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