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OPINION: Retro is great when done right

01st March 2024
Russell Campbell

The new Renault 5 E-Tech’s oh-so-retro looks and beautifully appointed interior have us wondering why more manufacturers don't revert to a modern interpretation of a much-loved classic and proven winner. 

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Some will argue these retro throwbacks signpost a lack of ideas, lazy design, or a rehash of an old favourite because no one has anything original to go on. But for me, true design classics are so infrequent it's great that they can be resurrected for a new generation to enjoy.

And anyway, doing retro right is not as simple as slapping an old face on the front of your new model and waiting for the queues to form. 

BMW showed us how it's done when it designed the new Mini. Yes, it had cheeky looks and an interior crammed full of throwbacks, but BMW's work went more than skin deep. Independent rear suspension meant it handled like a Mini should, and while the car was designed with German money, building it in Oxford gave much-needed authenticity. Adding a massive list of customisable options – a pioneering idea at the time – confirmed BMW had a vice-like grip on its brief.

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Fiat's 500 and its sporty Abarth offshoot didn't quite have the depth of the MINI's engineering, but its success proved most people are happy with cool looks and decals and are unbothered that the car sat on a Panda platform. Oddly, the sit-up-and-beg driving position and brittle ride quality made the 500 feel more authentic – because an Italian car should be compromised, right?

But not all retro redos are successful. We were desperate to love the Honda E – its puppy-like looks and game-console-mating interior – but the tiny range and high price made it hard to justify even to predisposed hearts. 

But I’ll eat my hat if the new Renault Renault 5 isn't a knockout seller. It's as if Renault has studied BMW's retro recipe book to the letter.

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Instantly recognisable as a 5 (albeit one that would tower over the original), the new model nevertheless looks bang up to date with its modern body creases and intricately detailed LED lighting. Black sills cleverly hide the battery in the floor and easter egg Tricolours hidden in the headlights leave you no doubt where the R5 hails from. It's not just a token gesture; all the R5's parts are sourced from within 300 miles of the Paris-based factory. That word 'authenticity' strikes again.

There's innovation to be found too. The old car's offset bonnet vent was an essential bit of design, but as the EV doesn't require cooling, it's been replaced with a charge status bar that reports the battery's state without you needing to get in. You can almost hear the slap of congratulatory high-fives dispensed to whoever had that idea. 

Renault approached the interior with the same appetite for surprise and delight. The two-spoke steering wheel, rectangular air vents and vertical stitched dashboard padding are nicked straight from the original 5, but you now get a brace of digital infotainment displays. Renault avoided going down the fake-leather route and instead went full Gallic with a range of wool, tweed, and textiles that would keep Paris Fashion Week in business.

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But all this would be for nothing if Renault hadn't got the fundamentals right. The car has a plus-200-mile range that would put a Honda E to shame, yet it is expected to undercut its rivals on price. Renault even nicked BMW's trick, fitting the 5 with independent rear suspension that should make the EV as sophisticated to drive as it is to look at.

The Renault 5 proves that retro design can be brilliant when done right, and it's not just me who thinks that. BMW's Neue Klasse, which previews an electric 3 Series, is littered with styling cues from shark-nosed descendants, and there's more than a hint of Fiat Ritmo Abarth to the recently announced Abarth 600e.

What else could benefit from the retro treatment? How about a new Nissan Micra based on the bubble-like K10, or a new Ford EV based on the original Focus? All speculation of course, but no one can argue that retro’s having a renaissance and I for one am happy about that.

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