Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 2 – Renault VESTA

A short series in which we look at three small eco-concept cars from the 1980s and see what became of them.

Renault VESTA – look through the rear side window, and one can see that it is one of those styling mules where each side elevation has a differing design (Source: All Car Index)

Today, we turn our attention to Renault’s vision for a compact car designed to do 120mpg (2.35l/100km), the 1983 VESTA.

In its February 1984 edition, Car Magazine went into some detail about what it reported would become the new Renault ‘R3’ in an article, entitled ‘Towards 2000’. This edition of the magazine is memorable for having scoop photos of the Kadett E / Astra MkII on the front cover, the car brightly illuminated at night on the road, showing that GM Europe’s compact offering was going to turn into something looking more like a Citroën than a typical Opel / Vauxhall product. Back then, this new Astra looked radical and exciting, while the Golf II and Escort Mk3 looked so 1970s by comparison.

The ‘Towards 2000’ article displayed a number of photos of what purported to be the incoming R3, and also of the VESTA itself. I think this was meant to give credence to the magazine’s ‘scoop’ that the original R5 was about to be replaced by not one but two cars. A cursory glance at the photos would have one think today that the car presented was an early iteration of the original Lancia Y10. A slightly longer, more sloping bonnet line and other minor details aside, the two are very close in design concept. The four-spoke steering wheel shown could also be taken for a FIAT / Lancia item from that era. Interestingly, the article mentions that “small capacity engines on which Fiat and Renault are collaborating” could be used in the R3 at some point after its launch. I assume that must be a reference to FIAT’s contemporary FIRE unit, but I did not realise that FIAT was working with Renault on that engine(1).

A VESTA with detail changes and matching sides at the Brussels show in 1984 – note the R18s and A310 in the background. (Source: Car Styling.ru)

Although not reported as such by Car Magazine at the time, the VESTA was Renault’s response to the same French Government-backed programme that sired Citroën’s ECO 2000 concept. Hence, its development was 50% funded by the state and had the same target criteria, including being capable of fuel consumption of just 2 litres per 100km.

The French need little excuse to employ an acronym and VESTA stands for Véhicule Econome de Systèmes et Technologies Avancées, whilst also alluding to the Roman goddess of that name. The VESTA was reported as being close to 26cm shorter than the original R5, but was claimed to offer similar interior space(2). Given the fascination with aerodynamics at that time, the frontal area is reported as being 17% less than that of the R5 and the claimed drag coefficient of 0.22 was excellent for a car of that size. Car Magazine expected the R3 to have a slightly higher cd of 0.25.

The VESTA also possessed a tear-drop profile, with its front track being about 7cm wider than that at the rear. The windscreen was raked at 57 degrees and the car sported completely smooth wheel covers. Weight was kept in check to just 510kg by use of variable strength and gauges of steel, a polyurethane foam-reinforced glass-fibre roof panel, a polymethacrylate rear hatch and polypropylene for the wheel housings and bumpers(3).

VESTA front 3/4 view – the fascia clearly nods to the R5, but the overall profile says Y10.  One can now see the difference in styling of this side of the car aft of the door (Source: Car Design News)

The engine in the prototype VESTA was a lightweight, low-friction, 712cc, three-cylinder aluminium alloy engine with iron dry liners, belt-driven overhead camshaft and, most interestingly, twin spark-plugs for each cylinder. Maximum power output was claimed to be 32.4bhp at 4,250rpm and maximum torque was 44lb ft at 2,500 rpm. To be clear, the magazine did not anticipate that this engine would appear in the production R3 until much later in its production cycle, if at all. In fact, the same is said about potential use of the engine allegedly being co-developed with FIAT, so it seems the R3, had it been produced, would have started life with the 845cc four-cylinder engine carried over from the R5.

Transmission was via a five-speed gearbox with a heady top gear capable of 29.8mph per 1,000rpm. Suspension was ultra-conventional: struts up front and a torsion beam axle at the rear, albeit with some nice detailing like combined hub carriers and brake callipers forged in light alloy. Steering was unassisted rack and pinion. Given the car’s light weight and compact dimensions, one would imagine that it could have been a fun thing to drive.

Photos of the interior show a dashboard in the style of the Panda (or Y10), with a pod-like casing for the instrument and HVAC controls sitting aloof of a full-width tray. The front seats look plush and well padded. The gear stick is a long, wand-like item which sprouts from the carpet in a rather budget-looking kind of way. It is an odd mix of the near-production ready and a make-do lack of sophistication.

A grainy image of the interior is a photo of a photo published in Car Magazine (Source: Car Magazine)

Overall, it comes across as a very production-ready prototype. It’s a lot less ‘future-concept’ looking than the Citroën ECO 2000 covered previously. That deficit was addressed with the later VESTA II of 1987, which was a far more smoothly styled, if oddly proportioned and concept-typical looking car. In fact, one might be tempted to say that the VESTA II looked like the offspring of the ECO 2000 and VESTA I. Apparently, there was an intervening VESTA + concept, but I can find no other meaningful reference to it.

