Dieppe – France’s own Maranello

Renault is not a brand that is featured very often on this blog given, if you allow me to be a bit harsh, it mostly consists of a bunch of boring small cars and family SUV’s, that partly have some, hmm, intersting looks (Avantime anyone?) but are never associated with any kind of thrill of driving. Yeah, I know there’s a few racier versions of the Mégane that some love, but that’s never really been my thing. What is very much my thing on the other hand, is what a crazy bunch of engineers in the French town of Dieppe, traditionally the home of Alpine, developed in the late 70’s: the Renault 5 Turbo / Turbo II. And then 20 years later, also in Dieppe, a similar (same?) group of engineers reinvented the whole concept with the Renault Clio V6. This week will therefore be the story of the two siblings with twenty years between them, but sharing the same crazy concept and making them two of the if not greatest, then at least most exciting hot hatches ever!

Turning the clock back to the late 70’s, Renault had quite a strong rally tradition and had been racing the Alpine A110 for a number of years. The car was getting old though and a replacement was needed. As always the budget was a bit tight so the project started internally using the Renault 5 as basis. The R5 had been around since 1971 so it wasn’t the most inspiring starting point, but that’s before the guys in Dieppe came into the picture and did a few rather major modifications… In becoming the R5 Turbo, the R5 not only gained 20 cm in width, the engine also moved from up front to behind the front seats, i.e. mid-mounted, and the car went from front- to rear-wheel drive. The result was a body that all of a sudden looked spectacular (and still does!), an interior that was more or less untouched and thereby an ocean of 70’s plastic, and a weight distribution that changed quite radically, with around 60% over the rear axle (counting with the driver).

As a rally car the R5 Turbo and subsequent Turbo II (built from 1983, looking the same but technically improved) saw some success. It raced in the legendary Group B until the end in 1986 and won a total of three races which could probably have been more, had it not been for the fierce competition from notably Audi and Lancia at the time. What made the legend of the car was however not its rally pedigree but rather the total of around 5.000 homologation cars, split roughly as 1/3 Turbo and 2/3 Turbo II. Back in the early 80’s, at least in France this was the really cool car to have (which was good since price-wise it was on par with true sports cars!), but it was also one that required some basic driving skills, as you’ll guess from a combination of a short wheelbase, a mid-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive! The pengine’s position helped contribute to what was a great engine tone, making the 1.4 litre, turbo-charged 4-cylinder sound like far more than it was. 160 hp was not a huge power output, but with the setup as described and an 80’s ketchup turbo lag, more power was not really necessary.

No other Renault 5 has a natural place in the port of Monaco!

After the R5, Renault went back to its slumber and the Dieppe engineers went for a well-deserved break that lasted for around 15 years. This takes us to the late 90’s when Renault presented a study based on the Clio with a mid-mounted, V6 engine. The interest was so big that Renault decided to produce the car, this time in collaboration with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). The engineers in Dieppe were back from their break and developed what was at least in concept a true follower of the R5 Turbo. As the Turbo 20 years earlier, the Clio V6 had a considerably widened body, exactly the same boring interior as the standard Clio, rear-wheel drive and a mid-mounted engine behind the front seats. This time the engine was however a naturally aspirated V6, producing between 226-254 hp. It made the V6 only slightly quicker than the Turbo though, since the Clio also weighed i400 kg more at 1400 kg. A lot of that weight was actually not linked to the Clio being a new car but rather to the heavy modifications from converting the regular Clio to a rear-wheel drive, mid-engined two-seater.

The similarity in concept also means a certain similarity in the driving experience, even if the lack of a giant turbo gap given the Clio V6 is naturally aspirated makes it, shall we say not quite as full of surprises… What remains is however the rear-heavy weight distribution combined with a short wheelbase, so being slightly careful cerrtainly doesn’t hurt. Again, both the looks and the sound are (almost) as good as the old R5 Turbo and no doubt the Clio V6 will age as well.

Under the official, very selling name Renault Clio V6 Renault Sports, the V6 was built in two versions called phases, the first between 2001-2003 and the second until the end of production in 2005. It was thus built roughly as long as the R5 Turbo, but with only around half as many produced. That doesn’t show price-wise yet with a good Clio V6 coming in at around EUR 40-50.000 whilst the R5 Turbo / Turbo II is at least twice as much. There is no objective measure in this world that makes it rational to buy either one of them, but then again rational is boring and if that’s your philosophy, these cars are both a lot of fun and not seen on every corner.

Had they spent 1/10 of what they spent on the exterior on the interior…

The new Alpine A110 is being built in Dieppe since 2017, a car that I covered last summer in a post you can read here. We’ll come back to the upcoming F1 season in the coming weeks but it’s no secret that Renault’s F1 team has been renamed Alpine from this season, so there’s no doubt Dieppe is going strong with hopefully some other great cars coming out over the coming years!

