1980 Renault 5 Turbo Review: An '80s Time Capsule Best Left Parked
Sometimes rose-colored glasses come with matching red wheels.
The Eighties are having a resurgence. The neon lights, arcade cabinets, shoulder pads, and Crystal Pepsi have enjoyed a slight bump in popularity, but this pales in comparison to the fervor for cars of the era. With the generation that grew up wanting them now having the money to bid on them, and the social status to define the shows to which they drive them, cars of the Rad era have never been more desirable. And, of course, this specific car stands above almost all others of the decade. This is a 1980 Renault 5 Turbo, and it hardly needs any introduction.
In a generation of cars chock full of future classics, it’s harder to get a more rock-solid pedigree than bonafide, three-digit, production-number, FIA homologation paperwork. If the massive fender arches and raucous turbo spool don’t clue you into its provenance, the plaque on the dash—0276 (out of 400)—might do the trick. At the time, the base Renault 5 model was a front-engine, front-wheel-drive economy hatch (sold in America as the Le Car). Meanwhile, the Renault 5 Turbo was a Bertone-bodied, mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive, purpose-built rally car.
The Turbo shares a general shape with the base Renault 5—a boxy hatchback silhouette not uncommon in the '80s—but that’s about it. Everything else has been turned way the hell up, and though it feels sacrilege to say, perhaps not for the best.
1980 Renault 5 Turbo: By the Numbers
- Powertrain: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four | 5-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 158 @ 6,000 rpm
- Torque: 163 lb-ft @ 3,250 rpm
- Curb weight: 1,984 pounds
- Seating capacity: 2
- Quick take: The Renault 5 Turbo is a wonderful time capsule—and something of a letdown.
The credentials of the R5 Turbo are impressive even beyond the homologation papers. The Turbo was launched in 1980 by Renault as a purpose-built Group 4 WRC car; FIA regulations called for 400 production models for homologation purposes, and this example is one of that initial production run. It won several rallies during its competition lifespan and has enjoyed long-term success on the vintage hillclimb and rally circuits.
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.
But from here, I began to find fewer and fewer things to give me joy. The massive wall of torque delivers early at 3,250 rpm but then the remainder of the gear is a desperate bid to wring out all 158 hp before the next shift, which leads to a rather disappointing top end. All the weight of the engine directly over the rear wheels promises a Porsche-like experience, steering with the throttle and adding a sense of aim to every corner, but the power is so low I couldn’t get it to even flirt with the idea of breaking the wide rear tires loose.
And, of course, plopping an engine directly behind the driver with hardly any heat shielding doesn’t lead to a calm, cool cabin experience. I was soaking with sweat before the engine was even at temperature. The seating position was uncomfortable for me, but because I had the seat backed up all the way to the firewall, there was no more adjusting that would help my spindly legs find a comfortable pedal position.
The gauge cluster, so gorgeous to behold when I first saw the interior, had no visible turn signal indicators and the growling motor 10 inches behind my ears kept me from hearing any clicking sound, so I’d accidentally drive down the road with a turn signal on. Same for the asymmetric wheel—gorgeous when parked, but not something I would want to fling this car down a gravel mountain pass holding onto. Even the blue carpets were a bit shallowly disappointing: the massive door sills were covered with cardboard-backed pieces that I’d accidentally kick trying to get in and out of the heavily bolstered seats.
None of these disappointments are surprising, mind you. I’m not stunned to find a French car’s interior verges on the unusable, or a purpose-built rally car is hot and uncomfortable, or that an '80s turbocharged 1.4-liter motor is too slow to break the rear tires. Any of these things on their own would have been an understandable limitation of design or technology, and I would never criticize a classic car for that. But together they all work to make this car a letdown. The individual failings combined to create a nonsensical machine. It’s an uninspired rally car, an uncomfortable sports coupe, and an unpleasant city cruiser. The only area it truly excels is as a showpiece unsuited for any real driving.
But in a sense, that truly does make this car the ultimate peak of '80s nostalgia.
Rewatching Ferris Bueller or playing Pole Position are fun ways to recapture a past that ultimately didn’t exist. The '80s were a time of neon and pastel veneer applied to the same structural problems plaguing us today. The AIDS pandemic ravaged an entire generation of queer people. Laffer and Reagan ensured a permanent landscape of inequality for two generations to come. The groundwork for the modern era of climate change was laid.
In other words, don’t look too closely at the history books (in the case of the Renault 5 Turbo, turn the key) or you will be sorely disappointed. Some eras and some cars are best enjoyed from afar.
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