Possibly the least sporty, most poorly constructed small car ever sold in America was the Renault R5. Known in this country as the LeCar, the Renault looked and drove like a Yugo, only smaller, with less power and worse reliability.
Renault was racing, however. During the late '70s and early '80s, the company was pioneering development of turbocharged engines in its Formula One racing cars. Those 1.5-liter turbo engines eventually reached as high as an estimated 1,200 hp in qualifying trim. Renault wanted to put its turbo expertise to work in rally competition, and the tiny R5 was the designated platform.
But putting a bunch of turbo horses to the ground through the front wheels didn't seem like a good recipe for a fast rally car, so Renault engineers removed the back seat and installed the engine amidships, driving the rear wheels through a five-speed transaxle. To make this version eligible for racing, Renault then had to sell the R5 Turbo in its showrooms. Unfortunately, the manufacturer didn't officially import the little hot rod to America.
Sun International Racing, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., stepped in to fill the void, making the necessary modifications to import the cars legally and selling about 200 of the surprisingly quick little cars through Centennial Motors, a dealer in Boulder, Colo. A few dozen others came in through other channels. Renault wasn't amused, and put the "gray-market" R5 Turbos on its most unwanted list. The company even instructed its dealers to stop providing parts or service for the outlaws.
The R5's 1,397cc pushrod engine featured an aluminum head with beautifully formed hemi combustion chambers. In the stock factory turbo configuration, the engine was good for 160 hp. In the early '80s, this was an astounding number. Optional 185-hp and 200-hp upgrade kits were available from the factory, and the aftermarket has since jumped in with 300-hp versions.
In a new 185-hp car, Car and Driver got a 6.5-second 0-60 and a 14.6-second quarter mile before reaching a top speed of 124 mph. But drag racing isn't the Turbo's forte, given its tall, road-racing gearing and its tool-shed aerodynamics obviously limit its top speed potential.
For high-speed assaults on twisty mountain roads, however, the car may be without equal. The 40/60 weight distribution, race-spec unequal-length control arm suspension at all four corners, unboosted rack-and-pinion steering and unboosted four-wheel disc brakes provide awesome feedback. Drivers accustomed to front-wheel drive would be amazed at the direct feeling of the steering and the available power oversteer.
The engine delivers little power at the low end, but the output grows shockingly as the turbo boost needle swings clockwise. Kept on the boil, the R5 Turbo is like riding a lit bottle rocket. For some reason, there's virtually no audible turbo whine, so the boost gauge and the neck-snapping surge of acceleration are the only clues the car is turbocharged. Well, that and the 6-inch tall "TURBO" lettering across the back window.
The turbo's plumbing is short and direct, which contributes to minimal lag and reflects Renault's experience in Formula One. Heat, often a gremlin in turbocharged cars, is well managed with insulation and heat shielding in the R5's remarkably sanitary engine bay.
The Turbo 2 shown here is a later, less-expensive machine than the original rally replica sold in 1980-'81. That car featured an aluminum hood and roof, while the Turbo 2, sold between 1982 and '86, made do with the steel components from the standard R5. The Turbo 2 also used the standard R5 dashboard, while the original Turbo had a Euro-disco styled dash, which added to the cost, but didn't make the car go any faster.
The Turbo 2's sparse, angular dash is a study in period architecture, with its sharp-edged "futuristic" gauge binnacle. The speedometer, tach and water temperature gauges are standard R5 fare, though the boost gauge mounts in the center stack.
The Turbo 2's wheels are unfashionably small in diameter compared with modern sport coupes, and their turbine styling predates today's preferred spoked wheels. What's really interesting about them, however, is their size. The fronts measure 14 3/8 inches in diameter. The rears are 15 3/8 inches. The reason for this is their original Michelin TRX radials.
In the late '70s, to keep their newly designed, new construction radial from being mounted on standard wheels, Michelin used metric-sized wheels. The fronts are 365mm and the rears are 390mm. The design, however, offered no benefits over conventionally sized tires on standard wheels, and was discarded.
In width and aspect ratio, the Turbo's tires were well ahead of their time. The lightly loaded fronts are 55 series, and are 190mm wide, while the rears have the same profile but are 220mm wide. Fortunately, TRX tires are still available for R5 Turbo owners. Unfortunately, they leave the cars saddled with tires that were designed in '80s.
'New, the Turbo 2 listed for $22,500, in its standard 160-hp configuration. This was roughly the same price as the Porsche 944 of the same era. Today, old Turbo 2s are worth about $15,000 to $20,000 (unlike old 944s), according to Sun International Racing president Tom Calahane. The earlier, rarer Turbo 1 models are a bit pricier. Sun still sells parts for the cars through its Web site at www.thesunsite.com.
Jerry Fink, proprietor of Pennsylvania turbo tuner Laminar Concepts, owns a pair of Turbo 2s and has worked on many of them for customers. He estimates about 200 of the original 250 Turbo 2s imported to the United States are still on the road, while barely more than a dozen of the original 25 or so Turbo 1s are still in circulation.