The Fuego was a very late answer to a question nobody was asking. That question was ‘what do the French have to rival the Capri and the Manta?’ nobody was asking because it didn’t matter. By 1980, when the Fuego (pronounced ‘Fwey-go’ in case you’re wondering) was released, the Capri was old hat along with the Manta, which was in effect just a re-branded Mk1 Cavalier coupe or hatch, which in turn was really old hat. We were switching away from the rear-wheel drive coupes in favour of spritely, cheeky front-wheel drive hatchbacks. Cheaper, easier to drive on the limit and, thanks to not having a propshaft running through them, immensely practical, hot hatches were the future.
The Fuego, however, was front-wheel drive. It used, though Renault didn’t really want you to know, the floorpan from an 18. This meant the Fuego was incredibly spacious inside. The glass domed rear hatch also served to lighten the cabin, making the Fuego a very nice place to be. Not that anyone knew. We weren’t looking.
On paper, the Fuego was the perfect answer to our issues with cars like the Capri. It took the idea and made it work, made it practical. But for reasons based around internal politics, Renault didn’t want to shout about the Fuego. It had made this car, this wonderful car. But, it just seemed to appear in dealerships without much in the way of fanfare, before vanishing again a mere six years later.
Some speculate that the Fuego was sold under hushed tones because Renault didn’t really want buyers to know it was designed under instruction from Robert Opron. Why? Because he had made a significant name for himself designing… Citroens. The SM, GS and GX were all his work. But if Renault was going to take issue with that, why hire him in the first place? The mind boggles.
And it’s a terrible shame, because the Fuego was a damn fine car. There is no escaping the fact that Opron and his team did a wonderful job on the styling. The Fuego looked like a spaceship when compared to the numerically-named yawn-fest that was the rest of the Renault range of 1980. It was a car that traded on those looks though, as the 18’s chassis was in no way a sporting contender, even with the inclusion of MacPherson strut suspension up front. No, the Fuego was a car for the elegant, for the journey, not just the arrival. The suspension might have been lacking in poise, but it was dripping with comfort. Add in the fact that ‘80s Renaults seemed to be upholstered with stuffing made from clouds and you had one supremely comfortable car. And it was a proper car that could house four full-sized people thanks to being front-wheel drive. See, clever.
The engine range started with a 1.4, though there was a 2.0 and later in life a 2.2. The one to have though, back then and today, was the 1.6, because the 1.6 had a turbo strapped to it. That meant 132hbp, and in 1980, that was a lot. You can see why Renault was so keen to slap giant TURBO decals down the side of it. With the Turbo, Renault allowed themselves to get a little bit excited. Good on them.
Drivers were also excited by the Turbo model, but not in the traditional sense. More in a wheel-spinning, ditch-finding kind of way. The Turbo had a lot of grunt, but delivery of said grunt to the floor was somewhat frantic. But it didn’t matter, because in one way or another, it was exciting. And Renault needed excitement. Plus, to balance it out, what the Fuego lacked in cornering and power delivery, it more than made up for in mile-munching ability. Comfy, quiet and with plenty of pace, it was excellent.
The Fuego was also a car of firsts, not that you’d know it, what with Renault selling the car under that apparent blanket of secrecy. It was the first production car to feature remote central locking, it was the first car to have stereo controls on the steering wheel and when the clattery 2.1 turbo diesel from the 18 made it into the Fuego, it unwittingly became the first diesel coupe.
The Fuego is one of those cars that is mocked by the uneducated, and more fool them. The reality is that it was a good car that was handsome, comfortable, practical and generally lovely to drive. It was the perfect evolution of the coupes before it, taking away the intrusion of rear-wheel drive mechanicals and giving us the space we so needed. Had the launch of the Fuego been a few years earlier, it may well have truly stuck it to the likes of the Capri and the Manta. Sadly though, Renault was too late to the game and the Fuego, of which approx. 250,000 were made globally. We were too busy falling in love with the hot hatchbacks, the XR3s, the GTEs and even the 5 Turbos, and as such, we looked over the Fuego. And we were aided in doing so by Renault itself, which is no less weird now than it was back then. Renault should have been proud, it should have been shouting about the Fuego from the rooftops, but because a man from Citroen designed it, it didn’t. More fool them, because the Fuego was great.