Fine handling in a sporty French car

At first, the reaction is: ''Just another French-built car with all those nonconventional features and controls.''

The ''hidden'' door handles, for example, can break a few fingernails and make it hard to shut the doors. To turn on the headlights, you have to learn the right twist and movement of the left-hand stalk on the steering column. And then there are those other things that are so peculiar to cars built in France.

Yet, after driving the Renault Fuego sports coupe for a few days, the driver's attitude changes, controls become a lot more familiar, and he is quite likely to sing its praises - in English if not in French.

The sport-coupe Fuego, with an aerodynamic drag coefficient of 0.35 - one of the lowest on the road today - carries an Environmental Protection Agency estimate of 26 miles per gallon overall, but 39 m.p.g. on the highway.

Outfitted with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection and a 1.6-liter intercooled turbo, stabilizer bars front and rear, and Michelin TRX radial tires, the Fuego handles superbly, with swift, sure stops provided by the power-assisted, vented front disc brakes with drums in the rear.

The car is advertised by Renault, one of the world's major carmakers although you would never guess it from its modest showing in the US market, as ''the civilized turbo.''

Renault, with a 46 percent hold on American Motors, including the presidency of AMC, continues to chip away at the resistant US market. The government-owned automaker claimed 13.7 percent of the European market in 1981 and is hoping for a modest 3 percent penetration in the United States.

In 1981 it produced 1,811,626 vehicles, down from the record 2,053,000 the year before.

In France, its home market, Renault is No. 1, with 38.9 percent, and is the leading import in both West Germany and Italy. In Spain, it remains the leading producer and seller of cars, with a 33 percent penetration.

Even so, the company, known as Regie Nationale des Usines Renault, had a major loss last year, thus reflecting the economic downturn all over the world. To offset the downturn, the company is looking for a major capital advance from the government this year - perhaps as much as $167 million.

Renault and AMC will market a new car in the US next fall, an Americanized version of the popular R-9 now being sold in Europe. The French company hopes to build the car, to be called the Renault Alliance, at a rate of 130,000 to 175, 000 a year.

A lot depends on the success or failure of the new car. If a market success, the AMC-Renault combine could be off and running; if a failure, Renault would be forced to reassess its role in the US.

As for the Fuego, it is a far better car than the 18i, from which it was derived.

The dashboards in the two cars, however, are very much alike. Why? Because when Renault shipped the 18i to the US in the fall of 1980, the US-outfitted cars had the Fuego dash, not the dash of the European-sold 18i.

''It looked better,'' a Renault executive explained at the time.

Expectedly, the Fuego high-backed bucket seating is superb, the front seats designed to hold the driver and passenger firmly in place whether the road leads straight ahead or bends to the right or left. After all, this is a French-built car, and French cars are overstuffed cushions on the road. Many people like it that way. Even the rear seats are the top of their class, not skimpy as in some cars.

There is sufficient room, in fact, for two full-size people in the back without the use of a shoehorn, unless, of course, the front seats are pushed back to their limit. Rear-seat headroom could be a problem for a 6-footer, but it clearly is better than in many cars I've driven this year.

Whether you will like the styling of the car, however, is up to your individual taste. I found it grew on me after it sat in the driveway for a few nights and I drove a few hundred miles on the road.

The fenders have horizontal louverlike trim which runs their length. It's different, at least - but likable? Who can say? Some like it; undoubtedly others do not.

Ride and handling are pleasant; in other words, the ride is firm, but not too firm, and the handling crisp. The power rack-and-pinion steering is quick.

The Renault Fuego 2-door coupe is base-priced at $8,495. The 1.6-liter turbo option is $1,000 more.

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