Alpine A110 – enjoy it while it lasts!

I had the privilege to spend part of my childhood in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Monaco. I had caught the car virus already back then, although the 8-9-year version of myself was mostly interested in counting car antennas (these were the days where cars would regularly have 3-4 antennas, and the really cool guys would have a 2-meter, roof-mounted one, making it look like they were receiving from the moon…).

Monaco is obviously embedded in France, and France is obviously very French, also when it comes to cars. In this period there were two French sports cars that easily (at least according to the French) held up with the competition from both Germany and Italy. The first was the Renault 5 Turbo / Turbo 2 nicknamed “the steel mouse”, basically a Renault 5 with a wider body and the engine moved back to sit where the back seats used to be, and developing anything between 160-300 hp depending on version and year. Few of these are left today and when they change hands, it’s at stratospheric prices.

Très cool! Antenna on the smaller side though…

The other came from the small French manufacturer Alpine, established in 1955 and mostly known for the A110, built during the 60’s to the mid-70’s. Alpine had always had a close relationship with Renault who took over the company in 1973 and after the A110, sold its successor the A310 (later A610) until 1995 when the Alpine name disappeared.

Très – ugly, from the front as well as from most other angles.

In 2017 Renault then re-launched Alpine with the new A110, a small, light sports car clearly reminiscent of the original from the 60’s, and in many ways inspired by Lotus (Lotus Exige bodies were even used during the development process). The A110 received a warm reception especially from the motor press since it was a car that finally went against the logic of ever-increasing power in ever-heavier sports cars. The car magazine Evo (the tagline of which this blog uses as its name) even elected it runner-up in its Evo Car of the Year in 2018. In addition, a small engine with low emissions in a light body made the car cheap to own, which is very important in France but increasingly also in other European countries.

I obviously no longer live in Monaco but our family typically returns to the south of France every year (typically doesn’t include this year by current looks…) and we stay close to a large Renault dealer with a separate Alpine showroom. I visited it last summer, got a personalized demonstration of the car as well as a test drive in the adjacent back country that was really an experience.

Firstly I love the looks, that for me strike the right balance between old and new and are quite unique. Secondly you sit really low with the car wrapped around you. Thirdly, it’s a great drive. The mid-mounted, turbo-charged, 250 hp four-pot (now also available in a 295 hp, “S” version) delivers more than enough power to the rear wheels for the 1.100 kgs it weighs. The engine is in great harmony with the 7-speed DSG box and handling is sharp with a notable absence of body roll. It’s also very well made and doesn’t need to be thrown around a corner to be enjoyable. As Renault has shown previously, all the way from that R5 Turbo to modern incarnations of the Mégane, it knows how to develop great drives, and the A110 is a testament to that. At a starting price of around EUR 55.000, I would also claim that it’s quite competitive, being far cheaper than any new Lotus (and in comfort and finish, only the Evora could compete) or Porsche Cayman (that is however more than 500 kgs heavier), the two most obvious competitors.

The interior doesn’t disappoint either!

Apparently though, not a lot of people agree with me on that last point – because very few Alpines are being sold – and this is even before the whole Covid thing. A total production of around 7.000 so far of what was always going to be a niche car doesn’t sound too bad, but sales in large markets are in free fall and in December, the daily production was cut from 15 cars to 7. As noted in my post on Daniel Ricciardo’s switch to McLaren a few weeks ago (that you can read here), Renault’s finances are also in bad shape, with 15.000 employees currently being cut as part of an EUR 2bn savings plan.

The Alpine is a great sports car at a good price, and although the brand may be less-known than Porsche or Lotus, the reputation and tradition should appeal to at least some of the mid-aged sports car enthusiasts that are the target group. The problem is rather to be found on the distribution side. Given Alpine is not in line neither with the rest of Renault’s line-up nor with its clients, the cars are sold over separate dealers that are few and far between (11 in Germany, 2 in Switzerland, 3 in Austria and not more than 20 in the home market France, that has more than 3.700 Renault dealers). Taken together, that 6-month old Cayman that can be serviced around the corner, that is certainly the safer option and that definitely carries the more prestigious brand, all of a sudden sounds quite attractive…

If it wasn’t for those Germans…

A mother company in severe financial straits with the French state as 15% owner does not bode well neither for Renault in F1, nor for niche projects like the Alpine. If sales don’t pick up, which is highly doubtful given what’s happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if for the second time in its life, Alpine is laid to rest. That may be sad for Alpine but not necessarily for A110 owners, who can still enjoy a great car that will never be seen on every corner and that can be expected to hold its value really well!