Renault 11 Turbo: best of the breed?

There’s no question about it: the 1980s was the decade of the hot hatch.

It was an era when every mainstream manufacturer rushed to ensure its small and medium hatchback ranges featured at least one warmed-up model; when the young and young-at-heart clamoured to buy the rocket shopper of their dreams; when Zender and their ilk found a lucrative new market for their wares and when the car magazines of the day hotly debated the merits of the hot hatch field.

And what a field it was: Volkswagen Golf GTI marks one and two (the latter appearing in 16v form towards the end of the decade), Peugeot 205 GTI in 1.6. and 1.9 litre flavours, Peugeot 309 GTI, Renault 5 GT Turbo, Fiesta XR2, Escort XR3 in carburettor and later fuel injected variants, Escort RS Turbo, Fiat Uno Turbo, Citroën AX GT, Vauxhall Astra GTE in series one and two guises, Sierra XR4i, Cavalier SRI and the MG Metro Turbo.

Lordy, there was even an MG version of the Maestro, with a turbocharged edition for the sort of folk that in future decades would willingly throw themselves off perfectly good bridges and cranes. But, as we shall see, the best of them all isn’t to be found in that list.

My love affair with the hot hatch started in 1988. I was in my final year at university and had just come into some money. Most of the people on my course – the stolid, ostensibly sensible brigade whose ways were, and remain, alien to me – would have put the money aside for a rainy day. Me? I bought a hot  hatch. But not just any hot hatch. Oh no, I made the serendipitous decision to buy the finest hot hatch of the era. I bought a Renault 11 Turbo.

Now, some of you may be choking on your Vimto as you read this, but hear me out. I may have a fool for a client, but my case is strong.

Renault 11 Turbo phase 1

 

Let’s start with the styling. The Renault 11’s chunky lines came courtesy of a team led by none other than Robert Opron, the man who gave the world the Citroën SM, GS and CX. The phase one version of the 11 Turbo certainly looked the part, with its twin headlights, distinctive alloy wheels, squat stance and large ‘Turbo’ decals on both doors. It was very 80s, but in a good way.  The facelifted ‘phase two’ version of the 11 Turbo lost the decals and twin headlights, but gained Renault’s corporate grille, side skirts and less distinctive alloys. Which is better? You pays your money and takes your choice…

So far, so good. But what about the performance?

Both versions of the 11 Turbo used Renault’s venerable Cleon engine in 1397cc guise. Mated to a Garrett turbocharger and fed by carburettor, the phase one version pumped out 105bhp and 119lb/ft. It doesn’t sound much, but the 11 Turbo was light: a mere 915kg.  The engine spun smoothly, and full boost was announced with a satisfying kick at about 2,750rpm: mid-range performance was excellent by the standards of the day. Turbo lag existed, of course, but was dismissed by the simple expedient of dropping down a gear.

The phase two version of the 11 Turbo offered even better performance. Its a revised engine spun sweetly up to 7,000rpm (albeit the rev counter was red-lined at 6,000 rpm), was less laggy, had full boost on tap from 2,500rpm and pumped out a more impressive looking 115bhp.

Let’s put it another way: whereas the phase one version outstripped most of the competition in real-world driving, the phase two version made them masticate on its dust.

Bangerwatch: renault 11 turbo

Okay, okay, I hear you: straight-line speed is only part of the equation and, on a twisty road, handling is what it’s all about.

Well, guess what: the 11 Turbo had the competition covered here as well.  Mind you, my 11 Turbo had a secret weapon: the previous owner had fitted 185/60 tyres in place of the standard fit 175/65 items. Armed with these tyres, the 11 Turbo gripped, steered, rode and stopped with the very best of them. And then some.

I drove a lot of A and B road miles in those days and, in spite of my inexperience, coarse  inputs and overuse of the loud pedal, I never found my 11 Turbo wanting for grip in any conditions. Its chassis was amply endowed with that most precious of qualities: tolerance, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that a less forgiving car would quite probably have ended its (and my) days wrapped round a tree or lamppost.

Not convinced yet? My, my, you are a tough jury.

Okay, let’s look at comfort. Yes, comfort matters in a hot hatch, especially for those of us who happen to be a bit taller than most people. Those travelling in the front of an 11 Turbo found themselves cosseted by Renault’s figure-hugging Petale seats, and rear-seat travellers were provided  with good headroom, legroom and, thanks to the monotrace front seat fittings, excellent footroom. Long trips were enjoyed, not endured, in the 11 Turbo.

Let me see. What does that leave. Oh yes, build quality.

