Underdog: Renault's 21 Turbo was France's Sierra Cosworth
When you think of fast Renaults, what comes to mind? Lithe little hot hatches with Boxster-bothering straight-line go? Your brain probably isn't conjuring images of a leather-lined four-door executive saloon that fancies itself as some kind of cut-price 535i Sport.
But that’s exactly what the 21 Turbo was. A budget Beemer, or a French foil for Ford’s booted Sierra Sapphire Cosworth.
Any 21’s such a rare sight these days you might even to struggle to remember it at all. But if we were to come up with a cheat sheet it might tell you that it was a terminally dull-looking three-box saloon...
...or, later in life, an equally dull hatch...
...or a jumbo ‘Savannah’ estate that was available with seven seats for people who just couldn't keep it in their pants, or see themselves in the far more practical Espace.
Those frumpy looks didn't let on that there was something that was actually oddly interesting below the unusual front-hinged bonnet.
While basic 1.7-litre cars had their engines mounted transversely across the car, the bigger engines were twisted round 90 degrees, but still driving the front wheels. Yep, le madness.
By the time the 21 Turbo arrived in 1988 Renault already had proved its forced-induction mettle, first in F1, and then in cars like the blown mid-engined 5s, the 5GT Turbo, Fuego coupe and the 9 and 11 saloon and hatch pair.
Breathing through a Garret T3 turbo the 2.0 engine made 175hp and 199lb ft, which made it slightly more powerful than a 325i and massively more grunty, offering devastating mid-range tug.
But being down almost 30hp, and hobbled by traction-limiting effects of its front-drive layout, the 21T wasn’t quite as quick as the late '80s car of the moment, the Sierra Cosworth. Magazine testers were recording mid-7s to 60mph and around 140mph flat out for the 21, compared to more like 5.8sec and nearer 150mph in the Sapph.
In 1990 Renault addressed the traction issue, introducing the four-wheel drive Quadra version that sent 35 per cent of its torque to the back tyres. There was no more power, and weight was up significantly, so the mid-range punch suffered.
But by removing the first gear torque limiter fitted to tame the front-driver's tyre-frying antics, it was just as quick off the line. Autocar recorded 0-60mph in 7.7sec, compared to 7.8 in the two-wheel drive version and reckoned it made for a better road car, echoing the sentiment they’d expressed when the Cossie sprouted front driveshafts.
But sales were modest and by 1992 it was all over. The Turbo was dead and now, 25 years later, you're more likely to spot a Veyron than a 21.
Howmanyleft.co.uk says there are just 24 Turbos registered for the road in the UK, and a pitiful 7 Quadras. But that rarity hasn’t been enough to offset the underdog status of the 21, which means if you can find one it’ll be much cheaper than the equivalent Sierra.
Like this car for example.
An early Phase 1 with the cool turbine wheels and integrated rear spoiler, it’s received a few sympathetic mods over the years, including brake and suspension upgrades and a uprated turbo, but still looks appealing standard. Well, apart from the Integrale-esque vented bonnet.
It’s covered just 86k miles and is up for £6995 on carandclassic, around half as much as you’d pay for a remotely sound Sapphire Cossie. An underdog? Definitely. Undervalued? Looks like it to us.
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