1986 Renault-Alpine GTA V6 Turbo vs. Lotus Esprit Turbo

2015 / 2016 Drive-My

The Reckoning. Launch in Britain of the 1986 Renault Alpine V6 Turbo presents the 1986 Lotus Esprit Turbo with an unlikely new challenger. The 150mph plus French slingshot coped with the benchmark Lotus-like a real pro. Roger Bell reports.

The arrival of right-handed Alpine-Renault GTAs in Britain introduces a new and powerful force to the middle echelons of the supercar scene. Porsche, who dominate this elite market sector (with 3400 sales here last year, from a total of 6000 according to Renault’s figures), is unlikely to be very concerned by the Regie’s modest goal of attracting 200 GTA customers during the remainder of 1986, another 250 in 1987. Lotus, with a much smaller – and dwindling – UK presence, probably will. First-half sales were down from 304 last year to 232 this.

With its two-plus-two body-work and outrigger rear engine, the six-cylinder Alpine’s closest rival in concept is the Porsche 911, starting at £27,497. On price, however, it’s Porsche’s front-engined four-cylinder 944 in normal and turbocharged forms that confronts the two French tearaways, wholly designed by Renault and built in a labour-intensive plant just across the Channel at Alpine’s Dieppe headquarters. At £19,040, the normally aspirated GTA V6 (2.85-litres, allegedly 146 mph) meets the Lotus Excel SE (2.2-litres, 132 mph) head on, while the £23,635 GTA Turbo shapes up to the Lotus Esprit Turbo, costing a few pounds more with the cheapest radio on the options list.

We assessed the GTA Turbo on Dutch soil in our March 15 issue this year (1986 – Drive-My remark). Here, on home ground, we pitch the same model against the blown Lotus Esprit, the first car we’ve tested from Hethel since the controversial GM takeover. Despite their fundamental differences, the two cars have much in common, not least the composite construction of their steel-backbone, shells. Both have all-wishbone suspension and aft-of-cabin powertrains, mid-mounted in the uncompromised two-seater Lotus, rear-mounted – as in all previous Alpine coup6s since the first in 1955 – in the two-plus-two GTA. The one has near-perfect dynamic balance and not much room, the other an inordinately tail-heavy weight distribution but comparatively spacious accommodation.

To keep production and maintenance costs in check, Alpine draw heavily on the Regie’s parts bin for the GTA’s running gear. Its 200 bhp 2.5-litre Douvrin-built V6 engine is a more powerful version of that used in the R25 Turbo, and the five-speed manual gearbox is essentially also that of the Renault 25 Turbo. The coil-and-wishbone front suspension, angled forward to give anti-dive geometry, is Renault 25-based, the unassisted rack and pinion steering borrowed from the Fuego.

The Lotus Esprit, using sophisticated purpose-built running gear, is more a pure bred engineering exercise, powered by a low-volume, high-output 2.2 twin cam 16-valve four developing 210 bhp. It is the influence of engine placement and design that sets these two cars apart more widely than striking appearances suggest.

Once it’s firing cleanly, there’s no further need for the Esprit’s manual choke, set into the central divide. Hot or cold, though, the Lotus’s carb-fed engine responds reluctantly to a churning starter motor. The Al-pine’s V6, with fuel injection and automatic enrichment, always catches first time.

Exhaust noise strongly reflects differences in character and temperament. That of the Lotus, though by no means raucous or unpleasant, is sharp, raspy, aggressive. An open window on the driver’s side emphasises not only twinset buzz but also wastegate whoosh, sounding at high revs like a blast from a Star War’s zap gun when changing gear. You can’t distinguish the Alpine’s exhaust from the V6’s smooth hum, drowned out above mid-speed range by the modest background drone of wind and tyres – 195/50s at the front, huge 255/45s behind. Serenity of this quality is rare for such an overtly sporting car, but don’t be deceived by it. Behind the engine’s svelte delivery is a mighty punch.

