Renault bringing a best seller from France to US

After roaming the streets and roads of Europe for the past several years, the Renault 18i has finally reached the United States to help in the rescue of American Motors, the French carmaker's besieged US partner.

The R-18i, together with the much smaller R-5 (Le Car in the US), are the two best-selling cars in France. On a worldwide basis, the R-5 is No. 4, while the R-18 is No. 9.

Indeed, both cars should help AMC wheel its way out of a laggard auto market in which it has been spinning its wheels of late.

The Le Car, now sold as a 2-door sedan, will be joined by a 4-door model within the next few weeks. Then the R-18i, with only a 4-door sedan and 4-door wagon in the showroom at present, will also have a 2-door sedan in the fall.

In other words, the French manufacturer, Regie Nationale des Usines Renault, will have a bigger and bigger share of the products offered by AMC and a controlling financial interest as well. Without the government-owned French carmaker's help, AMC might well be on the rocks of bankruptcy by now, a fate dog-tired Chrysler Corporation is trying mightily to avert.

All Renault cars are front-wheel drive, a configuration US auto manufacturers are only now beginning to embrace. Yet the concept has been around since Nicholas Cugnot's three- wheel steam tractor of 1769, the first motor vehicle.

The Renault R-18i is a pleasure to drive. It is quick; economical (the 5 -speed manual and automatic 3-speed have an Environmental Protection Agency city figure of 24 miles to a gallon while the 4-speed manual is 26); and very much French in layout and feel. The seats are comfortable for a long day on the road , a big feature of any car built in France.

The price of the well-equipped R-18i may seem high at $10,000-plus, but what product isn't price-inflated these days! The wagon I'm now driving has brown-leather upholstery, a $600 extra-cost item. At the low end, the basic 4 -door sedan starts at about $7,500.

The Bosch L Jetronic fuel-injection system makes cold- weather starting a snap. So many small-size carbureted engines are balky in wintertime starts and too often stall out a few times before finally taking hold. Not so the fuel-injected R-18i. With a quick turn of the ignition key, you're on your way.

While starting the car is easy, the ignition key itself is a nuisance. The key handle is so close to the steering post that turning it is a chore. Too, the key is hard to remove from the lock and suggests a few broken fingernails and pinched fingers in the process.

Also, some of the control stalks get in the way as the driver turns the wheels in a turn. The light-control lever leaves room for improvement as well. It's much too easy to flick off the headlights when all you want to do is signal a left or right turn with the flasher. No matter, the controls are generally easy to grasp and the instruments handy to read.

Aerodynamically, the R-18i is clean and the air flows easily over the stylish shape. The coefficient of drag is extremely low.

AMC and Regie Renault came together at a good time for both companies. AMC needed a heavy infusion of cash as its car market lagged, and it was short of product to boot, such as fuel-efficient engines and small cars.

Renault, on its own part, has been trying for 20 years to dig its tires into the American auto market, but with meager success. The linkup with AMC brings Renault the one ingredient it had been unable to find in the US marketplace -- a broad-scale lineup of motivated car dealers. The lack of a viable dealership-service network has hurt the French carmaker in the US market.

AMC and Renault are jointly developing a car to be built in AMC's Kenosha, Wis., assembly complex for the 1983- model year. If successful, it could help the French company achieve its goal of 3 percent of the US car market, or 150, 000 cars a year.

The new car should help AMC as well as Renault. It will give AMC a high-mileage vehicle which the US carmaker has been unable to field for a long time.

"We do not plan to build the engines in the US," reports Bernard Hanon, head of the Renault car operation and No. 2 man in the company. The engines could come from Mexico, however, where Renault plans to build a new plant as part of a pact with the Mexican government.

Renault's total investment in AMC will top $350 million, including the $150 million deal of two years ago, when the two companies first agreed to cooperate in the US.

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