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Renault Fuego: La Voiture de Sport Francaise!

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author photo by Aaron Gold May 2017

I'm sure there are plenty of young car fans who peruse the Renault home page and say "Hey, those cars don't seem so bad. Why don't we get them here?"

Clearly, these folks don't (or don't want to) remember the Renault Fuego.

The Fuego (Spanish for "fire") came to America in 1982, part and parcel of the rather unfortunate pairing between AMC and Renault. Based on the front-wheel-drive Renault 18 -- a car that's much cooler if you pronounce its name in French, "Dix-Huit," pronounced Dees-Weet -- the Fuego featured a unique front suspension and a mildly-rounded version of the angular styling then in vogue. It wasn't a bad-looking car, though the sealed-beam headlights and diving-board-sized bumpers required to sell it in the U.S. did it no favors. I still think it looks pretty good, though it does remind me of a plastic model that's warped with age.

A little context: At the time of the Fuego's introduction, Renault had recently purchased a large stake in American Motors. (Imagine, if you will, Fiat's takeover of Chrysler, but with the budget from a 6-year-old's piggy bank.) AMC's lineup consisted largely of warmed-over and renamed cars from the 1970s, rapidly aging Jeeps (the XJ Cherokee was still two years away) and the pint-size Renault 5, known to U.S. audiences as "LeCar." (Back in the early '80s, anything could be made Euro-chic with bright paint colors and a "Le" in front of the name. I was going to say that you had to be there to appreciate it, but if you weren't there, you're probably better off.) Also on offer was the compact Renault 18i sedan, though it was as rare as ... well, as a really, really rare thing. The Renault/AMC Alliance -- known in Europe as the Renault 9 -- was waiting in the wings for its introduction.

Elsewhere in the automotive world, Chrysler's boxy K-cars were proving to be the wave of the future; GM's X-cars (Citation, etc.) were proving to be a disaster; and Ford had just introduced its first front-wheel-drive car, the Escort. (Everything else they made was rear-wheel-drive, and would be until the 1984 Tempo.) The Japanese were starting to make serious inroads into the U.S. market, largely on the force of their superior build quality.

And then, in the spring of 1982, along came the Fuego.

Aside from its looks, the Fuego had decent technical chops. The base engine was an 86-ish-horsepower 1.6-liter fuel-injected 4-cylinder that got excellent fuel economy. Optional was a 107-hp turbocharged version, a novelty at the time. The Fuego employed rack-and-pinion steering, a 5-speed manual transmission and front-wheel-drive, all hot stuff in the early '80s. (While we decry front-drive sports cars today, back in the 80s it was a big marketing buzzword. Rear-drive was the domain of Detroit dinosaurs.)

So what happened?

Simple: It turns out that cars built in France were just as bad as -- if not worse than -- cars built in America.

Actually, we can't lay all of the blame at the feet of the French labor pool, because this was right about the time Renault began building the Alliance (and later the Encore) in AMC's plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I've never been able to ascertain which cars were worse -- French cars built in France or French cars built in America -- but we're talking about angels on the head of a pin.

Now, those raised on Japanese quality might not realize just how bad a badly built car was back in those days. We're not talking a little blemish on the dashboard trim or the occasional errant warning light. We're talking cars that wouldn't run right, even when they were running right. My dad had an '80 Dodge Aspen that reliably took two tries to start, every single morning; this was considered one of the better-built units. Badly built cars were a cacophony of clunks and rattles, with entire powertrains failing and entire subassemblies refusing to stay attached to the rest of the car.

And the Fuego, for all its Gallic charm, was a badly built car.

The timing could not have been worse: Just as the Fuego was establishing itself as an annuity for tow-truck drivers, Nissan was introducing the Pulsar NX, and Toyota was starting to sell the AE86 Corolla. Ford was offering the Escort-based EXP, and Chrysler had the well-established Dodge Omni O24 (later Charger) and Plymouth Horizon TC3 (later Turismo). Americans quickly realized they had no need to put up with such nonsense, and they turned their backs on the Fuego.

Renault began offering serious cash on the hood, and even bumped up the engine to 2.2 liters in 1984, but it was no use. French production ended in 1985 -- and though Fuegos were built elsewhere, the model was pulled from the American market. Sales were tumbling, and French labor unions opposed the company making such heavy investments in America and Canada while laying off French workers -- circumstances that resulted in the assassination of Renault CEO Georges Besse in 1986. In 1987, Renault sold its 46 percent share of AMC to Chrysler, which promptly assimilated the company and dropped most of the Renault models.

The Fuego isn't single-handedly responsible for the demise of French cars in America, but it certainly did its part. While Americans weren't overly fond of French cars to begin with -- read up on the killer Renault Dauphine and the tiny Simcas that Chrysler attempted to foist on the American market -- the AMC-Renault years completely soured the relationship, cementing an image of French cars as underpowered, unreliable and horrifically built. (The complex fluid-sprung Citroens and badly-built Peugeots didn't help matters much.) And now that Renault owns Nissan, there's really no need to run the risk of re-introducing the Renault brand; money from the States is already rolling in.

Renault doesn't field a compact coupe today, but there is a rather tempting RenaultSport version of the Clio. No matter, as the chances of seeing it in the U.S. are virtually nil -- and all we can say is Merci, Fuego!

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Renault Fuego: La Voiture de Sport Francaise! - Autotrader