All-out through the gears, the Lotus has marginally the better acceleration. According to figures recorded by previous test cars, the Esprit cracks 100 mph from rest in 15.4 seconds, the Alpine in 16.0 seconds. Besides small power and weight advantages, the Lotus also benefits from shorter, closer, gearing and a 7000 rpm rev limit. Which gives it higher intermediate maxima than the Alpine, governed to a modest 6100 rpm. While the Lotus scores with terrific top-end bite and superior horsepower, the GTA Turbo fights back with stronger, meatier mid-range torque. And it shows. Driving in tandem on the road, we found that the Alpine, pouncing into its stride quicker than the Lotus, would invariably reel in its rival under hard acceleration. Fourth gear pickup times up to 70 mph reflect the French car’s bottom-end superiority.

Left at this, we might have called it an honourable draw, one win apiece on performance. But it is not that simple.

Top speed runs which had eluded both previous test cars saw this Alpine decisively out-run the Lotus at Millbrook with an impressive lap speed of 151.4 mph. The benefit of the GTA’s very low 0.30 drag factor (a world-leading 0.28 for the junior car on narrower tyres) is clear. Against Lotus’s claim of 150 mph for the Esprit Turbo (Cd 0.34), our 140.9 mph lap speed is very disappointing. So is the disturbingly high wind noise at anything above 80 mph.

There’s more. Swinging the balance the other way, this time in favour of the Lotus, is the Alpine’s tiresome turbo lag. Off boost, the big V6 pulls well. Turbo thrust is also effective at very low revs. Yet the GTA’s progress is marked by a series of surging lunges as the turbo comes in, regardless of how delicately you squeeze the throttle. As we shall see, this tendency towards all-or-nothing throttle response highlights shortcomings in the handling department.

The Lotus, which has beautifully fluid turbo characteristics, matched perfectly to its close-set gear ratios, is not similarly flawed. Delivery is weaker than the Alpine’s low down, stronger at the top, but the progression between is of silk-glove quality. So is mechanical refinement. Without the benefit of double-speed countershafts, like those used by Porsche on the 944, the Esprit has one of the smoothest in-line four-cylinder engines we’ve tested, completely free from coarseness or boom, if not from disturbing cold-start knock. At high revs, not even the quieter, satin-smooth V6 of the Alpine can better it.

According to official figures, the Alpine is a lot more economical than the Lotus – 10.8 mpg more economical at a steady 75 mph. This and other discrepancies, though, don’t square up with what we got in our convoy confrontation over a 270-mile test route. Here, the Lotus returned 21.3 mpg against the French car’s 21.6, suggesting that it’s only on high-speed motorway runs that the Alpine’s taller gearing and superior penetration really pay off.

In more ways than one, you have to work at the Lotus to get the best from it. Peaky engine apart, the heavy clutch demands firm yet careful footwork, the high-inertia gearlever solid, snappy inputs – and a raised elbow if the intrusive centre divide is not to hamper the action. There’s no latitude for laziness. The Alpine has a much lighter, easier gearchange as well as a softer, less positive clutch action. Shifting is kids’ stuff, requiring no special technique or familiarity.

With only 38 per cent of the Alpine’s unladen weight on its front wheels, steering effort is low. Only when parking is the absence of power assistance a minor handicap. In contrast, the Esprit’s unassisted steering is very hard work when manoeuvring, though it lightens significantly with speed and is always more communicative than that of the Renault. On poor surfaces the wheel writhes and wriggles in your hands, without ever threatening to kick free. That of the Alpine feels rather dead.

