Ever wonder what form the Alliance would’ve taken if AMC survived? If so, say bonjour to the Renault 19! Though disappearing in number, this late production cabriolet provides a glimpse into an alternative future in which Kenosha’s French transplant hung on for a second round of battling Japan’s and Germany’s finest.
Sold in Europe from 1988 to 1997 (and until the end of 1999 for the South American market), the 19 was the final Renault to receive numeric nomenclature, serving as La Regie’s C-segment placeholder until the Megane hit the scene.
A facelift in 1991 prolonged the 19’s life, but its basic platform, evolved from the Renault 9 and Renault 11 models it replaced, would also underpin the first generation Megane, which was built until 2003. Thus, using the Alliance’s and Encore’s chassis did the R19, assembled in automated factories (notably the Douai facility in Northern France), provide the French company its third chance to do battle in the post-Golf European marketplace.
Despite styling largely dismissed as banal, the R19 actually represented a step forward for Renault in terms of higher build quality, and became Europe’s top-selling small family car in 1989 and 1990, bettering Wolfsburg’s best efforts to hawk its aging second-generation stalwart.
Like the Golf, Astra and Escort, Renault released four-door and topless versions of the R19, aiming to match its C-segment rivals model for model in an increasingly liberalized European marketplace. Picture these two models parked alongside a Renault Medallion and Premier, and you can easily imagine how it might have looked with four domestic automakers battling for the affections of American compact car drivers, especially in the Midwest.
As with the Mk3 VW Golf, the R19 convertible was sold alongside its late ’90s successor, soldiering on until 1997. By that time, the nationalized automaker (the National Company Renault or “La Régie Nationale des usines Renault”) was privatized, and numeric model names were abandoned, providing a politically neutral way to publicize the company’s new direction.
The R19’s genesis began, of course, well before any changes at the top with the X-53 project of 1984. The objective of the X-53 was to explore ways of designing, engineering and producing a competitive C-segment sedan using the most modern CAD (Computer Aided Design) technology and, for the first time, CNC (Computer Aided Manufacturing) machinery. In only a few weeks’ time, the X-53 had been officially renamed Renault 19. Testing continued for some 7.5 million simulated miles over the next several years, making heavy use of digital modelling before “in the flesh” testing in extreme weather conditions and temperatures. With the Alliance initially selling well, North American conditions factored heavily into the new R19’s design, even though the car never made it across the pond.
Renault studied three new engines for use in their latest family car: a petrol-fueled “Energy” 1.4-liter, 80-hp, a 1.8-liter, 16-valve variant, and a 1.9-liter, 65-hp diesel. Other engines would follow, including a 1.9-liter, 90-hp turbodiesel, representing the peak of indirect injection diesel technology for passenger cars.
Despite the stateside appearance of the Alliance convertible, Renault remained absent from the European convertible market following the 1968 demise of the Caravelle and Floride. But with VW and Ford peddling topless conversions of the Golf and Escort, Renault decided to chase the latest batch of convertible buyers seeking practical front-drive, al fresco motoring by offering a topless version of the R19.
Whatever Renault might have buyers believe, it would appear the convertible was a secondary development as it wasn’t until July ’91 when it was finally launched. Produced by the German coach builder Karmann, the convertible retained the 19’s primary mechanical characteristics, but added a higher level of equipment to emphasize its different market position. Two petrol engines were available: the 16-valve 1.8 and an eight-valve variant with 92-hp. No diesels were offered. Unlike the sedan, the convertible was well equipped (by French standards, mind you), with standard power steering, brakes, electric windows, locks and mirrors, an engine immobilizer, air conditioning, leather and, inexplicably, a manual-folding top, even though a power-operated top had been standard on the US-market Alliance.
Housed in a reinforced unibody, the R19 convertible did without the roll-bar favored by VW and Ford, helping keep its lines clean and lean. Around 25,000 were produced from 1991 until 1997 before the less-roomy Megane cabriolet took its place.
Of course, the R19 story wouldn’t be complete without mention of the 16S, which did battle with the Peugeot 309 GTI and VW Golf GTI. With the same 1.8 liter, 137 horsepower (140, sans catalyst) engine as offered in the convertible, the 16S embraced the successful naturally aspirated, multivalve four-cylinder approach to hot hatch power that VW was slowly abandoning. This engine would achieve even greater fame in two-liter form, in the Clio Williams. Despite being criticized for its dull style and cheap interior, the 16S distinguished itself with ample midrange torque, generous standard equipment and a characteristically pliant, Gallic chassis tune.
So, despite erring on the conservative side, this seemingly mundane French family hatch both represents the end of Renault’s period as a state-owned enterprise and its fading hopes of being a mainstream US market player. Do you think the R19 would’ve had what it would take to keep AMC viable or would it have gone down as yet another notoriously fragile Franco-American scheme?