Driving the classics: Renault 5 GT Turbo review

Published:14 June 2019

Renault 5 Turbo
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 3 out of 5
  • 3 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5

By Tim Pitt

Long-time CAR reader turned contributor, with love for all things fast and German

By Tim Pitt

Long-time CAR reader turned contributor, with love for all things fast and German

► Retro Renault hot hatch driven
► Quicker than a 205 GTI, weighs just 853kg

► Many modified, this is a standard-spec survivor

The 2002 movie Ali G Indahouse opens with our shellsuited hero screeching through suburbia in a Renault 5 GT Turbo. His ride is slammed on oversized alloys, with a frowning ‘bad boy’ bonnet and two tailgate spoilers. (double the downforce, right?). When the rival East Staines Massiv roll up, they’re also aboard a GT Turbo – a former Max Power cover car, no less – and the pair lock horns in a low-speed chase, soundtracked by sneezing dump valves and squelching bass.

Renault’s one-time automotive ASBO has matured into an appreciating asset, but it’s been a long road to respectability. Our story starts with the 1980 5 Turbo, a two-seat, mid-engined homologation special with hips that definitely don’t lie. Rally versions developed up to 350hp in ‘Maxi’ guise, and the car won its debut race in Monte Carlo, with Jean Ragnotti at the helm. Sadly, the arrival of Group B in 1982 cut short its career, making the 160hp roadgoing model something of a rebel sans cause.

Renault’s foray into forced induction, though, was only just beginning. In 1982, it bolted a Garrett T3 blower to the 5 Gordini (known as the 5 Alpine outside the UK), boosting power by 18bhp to 110bhp. And when a new 5 arrived in 1984, the GT Turbo followed swiftly afterwards. The first golden age of the hot hatchback was underway.

Renault 5 Turbo

The DNA of its pushrod engine was so ancient it belonged in Jurassic Park, yet the 115bhp GT Turbo outgunned the just-launched 104bhp Peugeot 205 1.6 GTI. Dynamic upgrades included swifter steering, bigger brakes and redesigned MacPherson strut/trailing arm suspension, with a lower ride height and wider track. A facelift for 1987 brought a painted bodykit, an extra 5bhp and water cooling for the Garrett T2 turbo, which already had a reputation for hot-start hissy fits. The metallic-blue Raider special edition arrived in 1990, presaging the end of GT Turbo production a year later.  

The 5’s popularity and tuning potential meant many fell into the wrong hands: thrashed, crashed or Maxed beyond the point of no return. Less than 300 remain taxed on UK roads and values have rocketed as a result. Nonetheless, a GT Turbo is still around half the price of an equivalent 205 GTI.

Memories of a misspent youth

Seeing the 5 emerge slowly from its delivery truck is like rewinding a VHS of my late teens. Suddenly, I’m back in a dimly-lit retail park, the scent of fried clutch and fried chicken hanging in the air as a geezer called Darren fails to pull donuts in a Nova SR. Where did it all go right?

Renault 5 Turbo

Renault’s 1990 heritage car is a post-facelift ‘Phase II’ model, one of the few survivors still in showroom spec. In Tungsten Grey on rollerskate 13-inch alloys, it looks dainty and demure – a far cry from the caricature it became. I’m sold before I’ve even signed for the keys.

There’s no mistaking the GT Turbo for a common-or-garden Campus, though. A cheesegrater lower grille, jutting side skirts, bold graphics and those oh-so-French yellow foglights (invariably left blazing 24/7) see to that. Nonetheless, it’s the simple purity of the shape that shines through; even Marcello Gandini, who penned the second-generation 5, only tweaked the details. Today, it seems ripe for reimagining as a retro EV, à la Honda e or Fiat Centoventi. Someone in Paris is probably sketching it now.

Open the front-hinged bonnet and the engine is buried beneath a viper’s nest of hoses, pipes and cooling apparatus. It’s the same 1.4-litre unit fitted to the Renault 9 and 11 Turbo, albeit shoehorned into a smaller space. I make a mental note to keep one eye on the temperature gauge.

Feeling a bit fragile

Climb inside and you realise why the 5 GT Turbo weighs just 853kg (circa. 60kg less than a new Lotus Elise). Its doors, which close with a tinny clang, are slimmer than a cereal box and similarly substantial. And its quirky, shelf-shaped dashboard is made from plastic that wouldn’t pass muster for a microwave meal. Squeaks and creaks? Those come as standard.

Renault 5 Turbo

Seatbelts are also standard, but the list of safety equipment starts and ends there. Clearly, the 5 comes from an era before Renault preoccupied itself with Euro NCAP crash tests. Shorter and narrower than a current Twingo, it feels tiny. Dicing with two-tonne SUVs certainly sharpens the senses – as I’ll shortly discover.