I also cannot find any evidence as to whether or not the VESTA achieved the target fuel consumption of 2 litres per 100km. However, Renault UK’s Press Office informs us that, at the time, the VESTA II was the most fuel-efficient car in the world, achieving 145.6mpg (1.62 litres per 100km) whilst averaging 63mph on a 313-mile trial run from Paris to Bordeaux. The VESTA II had a cd of 0.19 and weighed only 472kg. Impressive!

VESTA II – the love child of a VESTA and the ECO 2000? (Source: Renault)

Sadly, the R3 never appeared. Neither did a VESTA or VESTA II style vehicle emerge from Renault in the 1980s. In fact, we had to wait until the Paris Salon of 1992 to welcome the Twingo. This arrived with the 1.2-litre engine from the R5 and, well executed cute looks aside, it was utterly conventional. Moreover, the Twingo Mk1 was never engineered with RHD and so was denied to the UK market, something which always saddened me.

That original Twingo lived on until 2007, when production was ended in France(4), by which time just under 2.5m units had been sold. It was replaced by a second-generation car that was aligned with Renault’s contemporary corporate style(5) and this time was made available in RHD. The current Twingo, now no longer on sale in the UK, is more interesting in its layout, sharing a rear-engine, RWD layout with its twin, the Smart Forfour.

The adorable Twingo of ’92, which, monobox aside, clearly has little connection to the VESTA (Source: Classics World)

So, the original Renault 5 never was replaced by two cars, the R3 and R5. What we got instead was the Supercinq, which was striking for being an 1980s near-caricature of its predecessor. It was an interesting but ultimately faux scoop for Car Magazine which, like any good publication, is given never to letting the facts get in the way of a good story!

(1) However, in researching the Citroën ECO 2000, one is led to believe that FIAT was also a collaborator with Renault on the development of that engine!

(2) This is perhaps not that surprising, given that the original Cinq positioned its engine and gearbox longitudinally, hence was no paragon of space-efficiency.

(3) No parrots were hurt in the making of this car, apparently!

(4) The Twingo Mk1 carried on in Columbia until mid-2012.

(5) This was perhaps best exemplified by the shakin’ that ass Mégane II.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

26 thoughts on “Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Number 2 – Renault VESTA”

  1. Good morning S.V. Another interesting example of forward thinking from the 1980s, thank you. Even if the VESTA never directly made production, its influence on the original Twingo is clear. The Twingo is delightful: it is cheerful, friendly and completely unthreatening, with no silly ‘sporting’ pretence. Its hard to imagine one being driven aggressively. What a shame really small cars such as this are proving increasingly unviable, an unintended and unfortunate consequence of ever more onerous safety legislation.

    Regarding Car Magazine’s R3 ‘scoop’, it’s fun to read back through old issues of the magazine and see just how many of such ‘scoops’ were nothing of the sort, either being hopelessly off the mark in the first place, or undone by subsequent decisions by the manufacturer in question. In fairness to to the magazine, it cannot be criticised for the latter circumstance.

    1. Here is the cover of the magazine referred to by S.V. in the piece:

      The ‘aero-look’ Kadett E / Astra Mk2 was certainly a radical departure from its boxy predecessor.

    2. You can see the 1991 Caprice in embryonic form in that Astra. I think Wayne Cherry was in Ruesselsheim at the teim. But (correct me if I am wrong, Christopher B.) Eberhard Schnell was the chief of design.

    3. Wayne Cherry was in Rüsselsheim from 1983 to 1991. He once said that he admired the design of his braun electric shaver a lot and it had inspired him for the looks of the Calibra.

    4. If I’m not mistaken, the chief designer overseeing the Kadett E’s development was Gordon Brown. I also seem to remember that Gert Hildebrand and Hans Seer were part of the design team, whereas I believe that Erhard Schnell wasn’t involved. But someone else might have more profound insights to offer.

  2. I would argue with the assessment that the Mk11 Astra ever looked ‘radical and exciting’. I was very familiar with the Kadett D, and when the ‘E’ appeared I thought it looked miserable. When I drove one I hated the inside too – not that the previous model was anything special.

    1. Mervyn,

      I was at the UK Motor Show in 1984 when the Astra Mk2 was launched and trust me, it was a big deal. Opel were expecting the Mk2 Golf to be a bold aero car as was the fashion in those days and were somewhat wrong-footed when it wasn’t.

