Vintage R&T Road Test: 1976 Renault 5 GTL – “The Kind of Comfort Detroit Claims is Impossible” (In a Small Car)

(first posted 5/14/2018)      Renault had high hopes for its R5 in the US. After struggling to get back its footing after the rise and fall of the Dauphine in the 50s and early 60s, Renault soldiered on through the 60s with its rear-engine R8 and R10, and then the very advanced R16, which was anything but a hit in the states. But the timing of the R5 was propitious, coming on the heels of the first energy crisis, which really spurred interest in small FWD hatchbacks.

The main competition were the new VW Rabbit and the Honda Civic. Tough competition. But the R5 had one area of unique superiority: the supple French ride, which would seem to be a perfect fit with Americans, who were known to appreciate that commodity, although without the F-word as a prefix.

The R5 was a huge success for Renault in Europe, which was one of the reasons it didn’t appear here sooner: a lack of capacity. It was small; some 14″ shorter than the Rabbit, meaning more directly in the Civic’s ball park. And R&T found it to be a good performer, and economical (33mpg). The soft ride had only a relatively minor negative effect on handling, as anyone familiar with French cars will confirm: they may look like they’re about to tip over, but don’t let that fool you.

The “Le Car” name was not used on US-bound R5s in the first year, at least, although that’s certainly how most Americans remember it, if at all.

The R5/Le Car had a lot of redeeming qualities, but with tough competition from the Civic and the Rabbit, the R5 never really made it big here for Renault either, although certainly more so than anything since the Dauphine. But in the popular memory of Americans, it was just another weird little French car that showed certain weaknesses as it aged. The comparison against the Civic in that regard was really stark, and explains why the two had such divergent trajectories.