By normal standards, both cars have exceptional handling and roadholding. When it comes to a lateral-g showdown, though, the tail-heavy Alpine is comfortably outranked by the almost absurdly tenacious Lotus running on taller, slightly narrower tyres. Buck and weave on poor surfaces is largely self correcting in the superbly balanced Esprit, so you can relax your grip on the chunky, thick-rimmed wheel if not limp-wrist it. If the Lotus is subject to attitude change – roll, pitch, dive or squat – you’re not aware of it. The car simply squares up to the road and goes where you aim it with uncanny precision and faithfulness. It is amazingly sharp and secure, despite its solid, jittery ride. On dry roads, at least, the Lotus does not so much corner as change direction, regardless of gear ratio or throttle opening. There always seems to be surplus traction and cornering grip, even when charging from a roundabout at full bore. A Lamborghini Countach is no better.

Up to quite high cornering forces, the solidly sprung Alpine feels terrific. Under normal circumstances, there’s not the slightest hint of any pendulous behaviour threatening to swish the tail into unruly, oversteer. Just the opposite, in fact: the car’s tendency to run wide under power is exacerbated by the all-or-nothing thrust of the turbo. Bombing out of a second-gear corner in the Lotus, you just nudge the steering wheel on to lock and hold it there. In the Alpine, you have to give the wheel an extra wrench to counter the sudden onset of understeer as lag becomes lunge. As the Alpine’s cornering attitude is much more sensitive to the throttle than the Lotus’s, poor turbo progression is all the more unfortunate.

The corollary to the Alpine’s power-on understeer when cornering hard is sharp tuck-in on the over-run, even opposite-lock oversteer on the limit. The Lotus’s line is barely affected by a power cut mid bend. Nor is it nearly so sensitive to cross-winds at speed. In the still air, the Alpine runs true enough at two miles a minute, but it tends to dart about, even to veer off lane in gusty conditions.

Both . cars have immensely powerful all-disc brakes, Such is the grip of the tyres – and the brakes’ immunity from fade – that you can knock 100 mph from the pace in a matter of seconds without any sense of drama. Further reflecting its role as a purebred driving machine, the Lotus has the firmer, more progressive brake pedal. The heavily servoed one of the Alpine is softer, lighter, less easy to feather cleanly, especially on release. Still, it was not subject to the occasional loss of bite that afflicted the Lotus at low speeds, as though servo assistance was temporarily lacking.

The pedal sets of both cars (floor-hinged in the Alpine) are offset to the centre by wheelarch intrusion. You sit so askew in the Lotus that the steering wheel is angled inwards, too. There’s no room for wide-soled footwear in either car, though there’s plenty of depth to accommodate long limbs. Apart from generous reach and recline adjustment, the GTA’s excellent seat, heavily bolstered for side support, can also be moved vertically at the front by twisting a handwheel. Narrow footwell and close header rail apart, the driving position is comfortable and commanding. It’s good in the Lotus, too, even though the supportive fixed-back seat, more hammock than chair, is restricted to one-plane fore the low tub of the Lotus behind a fixed-position steering wheel that short drivers may find too high. Controls are otherwise quite well placed, two column stalks handling most minor functions. Other switches are carried by the roads. Worse still, the dash’s light-beige covering (extra-cost leather on the test car) can reflect so badly in the screen that visibility is badly impaired. Even the smallish instruments. Visibility to the rear is not seriously interrupted by the fastback slats outside the window, but rear-threequarter visibility is poor, and reversing tricky. Make no mistake, in tight corners the wide, low Esprit is a tedious and cumbersome machine.

The light, airy cockpit of the Alpine is much roomier than the Lotus’s cocoon-like quarters. More plasticky, too, with an elaborate dash, typically Renault in style, carrying big, clear instruments with red-on-black calibrations favoured by some drivers, disliked by others. Again, there are blindspots over your shoulder, though all-round visibility is better than in the Lotus. Strange clap-hands wipers sweep most of the screen.

With its fixed bucket-like rear seats, the GTA is a genuine four-seater. Headroom in the back is not at all bad, and kneeroom passable if the front seats are notched forward.

