Remembering the Renault 5 GT Turbo

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The Peugeot 205 GTi and first Volkswagen Golf GTI have been written into car folklore, so why hasn’t their Renault contemporary?

Now that we’ve seen the new Renault 5 concept, one question bubbles to the surface faster than all: what took them so long? It looks so ineffably right, so informed by its past yet fixed on the future, that you wonder why they didn’t have the idea years ago.

The answer, I suspect, is Luca de Meo. He’s the recently appointed CEO of Renault who in a former life was responsible for a thing called the Fiat 500, on whose shoulders the fortunes of the entire Fiat brand have appeared to rest these past 13 years. So now the pieces fall into place.

The ocean of purple prose on which the reimagining of the 5 came bodyboarding into shore speaks not only of the fluency of its execution but also of the enduring love for a French icon that was born sufficiently long ago to be regarded as a classic but died sufficiently recently to be remembered. Which is a very neat treat.

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And I remember it more than most: the car I drove to work on my very first day as a journalist at Autocar in 1988 was my own Renault 5 GT Turbo. But as soon as it was clear that I would somehow cling to a job testing cars, it was clearly redundant and got sold. And the strange thing is that I’ve really not thought much about it since.

I owned three hot hatches before I joined the magazine: that 5 GT Turbo, a Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI and a Peugeot 205 GTi, and I’ve since thought of those last two almost constantly. They’ve become genuinely important, landmarks in the evolution of enjoyable motoring. The Renault? Not so much.

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But the curious thing is that, at the time, I was quite clear that the 5 GT Turbo was both the fastest and most fun of the three, yet somehow it has dropped out of my easy-recall memory. And off the public road: there are more than 1100 examples of the 205 GTi still registered in the UK where the 5 GT was also sold. The 5 GT Turbo? Just 287. Time for a reappraisal? With the launch of a new 5, there would be none better.

It’s extraordinary how the brain remembers. This is the first time that I’ve sat in a 5 GT Turbo in 33 years, yet I didn’t have to look for anything. For three decades, my brain has clung to a few lines of code just in case I should ever again need to locate the choke lever, or remember to twist the left-hand stalk to turn on the lights, or know that the bonnet hinges at the front, not the rear. I still know exactly how the gearbox is going to feel, how the engine will sound, even the gearing of the defiantly unassisted steering.

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But it feels flimsier than ever. This isn’t because I’ve forgotten how inexactly these cars were constructed and from which mediocre materials, just that it matters more to me now and the world has moved on while it hasn’t. Even as an occasional ‘classic’ car used for recreational purposes, its build quality would irritate me – and probably scare me, too.

I once was in an accident involving a 5 that drove on the wrong side of the road into a 5 Series that I had already brought to a halt. Mercifully the crash did nothing to the driver other than rouse him from his slumber, but the Renault penknifed, leaving its roof on its back seats, which would have had calamitous consequences had anyone been there. The BMW? Its airbags didn’t even deploy.

By now, doubts were rising in big bubbles within me. I won’t hide that I was excited about the car coming to stay, more so than I would be were any manner of far faster modern machine paying a visit; but with every passing mile, I wondered ever more what I had seen in it to begin with.

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Shockingly, it didn’t even feel very quick. ‘Pleasantly rapid’ would be a fair assessment of its potential, but only once the boost needle has woken up the far side of 3000rpm, swept around the dial and kicked its 1.4-litre pushrod engine (design work for which began in the 1950s) into action. When new, the 5 GT Turbo was the paciest of compact hot hatches. Now it’s mildly invigorating at best.

But then we reached the mountains and I could put its chassis to work. Oh my goodness, it was brilliant. It’s different to the 205 GTi, which just wants to rotate into a corner and then keep rotating. The 5 GT Turbo is so much better tied down: fling it at an apex on a trailing throttle and all it does is kill the understeer, leaving the car just beautifully neutral. Do that in a 205 GTi and without swift correction you would be in a hedge.

And the steering! That I confess I might not have recalled so clearly. Put it this way: I’ve never driven a hatchback that better combines weighting, gearing and feel.

Suddenly the rather workaday engine doesn’t matter any more, for it’s merely a facilitator; what you need to let that chassis do its thing. I far prefer the Peugeot’s gearbox, but the Renault’s is good enough.

And the car overall? In many ways, it makes me admire the 205 GTi even more, which I know isn’t the idea, but the 5 GT Turbo makes you realise what a stunningly complete – not to mention hilarious – hot hatch its deadliest rival was.

I owned a 205 GTi for seven years until last year, and not for a moment do I now wish it had been a 5 GT Turbo. But on the right road, the even lighter Renault, with its beautiful balance and near-flawless steering, is actually better. I wouldn’t go so far to say we all got it wrong in elevating the 205 GTi’s reputation to the stars yet leaving the 5 GT Turbo on earth, but it’s a special and now extremely rare thing. How glad I am to have made its acquaintance once more.

High fives: a short history

It’s too easily forgotten that the first hot Renault 5 actually predates the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the car so often and erroneously credited with inventing the hot hatch category.

Called the 5 Alpine in Europe when launched in 1976 and the 5 Gordini, it used a 69kW naturally aspirated version of the engine that would end up in the 5 GT Turbo.

In 1982, Renault bolted a Garrett T3 turbocharger to the engine, which raised power to 82kW and dropped the 0-100km/h time a whole second to 8.7sec, creating a car that survived until the almost entirely new second-generation 5 was launched in 1985.

By the time the hot version of that (the 5 GT Turbo) was ready in 1986, Peugeot was already well established in the market with the 205 GTi.

The 5 GT Turbo made 85kW, which bettered the output of the original 205 GTi (78kW) and matched that of later 1.6-litre cars but fell short of the 97kW of the 1.9-litre 205. That said, at 850kg, it was lighter than any of them and compared well in power-to-weight terms.

A revised version with a water-cooled turbocharger was introduced the following year to solve hot-start problems, which raised power to 89kW. Production stopped in 1991.

Could there be a new 5 Turbo?

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It seems almost inevitable that, just as the hot hatch followed the popularisation of the hatch format at a deferential distance, the same is likely to be true for electric hot hatches.

However, packaging enough punch in such a compact car while still providing acceptable range without also introducing unacceptable mass will be tricky to pull off, so don’t expect a new Renault 5 ‘Turbo’ any time soon.

And even if they do crack the formula and make one fast enough, a rather bigger challenge lies ahead: making it fun enough. Flawed though the old 5 GT Turbo is, it’s still more fun to drive than any electric car on sale today. Sorting that out won’t be the work of a moment.

Andrew Frankel

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