Unfortunately, it also faced an early slide to irrelevance when the relatively tame Group 4 FIA regulations were replaced with the no-holds-barred insanity of Group B, which favored cars with all-wheel drive and insane boost pressures over the rear-wheel-drive Renault. Renault continued building street models even after the Turbo was retired from WRC, with the overall production of the Turbo and its later, tamer brother—the Turbo II—reaching into the thousands, helped in popularity by the growing gray-market import demand from the United States. The later Turbo IIs, however, dropped the stunning paint and outrageous Bertone-designed innards, as well as some of the weight reduction bits of the homologation car, so if you’re shopping for a Renault Turbo 5, the original is the one you want.
And the original Turbo is still a sight to behold. The Bertone seats and technicolor carpeting make it seem more like a prop from Blade Runner than an actual production vehicle. It is so painfully French it’s hard to believe credit for the outrageous interior belongs to the Italians. The asymmetrical steering wheel and unconventional gauge cluster would look avant-garde if released today, and the form-follows-function, wide bodywork only drives home that it’s trying to hit the high millions on the Scoville scale of hot hatches.
If you weren’t already sold that this is no ordinary French econobox, firing up the engine leads to a shockingly throaty sound from behind you. The 1.4-liter coughs to life with surprising ferocity, and although there’s a firewall between your back and the four-cylinder, the “engine cover” is a piece of plastic and carpet. It doesn’t exactly aim for Consumer Reports’ high points on the NVH rating, but it certainly alerts you to the fact that this is a cutting-edge rally car with some mirrors slapped on to pass roadworthiness certification.
This bold, almost experimental, presentation makes sense for the decade it was conceived in. Science—especially progress in advanced, exotic materials such as aluminum alloys and our seemingly endless progress towards ever-shrinking and intelligent computer chips—promised new heights for humanity, and our cars should follow. Some of these ideas seem laughably dated now—digital tachometers and talking Fairladies—but truly massive strides were being made in safety and performance at the same time. Group 4, and later Group B, rallies were testbeds for the newest technology that would find its way to road-going, more mundane counterparts. Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system is an excellent example of this. Originally developed to win rallies, it became the Ur-Quattro—literally the Original Quattro—and spawned an entire sub-brand of all-wheel-drive Audis that are still sold today.
Driving Some ’80s Future
And now, with 41 years of hindsight, I get to put this original-run Turbo through its paces to see just how truly forward-looking it really was. It certainly helps that it’s stunning, and even better, the example I’m driving looks fresh off the lot. Unlike many other nostalgic cars of the ’80s, the Turbo’s low production numbers prevented them from ever hitting too deep a nadir in value and falling into irresponsible 20-something owners’ hands (such as yours truly), so there are plenty of mint ones left. And this one is truly mint.
The immaculate condition, however, does not help me shift into reverse. The stunning Bertone seats are aggressively bolstered—so aggressively, in fact, it makes the already difficult throw into reverse nearly impossible, because the shift knob hits the seat padding, which requires you to squish back the fabric as far as possible to somehow get it into reverse. Ah well; to hit the rally stages, we only need the five forward gears, so I’ll forgive it.
Dipping into the five forward gears is a lot more fun than trying to back up. The transmission slots into gear with a long throw but a hefty click, giving it that race-car sensation that might not be ideal for shift speed but makes a heel-toe downshift that much more satisfying. The car takes a long while to get up to temperature, but once it’s finally there, the sound of the engine right behind your ears is an aural treat.
Once it was finally willing to give me boost, with the tiny engine warmed up and eager, I floored it. It’s not the most impressive zero-to-60 time—mid-six seconds is comparable with other, more attainable turbocharged ’80s cars I’ve owned in the past—but it does have that fun ’80s torque curve. Turbo cars of the era, predating the advanced engine management and high-quality turbines and bearings of today, have a very specific torque curve, which is more aptly described as a torque wall. Floor it, nothing, nothing, nothi—OH! And from there, the hatch surges forward on a wave of compressed air delivered directly to its cylinders.
Around a track or for in-town driving, a smoother curve is preferable, but I’ve never found any experience quite as fun as the lag-happy turbochargers of the ’80s, and the Renault predictably delivers.