Luggage space is restricted to a well under the front bonnet, which must be lifted to reach the petrol filler. Most of the front boot is occupied by the fuel tank, looking a bit vulnerable up front. There is actually more space for squashable luggage in the Esprit’s slimline full-width boot aft of the engine.

With its electric windows, remote-control central locking, trip computer and elaborate built-in Philips audio equipment, the Alpine is the better equipped car. It also has superior heating and ventilation, though air conditioning is not yet an option. There is no evidence that turbo heat soak caused Lotus any severe design headaches. Switching off the ignition in the Alpine starts a powerful cooling fan; this passes air for some minutes round the engine bay through ducts incorporated in a hinged cover between the engine and the rear window, forming a shelf that’s quite unsuitable for carrying luggage.

There was never much doubt about the outcome of this confrontation. Both cars turn in winning performances, but not on the same fronts. For the ultimate driving experience, we’d not hesitate to choose the Lotus. Amazing handling and roadholding, backed by a pedigree powertrain and scorching performance, make it one of the truly great driving machines of recent times. But fully to savour the Lotus’s great ability demands a spirited frame of mind and testing roads. As workaday transport, the Esprit is an impractical car, flawed by many detail shortcomings that the Alpine largely avoids.

For a monogamous relationship, rather than an exciting affair, the GTA Turbo is the better, more complete car. If anything, it’s even faster than the Lotus. Top speed is certainly higher, and its colossal performance is very easily released, without any stamina-sapping effort to work the clutch, gearchange and brakes. On top of that, it is quieter, smoother, airier and roomier. Better ventilated, too. If Renault’s promise of dependability and low maintenance costs are fulfilled, it could well be cheaper to run as well. Pushed to the limit, the Alpine doesn’t handle so well as the Lotus and despite Renault’s long affair with the turbocharger, its lusty engine is marred by tiresome blower lag. Still, we could happily live in close harmony with the GTA Turbo, no matter what the journey. It’s a formidable opponent for Lotus and Porsche.

 

TEST DRIVE RESULTS
MAXIMUM SPEEDS Renault-Alpine GTA V6 Turbo Lotus Esprit Turbo
mph Banked Circuit (5th gear) 151.4 140.9
Terminal speeds: at ¼-mile 95 97
Speeds in gears (at 6100rpm) (at 7000rpm)
1st 36 41
2nd 59 62
3rd 88 92
4th 127 125
ACCELERATION FROM REST  
mph sec sec
0-30 2.2 2.1
0-40 3.5 3.0
0-50 4.6 4.3
0-60 6.0 5.6
0-70 8.1 7.4
0-80 10.0 9.4
0-90 12.4 12.2
0-100 16.0 15.4
0-110 19.6 19.7
ACCELERATION IN TOP
mph sec sec
20-40 10.0
30-50 8.5
40-60 7.0 8.5
50-70 6.8 8.0
60-80 7.7 8.1
70-90 9.0 8.4
80-100 10.0 8.9
90-110 10.7
ACCELERATION IN 4TH
mph sec sec
20-40 6.4 8.2
30-50 5.7 6.2
40-60 5.1 5.5
50-70 5.3 5.2
60-80 5.9 5.2
70-90 5.9 5.5
80-100 6.2 6.1
80-110 7.8
FUEL CONSUMPTION
Twin test mpg 21.6 21.3
Touring* mpg 30.8 21.0
Govt tests mpg  
(urban) 22.1 15.7
(56 mph) 44.1 28.4
(75 mph) 34.9 24.1
Fuel grade octane 97 97
star rating 4 4
Tank capacity
litres 70 86
galls 15.4 18.9
Based on official fuel economy figures – 50 per cent of urban cycle, plus 25 per cent of each of 56/75 mph consumptions.  
WEIGHT
Unladen weight kg 1180 1140
Performance teste carried out by Drive-My’s staff at the Motor Industry Research Association proving ground, Llndley, and Millbrook proving ground, near Ampthill.
Test Data: World Copyright reserved. No reproduction in whole or part without written permission.

