Featured: I Tamed A Renault 5 Turbo II: A Smiling, Mid-Engined Box Of French Hate

I Tamed A Renault 5 Turbo II: A Smiling, Mid-Engined Box Of French Hate

By Davide Cironi
October 1, 2015
9 comments

Photography by Davide Cironi

This box of pure French hate and petrol smell looks at me with a big smile.

“Some cars just don’t have the right face,” I think to myself while lifting the garage door. All the other Group B cars have a killer look, which makes it easy to understand their cruel intentions—think Lancia Delta S4, 037 or the Audi Quattro. But this one…it smiles.

We watch each other for a long time, in the silence of the morning, hidden in a small, quiet country village in southern Italy. I wonder why and how only 160 horsepower are intimidating me, considering I just came off a Bugatti EB110, for God’s sake. Its fiberglass wide body, gaping air intakes, special turbofan wheels, and racing belts bolted to the back—on the panel that covers the rear-mid-engine—are so unique.

Everything is so racing, I should don my fireproof suit.

Before starting the 4-cylinder turbocharged engine, I remember that it’s not quite the same I experienced many times in a regular 5 GT; here, the exhaust system must not pass under the entire car. The result is an evil, direct sound. I think the whole village heard the first blasts while I was inside watching the rev counter; 1 to 3, then from 3 to 4, waiting for the proper temperature.

Out of the garage, under sunlight, I can see odd tones in its livery. Aging differently, its fiberglass and metal parts are now lighter and darker, once the same color but not now. From the first rotation of its wheels, everything tells me this car is very special and rare.

Rolling through secondary alleys to reach open road, it begins to explain itself: everything is so direct that you have to anticipate your thinking; engine response, steering, right pedal, gearbox, brakes—all of them are driver-oriented. It’s a filthy way to design a driver’s car, because when driving it at low speeds, you start to think it will be easy. There’s no massive push from the engine, no unwanted power slides or back kicks, so you start to feel the urge to drive more quickly. Wrong.

A lack of rear traction and its mid-engine layout are co-conspirators with its very short wheelbase and ’80s Garrett T3 turbo—clues to suggest how dangerous the 5 Turbo actually is. Unluckily, you will not understand that point until it tries to kill you in the very middle of the corner, when you have grown comfortable and confident, thinking: “Hey, my work is to drive things with triple the power every day. This little one can’t make me sweat”. Wrong again.

The exact moment I realize how challenging this blue girl could be, my arms begin to moisten, aided by the engine close to my shoulders and the 42° C heat outside the cockpit. What an incredible rally car for the road, but I can’t stop imagining how mental the full-fat Group B version is…it must be something inhuman.

The more I push, the less I trust it. Controls are all sensitive and precise, the pedals, above all, are the perfect position for heel and toe. Its driving position is funny because from the engine forward, it feels like a common hatchback and really similar to the normal 5. Its gearbox is a lightening through changes, simple and accurate, never questioning the driver’s movements.

You can feel the machine working all around, especially the front…which is pretty much empty. The steering has no filter, and my hands seem to touch the suspension and tires, making corrections directly on them. To make things even more fearsome, its turning angle is ridiculous, the braking power, too. I love these difficulties when I drive an old glory like this, because they make the experience so visceral and real.

There was a corner when I realized the speed was way higher than its braking strength; the rear axle tries to overtake me on every dirty road segment, the engine screams and never ceases to spit flames behind my back, while I’m working like mad inside, sweating and praying in French to find the common sense to slow down.

And then, the fury is over. We’re both home safe. So why do I have the urge to watch some of Jean Ragnotti’s Group B footage tonight?

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S J Morgan
S J Morgan
6 years ago

I have the use of an R5Turbo, any time I want. See, I have mine in my garage…

I bought mine NEW in ’84, had it sent back to Renault Sport for a few little options… A roller locked ZF LSD, Coupe D’Europe chassis setup (specific DeCarbon dampers and adjusted ride height), quicker steering gear, 15″ and 13″ wheel optins, Alpine steering wheel, 185PS kit, Devil straight through exhaust, remote oil filter (for easier changes) and the Coup alloy roll cage. Upon arriving in the US, I did the DOT/EPA conversion so that the car would be legal in the US, and specifically, California, where it has been continuously legally registered for the last 3 decades or so.

I still own the car. The only change over the years have been to install a K&N air filter, proper racing seat, and a set of fresh Bilstein dampers to replace the old DeCarbon Coupe Competition dampers that wore out after less than 4000 miles. I had custom built dampers to replace them over the years ( I still have a special set of unused DeCarbons for lab testing), doing some development for a couple of companies (Part of my day job), but the Bilsteins are just brilliant. Perfect, really. Oh, and fresh tires every few years to ensure driving pleasure. I had Yokohama put the 285s back into production just for us R5Turbo owners a few years ago. The car is so original, its scary. But everything has held up well.