It’s not all bad, though. The orange-on-black Jaeger dials reek of retro cool, while the dished, Momo-style wheel looks like something Ragnotti might have grasped. Only the asymmetrical two-spoker in the original 5 Turbo (now worth a fortune on eBay) outdoes it. I also love the sculpted seats, with corduroy trim and blocky graphics like an Atari console.

From zero to hero

The 5 GT Turbo was – albeit briefly – the quickest hot hatch you could buy. A 1986 TV ad had one blasting up the strip at Santa Pod as Griff Rhys Jones extolled its “incredible acceleration”. For the record, 0-60mph in 7.5sec made a 205 1.6 GTI seem slow (8.9sec), and even the later 1.9 GTI (7.6sec) couldn’t keep up. Nor indeed could a Mk2 Volkswagen Golf GTI 8v (8.3sec) or Fiat Uno Turbo i.e. (7.8sec).

This 89,000-miler feels quicker than the stopwatch suggests. Perhaps it’s the bipolar nature of its power delivery: indifferent until 4,000rpm, then a frenzied rush to the redline. Abrupt and unabashedly uncouth, this is old-school turbo lag alright. 

Renault 5 Turbo

Such all-or-nothing oomph feels alien in an era of sequential and twin-scroll turbos, and can make the Renault difficult to drive smoothly, particularly on motorways, where 4,000rpm coincides with 70mph in fifth. But sensing that sudden surge as the boost gauge leaps to life is – with rose-tinted Ray-Bans firmly in place – also part of its charm. After all, there are no drive modes or Sport button here, so having two sides to the car’s character keeps things interesting.

A well-oiled gearshift and impatient throttle help maintain momentum, but there are moments of hesitancy from the carb-fed four-pot – along with a distinct whiff of unleaded when you work it hard. I wish it sounded more special, too, although it’s nothing a drilled airbox and a big-bore Peco pipe couldn’t fix. You can take the boy out of the 1990s…

Keener than French mustard

Hustling the Renault along a familiar lane, turbo puffing and parcel shelf rattling, I can barely suppress a giggle. Later, driving the same route in an Audi R8 V10, I scarcely manage a smile. The GT Turbo’s effervescent joie de vivre is hard to resist.

Renault 5 Turbo

The unassisted steering is just wonderful: a torrent of nuanced feedback that relays every ripple in the road. Wedged between bulky seat bolsters, you’re hard-wired into the car, giving you confidence to brake later and turn in tighter. The nose dives into apices like a terrier sniffing out rabbits, even lifting a rear wheel if you try hard enough. It doesn’t have the balletic balance of a 205, nor its knife-edge unpredictability at the limit. This is a car you can drive at maximum-attack most of the time, and doubtless many did.

Faults? Well, the brakes don’t have much initial bite and low-speed ride is jittery and abrupt, despite lofty 55-section tyres. The steering gets very heavy when the photographer demands numerous five-point turns for back-and-forth tracking shots. Oh, and it’s hot in there with no air conditioning. Then again, nobody will daily-drive a 5 GT Turbo now – especially one as well-preserved as this – so such foibles are easy to forgive.

Renault 5 Turbo

Renault 5 GT Turbo: verdict

The 5 GT Turbo is a stark reminder of how far cars have come in three decades. Build quality is comical, crash-protection is woeful and its performance wouldn’t trouble a school-run Qashqai. Yet it also reminds you what, by and large, we’ve lost: compact dimensions, light weight, unfiltered steering and fun at sensible speeds.

In hindsight, the Renault’s appeal to Mr G and his ilk is obvious. What it lacks in finesse is made up in live-wire immediacy and, of course, that seductive sugar-rush of boost. It goads you into wringing out more revs like a rowdy crowd at a cruise. This feisty French DNA lives on in Renault Sport models today passed down via the Clio Williams, Clio Trophy and others but the 5 GT Turbo first brought it to the masses.

As the car is loaded back into its truck, a middle-aged man runs across the street. ‘Lovely GT Turbo! I used to own one of these,’ he grins. ‘Cars these days just aren’t the same, are they?’ No, they really aren’t.

Specs

Price when new: £7,000
On sale in the UK: 1985-1991
Engine: 1397cc 8-valve 4-cyl, 120bhp @ 5750rpm, 121lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 7.5sec 0-60mph, 120mph, 39.8mpg, N/A CO2
Weight / material: 853kg, steel
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 3589/1595/1367

Photo Gallery

  • Renault 5 Turbo
  • Renault 5 Turbo
  • Renault 5 Turbo
  • Renault 5 Turbo
  • Renault 5 Turbo
  • Renault 5 Turbo
  • Renault 5 Turbo
  • Renault 5 Turbo

By Tim Pitt

Long-time CAR reader turned contributor, with love for all things fast and German

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