But Renault took a chance on them anyway and pretty much owned this very small section of the European market for decades.

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