Curbside Classic: 1987 Renault Medallion Wagon – To Live Like “un Réfugié”

Eagle. Such a majestic bird of prey, and a fitting name for a vehicle of worthy credentials. Unfortunately, Chrysler’s Eagle brand was from start to finish a struggling disaster, more fitting of the brand name “Albatross” rather than Eagle, given its burden and general annoyance to the parent Chrysler Corporation.

Born out of the remnants of AMC, Eagle will go down as one of the most peculiar and questionable American brands of all time, as a peddler of an array of vehicles coming from the original American Motors, Renault, Mitsubishi, and Chrysler. Eagle was a brand that no one every really knew what to make of, and as a result, a brand that never found a footing in the American market. While its more memorable later vehicles came via Chrysler and Mitsubishi, its earliest efforts spoke with more of a French accent, á la Renault.

One of those such vehicles was the Medallion, a virtual clone of the midsize Renault 21 which was introduced as a 1986 model in Europe. Brought up to North American specification, the French-produced Renault Medallion sedan and wagon officially debuted in North America in the fall of 1986 as a 1987 model.

Had Renault stayed in the North American market, the Medallion would have been bookended by the Alliance/Encore (and their eventual successor) and the upcoming Premier, giving Renault a competitive compact-midsize-fullsize lineup of cars to sell alongside Jeep and possibly other AMC-badged cars. This is where things get fuzzy, but of course Renault was likely already planning its exit before the Medallion was even released.

Renault’s sale of American Motors to Chrysler was made official in March of 1987, a sale also marking the end of Renault’s active investment in the North American market. Yet sales of the Medallion continued as part of the terms of the agreement, which stipulated that Chrysler continue distribution of the French-built Medallion and upcoming Canadian-built Premier.

The Medallion and Premier would be sold alongside the existing Jeep lineup through the approximately 1,200 AMC-Jeep-Renault dealers in the U.S. and Canada that Chrysler had inherited, with all other existing AMC and Renault models being phased out over the 1987-1988 model years. Initially keeping the fruits of the AMC purchase separate from other Chrysler operations, inevitably a new brand was needed to sell these cars under.

Thus, the Eagle brand was created, taking its name from the final AMC-branded vehicle. The remnants of AMC officially became the Jeep-Eagle division of Chrysler in August 1987, after 1988 Renault Medallions had gone into production, resulting in 1988 model year Medallions badged as both Renaults and Eagles.

With the Premier, Chrysler was contractually obligated to purchase a lofty 260,000 of its 3.0L Peugeot-Renault-Volvo V6s over a period of five years from Renault, or else pay a fine on every undelivered engine. Therefore, Chrysler was more or less held to producing and selling 260,000 units of the Premier over this five year period. Ultimately, only around 139,000 Premiers and its even less successful rebadged Dodge Monaco were produced.

It appears Chrysler was held to less stringent quotas with the Medallion, if there were even such any, for the automaker halted imports of the vehicle after a limited run of 1989 models. In many ways, this was really quite a shame, as the Medallion a very good car, and could have been a great car had Chrysler devoted a single ounce of attention to it.

As aforementioned, the Medallion was more or less a European-market Renault 21 with a few American-market styling, trim, safety, and equipment changes. Stylistically-speaking, the Medallion was an attractive design in the latest “aero” fashion, sporting a sloped nose with flush composite headlights and grille, flared front wheel arches, contoured body sides, bright bodyside moldings, aircraft-style doors, rakish roofline, and French-style semi-skirted rear wheels. The Medallion sedan also featured a high rear deck, full-width taillights, and well-integrated U.S.-spec bumpers.

Likewise, the Medallion’s interior was one of both functional and contemporary design. Ergonomics and efficiency of space were key attributes, with logically-placed controls, full analogue instrumentation, Renault’s pedestal-mounted front seat tracks, and an unobtrusive front center console. The Medallion’s quality of interior finishes and overall design was easily a step above American and most Japanese competitors, with color-keyed plastics, upholstered door panels, and standard velour upholstery.

The Medallion’s list of standard features was lengthy, with the few extra-cost options limited to power windows/locks, upgrade stereo, and leather-wrapped steering wheel. Wagons came standard with cruise control, air conditioning, and a roof rack. Among the Medallion’s most novel options was a remote keyless entry via handheld transmitter, a technology pioneered by Renault several years earlier, and a feature lacked by all its competitors.

Classified by the EPA as a midsize car, the Medallion was notable among vehicles of such small size for the considerably different wheelbases and lengths of its sedan and wagon bodystyles. Whereas sedans rode on a 102.3-inch wheelbase and measured 183.2 inches long, wagons boasted a 108.2-inch wheelbase and a length of 189.7 inches.

For comparison sake, the sedan’s wheelbase and length were within less than an inch each of Chrysler’s upcoming Dodge Spirit/Plymouth Acclaim, and the wagon’s wheelbase was two inches longer than the Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable wagons yet two inches shorter in overall length. Despite this, bested them all in front and rear legroom, and cargo capacity in the wagon. The wagon’s longer wheelbase made possible some 41.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the second row and 89.5 cubic feet with the second row folded flat, along with an available forward-facing third row seat, bringing seating capacity to seven.

In other parts of the world, the Renault 21 unusually featured further variations of wheelbases depending on its powertrain. Engines with displacements under 2.0 liters were transversely-mounted per most small cars. Engines with displacements over 2.0 liters were longitudinally-mounted as in Renault’s larger cars, for Renault lacked an existing transmission capable of handling the additional power, requiring the front wheels moved aft ever so slightly.

North American models were only available with the largest longitudinal engine, a 2.2 liter SOHC I4 rated at 103 horsepower and 124 lb-ft torque, mated to either a standard 5-speed manual or optional 3-speed automatic. All Medallions featured a four-wheel independent suspension, comprised of a MacPherson strut front and trailing arm rear.

Initial reviews were generally positive, but the sad truth was that the Medallion, whether a Renault or Eagle, received very little promotion. Despite its high value proposition on paper, the Medallion’s very AMC/Renault origins, transition to the unestablished Eagle brand, resulting lower residual value, and lack of general support from Chrysler meant that to those even aware of it, the Medallion was a somewhat less confident buy. Add to that early examples’ inconsistent build quality and proneness to mechanical glitches, and the Medallion represented a far more questionable value proposition.

Can’t you just feel Lee Iacocca’s overwhelming enthusiasm over the new Eagle brand?

The truth was, Chrysler’s motive for the AMC purchase had little to do with Renault, but rather for the gold mine Jeep brand and AMC’s state-of-the-art Brampton assembly plant. Although the Premier soon proved an unforeseen asset, owing much of its advanced underpinnings to Chrysler’s LH sedans, Chrysler very clearly had little interest in or need for these French sedans that shared no common parts with other Chryslers and directly competed with Chrysler’s own cars. As a result, Chrysler wanted to dump them as soon as it could.

Sold for just three model years under two brands, one with a less than stellar track record and one with no record at all, the Medallion was shrouded in obscurity and uncertainty from the start. If any publication of production/sales figures do exist out there, I’ve yet to find them. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that the number of Medallions sold wasn’t high. I’d bet money that there can’t be more than 1,000 left on the road, with maybe 20-percent of them wagons? Lacking adequate promotion, product positioning, and overall support from Chrysler on any front, the Medallion was a vehicle destined for failure, never able to fly high like the mighty eagle.

(Photos by Owen Smith – CC Cohort)

Related Reading:

1988 Renault Medallion

1989 Eagle Premier

1990 Eagle Talon

1997 Eagle Vision