    2. Opel managed to make the black plastic combined grill/bumper look particularly cheap and nasty…. I owned a Kadett D for several years and considered the design to be very well executed. The Kadett E became even worse with the saloon version…

  3. “It is an odd mix of the near-production ready and a make-do lack of sophistication.” – That was how production Renaults were in those days!

    Looked at now, the VESTA and its contemporaries show how wrong each generation’s prediction of the future is . The throwaway line at the time among design luminaries was “And of course, we’ll all be driving around in tiny little eco-cars”.

    Emissions were a side-issue – it was virtuous enough to burn far less fuel in the first instance. And it was expected that safety would be sacrificed for efficiency. Carmakers were getting far better at making collisions survivable, but there’s a limit to what can be done without increasing size and weight.

    Nearly 40 years on – at least in the west – the industry has given up on truly small cars, and despite a lot of cleverness going into structural design, weight in all size classes has been increased massively by emissions control and hybrid-drive components, passive safety features, and the level of general equipment customers now expect.

    1. To clarify, emissions were certainly a consideration in the early-mid ’80s. Most European manufacturers, particularly Ford, Peugeot and Rover were investing heavily in new lean-burn engine ranges for the 1990s. Everything changed in the late ’80s with widespread public concern about environmental matters which arose as a result of the highly visible effect of acid rain on forestation and a greater awareness of the effects of ozone depletion. In addition, particulates and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) were by then widely recognised as a major human health risk.

      The outcome of this was the adoption of far stricter standards than originally intended for the Euro I regulations – applicable from January 1992 – than had been widely anticipated, and even tighter and wider-ranging standards for 1996 and 2000. The increased range of pollutants covered by the the upcoming standards led to the abandonment of development of the type of lean-burn engines which could reduce some – but not all – emission types without the need for catalytic converters, but actually increased Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) output as a result of their higher combustion temperatures which broke down nitrogen which then combined with oxygen.

    2. ” And it was expected that safety would be sacrificed for efficiency.”

      The weight saving tricks (very similar to the ones cited for the VESTA: Plastic rear hatch, different gauges of steel…) employed in the Citröen AX made a very fragile car, with a miserable passive safety: In case of a crash, AXs folded like beer cans.

      The curious thing was that in the 1980s nobody seemed to care.

    3. It wasn’t just the AX, the BX that followed the same principles not only had the tactile quality of an empty Coke can it also had the same crash worthiness.

    4. When the BX was common ware on the roads you could see them at every Citroen dealer’s scrapyard behind their workshop. A typical common sight were cars with the rear hatch hovering atop the C post by about ten or fifteen centimetres and sitting asymmetrical to the hatch opening. The reason was that rear shunts with little overlap even at low speed (like the car behind you bumping into a rear light) caused the whole BX to distort heavily. Typical effect was a kink in the roof from one B post to the A post on the opposite side with the whole side of the car being pushed forwards considerably. BXs with such accident damage were so numerous that it should count as empirical proof.
      The damage looked very similar to this picture, just caused from the other end of the car. (The A post in this picture does not give the impression of a particularly safe car…)

    5. Yikes! My late father owned two BXs, I’m glad he never got rear-ended or had any other sort of accident! His second BX was replaced with a Xantia, which felt like a much more substantial and better put together car. That’s the difference ten years of progress makes.

      I guess we get to choose two factors out of light, strong and affordable.

    6. The picture of the silver car is shocking. The speed cant’t have been too high because it didn’t roll over and the parcel shelf was just lifted up but did not fly forwards. The car just slipped into the ditch at moderate speed and it’s completely wrecked.
      You wouldn’t see an A post that badly bent in such an accident in a modern car.

  4. Get the impression the 716cc 3-cylinder Renault VESTA engine was basically derived from the 956cc 4-cylinder Renault Cleon-Fonte, perhaps the original plan by Renault was to initially develop a 3-cylinder version of the Renault Energy engine for possible use in the Renault Twingo or similar precursor model (if not also a 1-litre 4-cylinder version that was strangely omitted). Only for Renault to be forced to use the Cleon-Fonte engine in the Twingo, because the hemispherical cylinder head and front exhaust in the Energy engine was too large to be accommodated in the Twingo?

    Think CAR Magazine got confused with the short-lived joint-venture between Fiat and PSA on what became the FIRE by switching PSA with Renault.

    It is a pity Renault were never able to bring their experimental pre-Twingo city car projects like VBG (also dubbed the R2 at times) into production from the early/mid-1970s to take on both the Autobianchi A112 and Mini, would have to agree the UK missed out on the original Renault Twingo by Renault deciding not to engineer it to be made in RHD form.

    Realistically what could have been carried over from the Vesta II to the original Twingo? Understand that even the Citroen AX utilized some ideas from the Citroen ECO 2000 concept.

