Renault R5 Turbo 3E review: electric drift machine proves the hot hatch has a future Reviews 2023 | Top Gear
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First Drive

Renault R5 Turbo 3E review: electric drift machine proves the hot hatch has a future

Published: 23 Mar 2023

Look at the arches on that!

Awesome, aren’t they? As is the car underneath them – there’s not many concept cars that are capable of sliding around as amusingly and smokingly as this. But first back to those pumped flanks. Because they are this car’s signature and a fitting link back to the original mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo. They give this new hyper hatch more confidence and swagger than a supercar.

Why did the original have such massive haunches?

Ironically we have an early proto-supercar to thank for that. The Lancia Stratos dominated rallying in the mid-1970s, taking over from the Alpine A110. It was a mid-engined, rear-drive, purpose-built coupe that had been designed by Bertone, so Renault, wanting revenge, engaged the Italian design house, which – funnily enough – suggested taking the 5 supermini and putting the engine in the middle driving the rear wheels. That necessitated more width and air intakes. Le reste est de l’histoire. 

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Bien sur. Maintenant… that’s the end of my French. 

Obviously the announcement of the 5s return in 2021 was all the encouragement the designers needed to bring back the ultimate box arch. However, as it stands this is a one-off concept car, the kind that can usually barely summon up the strength to crawl off a show stand. This one, fittingly, is different.

Look from the rear and once you’ve taken in the canopy of a rear wing and arches fuller than a chipmunk’s cheeks, you’ll notice the orange cables and the telltale signs of a pair of rear electric motors. 375bhp right there. 

But don’t go thinking this is just a new set of clothes thrown over a Zoe chassis. It’s built on a completely bespoke, FIA-compliant steel spaceframe and couldn’t even use a battery from an existing car “because they’re not capable of putting out the power we wanted” says Sandeep Bhambra, Renault’s Chief Designer of Concepts. The Turbo 3E project came together unbelievably quickly, a team of around 20 taking the car from first sketch to rolling concept in just eight months.

What’s it designed to do?

Hopefully show us a future for performance cars within Renault and Alpine.

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No, I meant as a driving device.

Easy: drift. Each of those motors drives a back wheel. There’s a ‘Donut’ mode, a hydraulic handbrake and the steering has an impressive 50 degrees of lock. The only problem is this is a one-off and Renault is precious about it, so I’m not allowed to play and to ensure I don’t get carried away Renault has fitted a preventative device. Yvan Muller is a four-time WTCC champion and 10-time Andros Ice racing champion. He’s also proficient in the use of the word ‘non’.

See what you did there. OK, so how does it drive without drifting?

Concept cars usually rattle, bang and clang but this one feels composed and developed. Apart from the noise, the usual high-pitched, white noise squeal of whining motors. The 3E isn’t desperately fast in a straight line – it weighs 1,500kg, which would give it a similar power to weight ratio to an Audi RS3, but despite a claimed 0-62mph time of 3.5 seconds it never feels quite that potent and the acceleration is inevitably entirely one-dimensional.

Yet the car itself is more engaging than almost any other electric car I’ve driven. The steering is connected, weighty and accurate, you get a good sense of what the front end is up to from the suspension and when you turn in you immediately sense how short the wheelbase is, how eager the rear axle is to get involved and show what it can do...

So did you?

Turns out Yvan isn’t averse to physical intervention. So no. But even within Muller’s less-than-fruity corner boundaries it’s agile and responsive, drives with something approaching the exuberance of the styling.

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So Yvan and I swap positions. Most racers aren’t drifters, but as the most successful Andros Trophy driver ever, Muller is well used to viewing life through the side window. It’s quite the demo.

The Turbo 3E has got a lot of grip on its road-going Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres, so takes some provoking, but that’s exactly what the hydraulic handbrake is for – a good tug on that has the back end joyfully arcing wide. Yvan’s busy at the wheel though. The short wheelbase makes it tricky to control mid-skid so there’s a good amount of steering and throttle jabs, but yeah, the Turbo 3E does what it sets out to do.

Fun thing by the looks of it.

Absolutely – and not just from the driving point of view. The designers have had fun here too. GoPros lurk in the empty headlight sockets and double for wing mirrors, the LED lightbar dances and flickers, “the plan is for the lights to stay static when you’re drifting, but we haven’t had a chance to work on it yet”, Bhambra tells me, “and the rear wing is from a GT3 racer – we haven’t put it through a wind tunnel, but I doubt it does much”.

The interior is very cramped, the racing seat mounted so upright you’re basically curved around the steering wheel. In a nod to the original Turbo 1 road car, the concept features ten digital squares of information instead of the mad original’s dials in blocky housings. A button on the top of the handbrake squirts water on the rear wheels. Two reasons: it helps keep the tyres cool, and wet tyres break traction more easily. And then there’s the teddy bear.

Come again?

Yeah, there’s a teddy bear strapped to the transmission tunnel. “We needed some padding against the frame so you don’t bruise your legs – you can see we’ve done special pillows at the sides – but when we were thinking about what was the right size, shape and padding, a teddy bear came to mind. He’s actually a rescue bear from a second hand shop” says Bhambra.

Besides giving a home to a mid-drift emotional support animal, what’s the plan for the Turbo 3E?

Luca de Meo, Renault’s CEO challenged the FIA to make a change to rallying regulations to allow the Turbo 3E to compete. Predictable line, nice angle back to the historics, but it’ll never happen. Like other electric cars – the Ford Mach-E 1400 springs to mind – I suspect it’ll find a brief firework life doing one lap challenges, sprints and hill climbs. Or perhaps, as a nod to climate change sensitivities, Yvan will take it ice racing.

OK bigger question: does this represent the electric future of Renaultsport/Alpine?

Good to make that distinction now that Renaultsport has been subsumed into Alpine. We’ll probably get a better sense of this in the next few weeks when we expect Renault to unveil an Alpine edition of the new all-electric 5 supermini. Obviously we’re hoping it’ll look and perform like this. However, being honest I can’t see them selling a road-going 400bhp rear-drive drift machine, and nor can I see them doubling down on these arches for production. But what it does tell us is Renault sees a future for the hot hatch. And that’s something we should be profoundly grateful for.

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