 

Renault interior is more spacious and there is room for small ones in the rear (top left). Grey plastic dominates the facia (left) The pedals sprout vertically from the floor Put are good to use. Instruments (below) are big and clear.

Cocoon-like quarters of the Esprit (top). Seat back is fixed. Extra-cost leather dash top reflects in the screen (right). Instruments are small and again, suffer from reflection.

The GTA’s luggage space is vestigial, alongside the fuel tank (above) in the nose of the car. Back-to-front engine has heat- insulated turbo next to passenger bulkhead (left).

Lotus’s luggage space behind the engine is predictably restricted (above). 2.2-litre turbo slant four hides under a mass of finned manifolds (right).

TECH DATA
Car 1986 Renault-Alpine GTA V6 Turbo Lotus Esprit Turbo
Made in France UK
ENGINE
Cylinders V6 4-in-line
Capacity cc 2458 2174
Bore/stroke mm 91/63 95/76
Max power bhp/rpm (DIN) 200/5700 210/6000-6500
Max torque lb ft/rpm (DIN) 210/2500 200/4000-4500
Block Aluminium alloy Aluminium alloy
Head Aluminium alloy Aluminium alloy
Cooling Water Water
Valve gear Sohc per bank 2 valves/cylinder Dohc 4 valves/cylinder
Compression 8.6:1 7.5:1
Fuel system Renix electronic fuel injection / Garrett T3 turbocharger Twin Dellorto 40 DHLA carburetters / Garrett T3 turbocharger
Ignition Fully programmed Fully programmed
Bearings Four main Five main

TRANSMISSION

Drive Type

Internal ratios and mph/1000 rpm 

Top

4th

3rd

2nd

1st

Rev

Final drive

To rear wheels

Five-speed manual

 

0.76/26.5

0.96/20.8

1.38/14.5

2.06/9.7

3.36/5.9

3.54

3.44

To rear wheels

Five-speed manual

 

0.76/22.7

0.97/17.8

1.32/13.1

1.94/8.9

2.92/5.9

3.46

4.38

AERODYNAMICS Cd 0.30 0.33
SUSPENSION
Front: Independent by double wishbones, coil springs, gas-filled dampers; anti-roll bar. Front: Independent by upper wishbone, lower transverse links. Fore-aft location by anti-roll bar; coil springs.
Rear: Independent by double wishbones, coil springs, gas-filled dampers; anti-roll bar. Rear: Independent by single upper and twin lower transverse links and radius arm; coil springs.

STEERING

Type

Assistance

 

Rack and pinion

No

 

Rack and pinion

No

BRAKES

Front

Rear

Servo

Circuit

Rear valve

 

Ventilated Discs 25.9 cm dia

Ventilated Discs 25.9 cm dia

Yes

Diagonally split

Yes

 

Ventilated Discs 25.9 cm dia

Ventilated Discs 27.4 cm dia

Yes

Split front/rear

No

WHEELS/TYRES

Type

Tyres

 

6 X 15 in dia (front) 8.5 X 15 in dia (rear)

195/50 VR15 (front) 255/45 VR15 (rear)

 

7J X 15 in dia (front) 8J X 15 in dia (rear)

195/60 VR15 (front) 235/60 VR15 (rear)

ELECTRICAL

Battery

Alternator

Headlights

type

dip W total

main W total

 

12 v/50 Ah

90 Amp

 

Halogen

110

230

 

12 v/44 Ah

70 Amp

 

Halogen

110

230

GUARANTEE

Duration

Rust warranty

 

12 months/unlimited mileage

5 years against perforation

 

12 months/unlimited mileage Chassis

8 years

MAINTENANCE

Major service

Intermediate service

 

30,000 miles

6000 miles

 

12,000 miles

6000 miles


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