    Also never really rated the mk2 Twingo due to its increased weight and size as well as its bland exterior styling over the original, which never lived up to its promising mk2 Clio-based platform (and understand there were potentially better looking mk2 Twingo alternatives that Renault canned a few years prior). Whereas the more recent mk3 Twingo ended up being a dynamic disappointment (without a proper RS model) despite the promise of its rear-engined layout.

  5. The original Twingo seems to have a remarkable survival rate, given that the newest are approaching 15 years old.
    Making 2.5 million probably helped.

    Perhaps it’s down to visual distinctiveness – the second generation is so unremarkable that it goes un-noticed.

  6. S.V., may we expect a similar take on the West German Auto 2000 initiative, eventually?

    1. Hi Christopher, well it wasn’t on my radar, but that’s not to say that it can’t be in the future. I’ll admit that I fell upon the French Government’s ECO 2000 initiative quite by accident (I was interested in the end products and in so researching discovered they stemmed from the government’s initiative), but it’s the kind of thing that does interest me so, when I get time, I might well have a look into it.

  7. I’m late to the DTW classroom today. I’ve known about the Vesta 2, but never about the Vesta, so something learned again.

    I’ve always been rather fond of the 1st generation Twingo, even though I don’t like the Fisher Price interior. The backseat that slides back and forth is a nice touch. Having said that, using the bright colored plastic and upholstery was an effective and probably cheap way to set the interior apart from other offerings in this segment.

  8. If energy continues to be very expensive, we’re going to need much more energy-efficient vehicles, so perhaps these sorts of concepts will begin to make more sense, again.

    Large, heavy vehicles consuming large amounts of expensive electricity aren’t going to be any good. Even if people can afford the bills, there may be problems with continuity of supply of electricity and of energy in general and we will need to use much less.

    That said, the top 10 cars sold in Europe are still B and C segment vehicles (mostly B segment superminis). I accept that they have grown a great deal compared with past versions, but new battery technology ought to allow them to repackaged to reduce their exterior size.

    Coming back to the Vesta, I can see the Fiat Seicento in the original version – the Seicento came out much later, of course. I can’t find much on the ‘Vesta +’ and I wonder if that was really just the MK 2 version.

    I find this a fascinating series of articles and the topics involved have never been more relevant.

  9. You have to laugh at all the sanctimonious hand wringing over the safety of small cars such as the Renault prototypes or the road going ones like Citroen’s AX and Peugeot’s 106. The latter two were excellent cars. Cheap to run. Fun to drive (especially the sporty ones and the homologation models were best of all- very hard to find now and getting a little pricey). They were safe enough- certainly safer than a motorcycle. Much safer than a bicycle. Safer than one of those hire-a-scooter things. Definitely safer than near anything hit by truck. Safer than receiving a king hit and getting head-smashed on the pavement outside the local. There are waaaaay too many ninny nannies dribbling on about saaaafety. Government borg creatures are amongst the worst.

    Life belongs to the individual living it and he is the one who ought to be left alone to decide what he does, what risks he takes etc. That includes what he ride or drives or sails or flies.

    I ride occasionally. That’s still fun. Some people think it is not safe. Who cares what such ninnies think anyway? It aint their business. Their opinion is of no value. The old AX GTi 16V is STILL a shockingly brilliant drive. Some people think that AX is not safe either. So what? It aint their business. Their opinion remains of no value. They have the right to talk to themselves in a deep underground hole somewhere else. Hopefully it is a nice safe hole which they can’t climb out of.

    Those Renault VESTAs though. 120mpg! What an amazing result. That is much more practical than all this obese electric stuff. Cheaper as well. I’d definitely take one. They should have been in manufacture long ago.

  10. Looking at the odd proportions of the Vesta, I would highly suspect they used a first generation Renault 5 as a starting point, maybe the entire floorpan and parts of the body in white. Look at the long dash-to-axle ratio and the bodywork between the door and the front wheel arch. Even the height of the scuttle and the short front overhang tells of Renault 5 origin. It’s hard to tell if they shortened the wheelbase, but I would say they made a cut in the floorplan behind the B-pillar and moved the rear axle forwards, also shortening the rear overhang. It’s very odd they used that as a starting point, when the “real” future of the Twingo moved everything forwards with a one-box cab forwards stance compared to the Vestas imagined cab rearwards. Does the data say anything about the position of the engine in the Vesta? I would bet it’s the 5’s longitudinal position, which would explain the case. Either that, or the engineers were really stuck in their thinking….

    1. Yes, it’s odd. The front of the car does look long; that said, it would be strange to mount a compact 3-cylinder unit longitudinally. If it’s any guide, it looks as though the MK 2 version had a transverse layout. It looked long, too, but perhaps that’s for aerodynamic or safety reasons. Vesta MK 1 appears not to suffer the interior bulkhead intrusion that the Renault 5 did, from what I can see from the pictures.

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