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Throwback Thursday: when the Renault 5 Turbo was king of the hot hatches

Nick Francis

14 Jan 2021

The Renault 5 is back, but not as we know it. As popular as the original hatchback was, it was the Renault 5 Turbo which made the car a superstar.

Have you heard? The Renault 5 is reborn. Proving emphatically that there are no new ideas, Renault has announced the legendary R5 is to make a return as a fully-electric hatchback, reviving a nameplate which ran from 1972 to 1986, and forming part of the ‘Renaulution’ (what?) of Renault under the leadership of Luca de Meo. For those wondering, he’s the guy who masterminded the relaunch of the Fiat 500, so he has form with this sort of thing.

Those who owned or were driven as a child by the Renault 5 might feel cheated that the new version will only be battery powered, but they will just have to suck it up because a car manufacturer would have to be insane to create a new model these days without at least an element of electrification. Absence of oily bits aside, we at YesAuto think it’s a rather elegant homage to the original car, which sold 5.5 million units in its 14 year lifespan.

The importance of the Renault 5 cannot be overstated, but while it was popular it wasn’t a car which set pulses racing – think of it as a standard 1-litre Ford Fiesta of today. An everyman and everyday car. But there was a rather special version of the Renault 5 unveiled in 1980 which sold in minute numbers compared to the car it was based upon and was anything but everyman and everyday. We’re talking about the Renault 5 Turbo.

The Renault 5 Turbo is not to be confused with the Renault 5 GT Turbo, which came later in 1985 and was simply a hot hatch version of the regular R5. The GT Turbo had its engine at the front and produced 113bhp, going up against cars like the Peugeot 205 GTI. Great car and very fast in its class thanks to a superb power-to-weight ratio, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary in terms of engineering. No, the R5 Turbo was a different beast, born out of Renault’s rally programme but with a production run of 4,987 road going models built in the name of homologation.

Unlike many homologation cars of today, the first road going R5 Turbo was just a smattering of extra plastic and rubber away from its motorsport sibling which, by the way, claimed four WRC victories between 1981 and 1986. This meant the hatchback you could trundle to the shops for a pint of milk in was rear wheel drive and mid-engined, with its 1.4 litre turbocharged unit producing 160bhp and 221Nm of torque from behind the driver position. Renault buffs might be reminded of the Clio V6, which repeated this trick in 2001.

It’s the engine’s positioning which gave the R5 Turbo its menacing look. The bodywork was that of the regular R5 but it had to be heavily modified to house the hardware and keep things stable, which is why it has hips like Shakira and air intakes over the back wheels which look like they could inhale and elephant. Money issues meant the R5 Turbo was a bit of a parts-bin car in other areas, using the five-speed manual gearbox of the Renault 30 TX and the suspension system of the Renault Alpine 310 V6.

The interior was pretty distinctive too, not least because the back seats and boot were lost to house the engine. Designers had fun with the cabin, lavishing areas like the seats with the most 80s and felt-like material you can think of in lairy colours like luminous orange, which deliberately clashed with the colour of the footwells and door cards. A sports steering wheel and ‘Renault 5 Turbo’ plaque reminded you that you were in the presence of greatness.

The R5 Turbo was a monster on the roads, smoking anything of a similar size thanks to its generous power, 900kg kerb weight and rear wheel drive layout: something proven by its success in WRC. For those who loved oversteer there wasn’t much which could come close.

A second R5 Turbo arrived once the first homologation cars were sold. Sadly it swapped out much of the WRC-spec parts for standard Renault 5 parts, including the lightweight aluminium door and roof panels, but the 6.6 seconds 0-62mph time wasn’t impeded much. In 1984 Renault produced the R5 Maxi Turbo for competition, which further hiked the power to 380bhp. Because why not?

Today a Renault 5 Turbo in decent condition will set you back between £70,00-80,000, and while the new electric version looks similar in design it couldn’t be more different than its loud, lairy ancestor.

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Nick Francis

14 Jan 2021