I drive the car often, and use it to carve the local canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains here in California, where the car has been legally registered since, well, it rolled off the boat in early ’85.

Now, to correct a few errors in the article…

First, the car was a Group 4, not a Group B. Only the last models of the Maxi were Group B. It was a fabulous tarmac weapon, even when compared to the AWD cars from Audi and Lancia that arrived at about the same time.

As far as the handling goes, the car is quite good. If the car pictured is the one that was driven, it has obviously been lowered, with way too much rear camber, and no suspension travel up front. This is a recipe for snap oversteer in this short wheel base chassis. Also, with the lowering comes the problem of rear toe out (improper alignment setup), which makes the problem worse.

Then,,, Add the 20 year old tires (Maybe only 10, but still…) that are hardened and not grippy at all and you have a poor handling car.

Nothing that a fresh set of TRXs and a proper ride height adjustment and set up to factory specs, which includes 11º of caster up front would not cure. Really, the car needs to be properly set up to work properly. This means that the owner has to care enough to install new bushings, dampers and tires on his 30 year old machine. We call it “maintenance”.

I tracked my car extensively the first 10 years (then moved my home to the canyons, where I now enjoy the car in its natural habitat), and found that the handling was quite predictable, and the car easy to drive to the limit. With practice, the car could be drifted around on the less sticky TRX, but not so much on the foot wide 285/40/15 Yokohama AVS intermediates that I still use.

After all these decades of use, the car is still scintillating to drive. it is quick once rolling, has perfect gear ratios, and corners at better thn 1G (measured back in ’85, and again in 2006), which is a contemporary number, indeed. It can equal or beat just about anything on these local roads. Anything.

I have written a few articles on the R5 Turbo myself, the best being in an old issue of Sports Car International, comparing it to an Evo MR. Try that story if you want to find out what the car is really like.

Willam Giltzow
Willam Giltzow
6 years ago

For Hackbunny. The interior noise level was very pleasant but sporty with the windows up and A/C on. Windows down it sounded very motorcycle. The only thing aft of the catalyst (US gray market car) was about 18 inches of pipe. Great flame barking overrun. I had the 185 HP kit, which was just a heavier spring on the waste gate! Amazingly composed at 100 MPH cruise.

JB21
JB21
6 years ago
Reply to  Willam Giltzow

The one I sampled was just really loud inside, but that one was modded quite a bit.

Willam Giltzow
Willam Giltzow
6 years ago

I had a T2 in the day here in the states for about 3 months. Delightful car with Pirelli P7 tires. Not so much with the Michelin TRX that was original fitment and appears on the car Mr. Cironi drove. Lots of turbo lag, but the chassis was spectacularly capable. Girlfriend of the time is pulling the engine dip stick. Note the Gotti wheel upgrade.

hackbunny
hackbunny
6 years ago

I always wondered, how’s the noise from the inside?

JB21
JB21
6 years ago

I did, too, had an occasion to drive one of those back in the 90s. His was tuned and pumping out something like 350hp. Just a mad dog of a car, so much turbo lag, and so fast! And it really tried to kill me more than once, and I fully agree with Guitar man that it probably is one of the funnest cars to drive, ever. I do admit, though, to me it is also one of the scariest cars I’ve ever driven.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
6 years ago

Back in the day I had the use of an R5 Turbo [ grey market ] for a day … tearing the dickens out of Trail Ridge Road as well as terrorizing the citizens of Estes Park/Grand Lake along with an unwitting Corvette and Porsche owner [ or two ] that had no clue what that madcap French Tonka Toy with the bark ( and bite ) from hell was capable of . Luckily for me I knew right off [ after a couple previous Group B experiences .. not to mention a K935RSR etc ] just what the little demon in kids toy disguise was capable of so the car didn’t hit me as hard as it seems to of hit you . But brother … that R5 .. one of the two best SPM cars [ smiles per miles ] I’ve ever driven . The other’d shock the ___ out of all of you if I told you what it was .. suffice it to say it wasn’t an ‘ F ‘ word 😉

But err .. traction signor Cironi ? Maybe its because I drove the car back in the day … comparing it to its contemporaries rather than whats on offer today … but in all honesty I felt the monster in comparison had gobs of available traction .. was tossable as all get out .. and once you had the turbo dialed in was infinitely predictable . But like I said … that was then . Scary ? No .. a K935 , F40 on the limit or a Shelby 427 Cobra is scary . The R5 is a thrill ride with SPM factor in abundance

But errr … before I forget … mille grazie signor Cironi .. you just made a brilliant day even better with this

Aaron Klein
Aaron Klein
6 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

I love Trail Ridge Road, I can only imagine driving something like this on it.

Jory Conrad
Jory Conrad
6 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

Is the K935RSR the rally spec of the 5 Turbo?