You’ll be in for a disappointment if you think I’ve left this to last in the hope that it might slip under your radar. Because, you see, build quality was a strength throughout the Renault 11 range. And my 11 Turbo was no exception to this. It was seven years old when I sold it, having covered over 50,000 miles in my ownership on top of the 44,000 it had on the clock when I bought it. Nothing fell off, no holes appeared and, yes, even the electrics still worked.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we all know that the 11 Turbo is a PetrolBlog hero. And now that you’ve heard the evidence, I am sure that you will agree with me that it is deserving of another coveted accolade; that it is indeed the finest hot hatch of the 1980s.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
David Milloy
Freelance writer and all-round good guy (it says here). Loves cars with character, movies, history and the offbeat.

12 comments

  1. May 16, 2015
    Ed

    hmm..you make a strong case. But..but.. it looked like a dog’s breakfast! For me this was agood competitor to the Maestro, the Escort GTi etc..but it wasn’t a B-segment hatch.

    Reply
  2. May 21, 2015
    bjarnetv

    in my eyes the 5 gt turbo easily beats the 11 turbo as the ultimate 80s hot hatch.
    prettier, lighter, more powerful and with a more sci-fi looking dash (the last bit is very important)

    the 11 is more obscure and overlooked though, giving it some petrolblog-points.

    Reply
    • June 17, 2015
      David Milloy

      Sorry, Ed, I can’t agree. Here’s why:

      My smoky grey phase 1 looked great in the metal, as did my black phase 2. Yes, I owned two of them…

      I’ll see if I can find some photos of my 11Ts for Le Patron of Petrolblog to post.

      Taken as a package, the performance and handling were at least as good as any of its competitors around at the time. Even my phase 1 wasn’t much slower than a 5GT Turbo in real-world conditions, and it handled better – thanks to its wider track and longer wheelbase. It wasn’t a tricky car to drive when you were pushing on.

      Reply
    • June 17, 2015
      David Milloy

      The 5 GT turbo was a great car. It was pretty and had a great dash, no question about it. However, as I explained in my reply to Ed, the 5s performance advantage over the 11 was very slim indeed. Trust me, I know…

      The 11 handled better than the 5. The 5 could be a bit too twitchy when the chassis was really exercised. The 11, on the other hand, looked after its driver. It inspired confidence even in wet conditions. It certainly saved my ass on a few occasions. I’m not think the 5 would have been quite so forgiving; in fact, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been.

      The 5 and 11 Turbos were both great cars. It’s close, but the 11 just edges it.

      Reply
  3. June 1, 2015
    Anthony

    Not the prettiest car in the world, but man, can she haul ass!

    Reply
    • June 17, 2015
      David Milloy

      She could certainly do that, Anthony. I had a Renault 19 16V after I sold my second 11 Turbo. The 19 was a great hot hatch, but the 11 Turbo had better acceleration – at least at the sort of speeds that wouldn’t result in a driving ban!

      Reply
  4. June 19, 2015
    Steve irwin

    Great article…. Always loved the 11 Turbo, especially in phase 2 guise. We are the proud owners of its booted sibling, a Renault 9 Turbo phase 2. Bought it last year after a very long search and indeed, it is currently the only one left on the road in the UK. I love the phase 2 treatment that renault gave the 9 turbo. It’s very much like a mini version of the 21 Turbo..

    Reply
    • June 19, 2015
      David Milloy

      Thanks, Steve.

      Your 9 Turbo has to be a keeper. I’ve been driving since 1988 and don’t think I’ve ever seen one on UK roads. Do let us know if you’re taking it to any shows – I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d love to see it.

      Reply
  5. June 24, 2015
    David Milloy

    If I wasn’t planning to make a major house move in the next few months, I WOULD buy this one: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/RENAULT-11-TURBO-Buy-it-Now-3500-/281730900886?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_3&hash=item4198786396

    Reply
  6. December 14, 2015
    Dave S

    I have a Phase 1 9 Turbo. Great little cars and full of character. It’s a great smaller, older brother to my 21 Quadra 🙂

    Reply
    • December 14, 2015
      David Milloy

      A 9 Turbo and a 21 Quadra? Lucky man. Lucky, lucky man. I’m hugely envious. 🙂

      Mind you, I’d be even more envious if it was the factory ‘Zender’ special edition of the 11 Turbo, or the aftermarket, 125 bhp version offered by Ferry, a French tuning company. With 2000 ‘Zenders’ having been produced, there’s a much better chance of finding one than there is of the Ferry version, the total number of which is unlikely to have exceeded 20 or so.

      Reply
  7. February 4, 2017
    Robert Haycocks

    Hi – I had a red Renault 11 Turbo as a company car. I loved it – it is still my favourite of all the cars I’ve had (which include an Alfasud and 2 Honda Preludes (the prettiest VTEC version). immensely practical – I had 4 young daughters who could all sit on the back seat in belts/baby seats anchored to a ength of angle iron bolted between the damper struts in the boot. once did over 100 miles in an hour in the pouring rain on a french autoroute trying to get back to calais by a psecific time (we made it). towed a friend from southampton to bristol – very slowly as his power-assisted brakes were not power-assisted with the engine off – superb – on hills didn’t low, the turbo boost gauge just rose.

    Reply

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