In the 40 years since Renault effectively changed the course of Formula 1 engineering with its giant-slaying turbocharged RS10, the brand has produced some pretty spectacular forced induction machinery. But nothing stands taller than the 5 Turbo, Renault's mid-engined hatch built to homologate the R5 which brought Jean Ragnotti victory in the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally. The road version was the 911 Turbo of hatchbacks, with butch body extensions and air intakes custom fitted over a dinky rear-driven chassis which had a 160hp blown four-pot in its bowels. It was the sort of automotive madness only the French could produce - and it was brilliant.
The Turbo 2 that followed in 1983 actually looked a bit soft in comparison because it took several steps backwards. While it had the same 160hp from a mid-mounted 1.4 motor that drove the back wheels, it was built on the more conventional Alpine 5 Turbo. That meant the Turbo 2 didn't get an aluminium roof, aluminium doors or a cabin retrimmed with a pair of lovely Bertone seats. It was a slightly less exotic follow-up, albeit one that still wore swollen arches and a set of larger wheels which filled them more broadly (even at a dinky 14 inches!). All could be forgiven for that.
The Turbo 2 also, more significantly, cost less than the earlier car and in spite of the heavier setup, its performance was equally capable of shaming its supposed betters. The sprint to 62mph came in 6.6 seconds and top speed was 130mph, which in the early eighties was ruddy quick, and with its wider wheels the Turbo 2's mechanical grip was higher through the bends. Key to the Turbo's character was the placement of the 1,397cc four behind its occupants, concealed beneath a thin cover wrapped in thick carpet - often in brown or beige as per the era's tastes - and producing its peak torque as the crankshaft span at 6,000rpm, somewhere close to your buttocks.
Today, the prospect of sharing a cabin with a combustion engine is no less bizarre than it was four decades ago. Barring its spiritual successor, the Clio V6, it's hard to think of any cars that have placed an engine so brazenly in the cabin. So slipping into Renault Classic's immaculately kept and brilliantly period brown Turbo 2 feels truly special, even if the plastics of the dash are recognisable from a standard 5 and the seating position similarly cramped. The design and ergonomics are typical of the period - and French hatchbacks in general - and even the engine's requirement for a healthy dose of open throttle before it kicks into life behind you feels age-appropriate.
We often talk about contemporary turbocharged engines having a noticeable pick up in performance somewhere in the rev range, but nothing on sale today offers the same palpable step in power as the 5's gravelly four-pot. The engine feels as sluggish as you'd imagine a 1.4 would under 3,000rpm, but then, as if the next 100rpm has re-ignited two previously dead plugs, the boost gauge rapidly rotates from nine o'clock to three o'clock and the 5 really gets going. Our drive on the technical layout of France's La Ferté-Gaucher circuit leaves little space for bulkhead finding throttle inputs, but it's clear that any driver to fall below the 3k mark in a straight race would be left for dead. This is an engine that needs to be kept on the boil; a real contrast to today's turbocharged motors. But you know what, it suits the car perfectly.
The five-speed gearbox also operates within a narrow window of functionality, which is to say it does not like to be rushed - but nor does it like a hesitant hand. You must be steady yet consistently positive with your shift action both up and down the ratios, because the gate is tight but the lever is very light so it's easy to be sloppy with movements. The placement of reverse just to to the left of second without any form of protection (like a lift action) means shifting down from third is downright terrifying the first few times. You soon learn the 'box's quirks though, and as with the motor, it becomes a joy to master.
Then there's the chassis. The steering wheel is placed awkwardly low against a high-set seat but the feedback of an unassisted system is so dense and talkative that you won't care. Tuning into the grip at the front axle is immediate, which means you build entry speed confidence quickly and then begin to lead evermore assuredly on the back. There's none of the swing-around oversteer that such a short wheelbase mid-engined setup ought to provoke (that being said, we're not venturing past seven tenths in such a valuable machine) nor any looseness to the body control even when trailing a brake. Instead, there's a wonderfully delicate rotation of the chassis, around some unseen centre point. It feels so intuitively manageable that you need not even apply corrective lock, the unassisted steering provides a quarter turn itself if you leave your grip on the wheel light enough.
The accompanying squeaks of a 36-year-old interior - and a simmering awareness of the car's value - ensures a neat straightening of exit line. Were the engine spinning furiously at 5,000rpm and were we more committed, there is enough to suggest that the Turbo 2 would dance sideways out of La Ferté-Gaucher's sweeping bends. Not that it really matters, because the biggest surprise is not the car's limit handling, but rather the genuine driving pleasure it dispenses without threatening to blow your socks off. There's a more supple, mature machine beneath that steroidal skin than you might imagine. Now, perhaps even more so than back then, it is something to savour.
SPECIFICATION - RENAULT 5 TURBO 2
Engine: 1,397cc, inline-4 turbocharged
Transmission: 5-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 160@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 163@3,250rpm
Top speed: 130mph
Price new: N/A