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Postcards from the

Sporting Pretensions

Fresh Air fans
Once upon a long time ago open-top sportscar motoring meant an asthmatic MG
if you were impecunious or an E-Type Jaguar if you could afford it, with not much in
between. Then the manufacturers anticipated American legislature a little too
keenly and all but stopped building open cars. However they never really were
legislated out of existence so fresh-air motoring is back with a vengeance as
more and more makers produce niche models.

Again though legislation has played its hand, and as the anti car brigade -
particularly in the UK - seem to be gaining the upper hand with 'the powers that
be', so the keener driver is turning to trackdays for his automotive enjoyment. That
in turn has led to a new kind of sportscar, little more than road-legal racers such
as the Radical, most of which never actually venture onto the highway. Of course it
could be argued that Lotus created the breed way back in the 'fifties with the
Seven, still in production today as the Caterham.

Open Resistance
Mainstream manufacturers such as Ford and VW have made ragtop versions of
their hatchbacks for years, whilst at the other end of the spectrum people like
Mercedes have produced convertibles. In 1995 though, Mercedes introduced the
SLK sportscar featuring a retractable hardtop, the first time in recent times this
had been available on a relatively affordable car. The retractable hardtop was not
invented by Mercedes, or even by respected German coachbuilder Karmann that
actually provided the Mercedes system. No, it has its origins back in the thirties
when Frenchman Georges Paulin thought the folding roofs of the day were
somewhat clumsy so he devised an electrically operated hardtop system called
Eclipse. He sold the idea to Peugeot who introduced it on their 401 model in 1936.

Paulin was an extremely creative man but he sadly met his end during the Second
World War. Captured by the Germans whilst working for the French Resistance he
was duly executed. It has been suggested (by a Frenchman, needless to say) that
the Germans killed him so that he would not beat them to any more good ideas!

Two Lane Hardtops
Things have gone full circle now, and Peugeot is just one of several
manufacturers who have already, or are about to, introduced new models utilising
retractable hardtops at an affordable price. Both Peugeot and fellow French
manufacturer Renault have unveiled Coupe Cabriolets as they are fashionably
called, based on humble family hatchbacks in recent weeks, and we have been
able to sample them both.

Peugeot's very pretty 307CC is based on the less than attractive 307 hatchback
and could even be described as a silk purse from a Pug's ear! Unlike its Renault
rival though, the Peugeot can still be regarded as a full four-seater, for despite
retaining the 2.61-metre wheelbase of the hatchback an increase in rear overhang
ensures that the folded roof does not encroach on cabin space. That considerable
thought has gone into this area is displayed by the fact that Peugeot have
employed LED rearlights, thus creating a little more boot space by eliminating the
need for bulky bulb holders. By contrast, rear seat legroom is decidedly cramped
in Renault's Megane Coupe-Cabriolet. (Yes, they even share the same name). Its
wheelbase is some 100mm less and it really does make a difference.

Pillarless and Topless
Visually, both cars have little in common with the base model, beyond the front-
end treatment. Indeed the Renault admits to only sharing the grille, headlamps
and bonnet with the standard Megane. Side on, Peugeot and Renault are
remarkably similar and equally elegant, both being pillarless coupes with the roof
up. Gone is the Megane's "big bum" look! They differ markedly in the treatment of
the roof though. The Renault system, manufactured by Karmann and delivered to
Renault's Douai plant ready to drop straight onto the car, features a full glass roof.
The Peugeot's is a normal steel affair.

Whilst the Megane's glass top provides the feel of year-round open air motoring at
the same time being a cosy coupe, there is no fear of any unwanted after effects
from the sun. It is manufactured from 3.15mm-thick Venus 40 glass, cutting out a
claimed 80% of infra-red rays. Operating the roof is a simple affair; pressing a
centre console-mounted button for around 22 seconds sees the roof neatly
stowed in the boot. A similar operation on the Peugeot takes just a couple of
seconds longer and also has the advantage that it can be carried out on the move
- well, up to a speed of 6mph, that is. It too is sourced from a German supplier,

High Tech'n'Spec
As is to be expected, both cars are well appointed, coming in various levels of trim
specification including full and half-leather options. Both cars have their front
seats set lower than in their hatchback brethren in order to give something of a
sportscar feel. Probably also necessitated somewhat by the steeply raked
windscreens that contribute to the aerodynamics. It was noticeable on both cars
that whilst driving with the tops down there was virtually none of the wind buffeting
normally associated with open cars, even dodging trucks on the motorway. The
Renault was particularly good. Absent too was any form of scuttle shake - can't say
that about your MGB!

Indeed, build quality of both cars was good, although the Peugeot was let down by
its truly tinny doors. When the first car I drove sounded as though it had a
collection of old bottle tops in the door as it clanged shut, I assumed it was
peculiar to that car but a second example was just the same. By contrast the
Megane's door shuts with a solid thunk. Of course in this safety-conscious age
both cars come with airbags everywhere and a full set of initials - ABS and the like.
We drove both cars on a mixture of roads ranging from little more than mountain
tracks to motorway in Spain (Renault) and France (Peugeot) and it was really
difficult to fault them in anyway.

Power Train
Renault offers the biggest choice of engines with 1.6 VVT and 2.0 VVT petrol, or
1.9 dCi diesel options available. The smaller, 115bhp petrol engine comes with a
choice of five-speed manual or speed-automatic transmission, whilst the more
powerful (136bhp) petrol and 120bhp diesel choose between a six-speed manual
and the automatic. At the time of launch, Peugeot are offering only a choice 2-litre
petrol engines with differing power outputs - 138 or 180bhp. The transmission
choice is either 5-speed manual or, in the case of the 180 a 'Tiptronic' 4-speed
auto 'box. The general consensus on the launch was that the lower-powered
version, allied with its smaller diameter 16-inch wheels, actually gave the better
drive, feeling altogether sharper. It's amazing what a difference an inch makes!

Choice Cuts
But which would you choose? At the end of the day it comes down to personal
choice as they are both good cars built on proven mechanicals - sportscars don't
need to be temperamental anymore. If four seats for a long distance are important
to you, it has to be the Peugeot. However, if midwinter stargazing is your thing then
you'll love the Renault.

Just one thing though, I'm a little confused Are they more of a sportscar than that
draughty old MGB (they certainly go faster) or are they just family hatchbacks in
drag? It's hard to tell.

With apologies to MG owners everywhere, but didn't that begin with a humble
Morris saloon anyway?

John Elwin

sportscarpros Scrutineering Bay

John Elwin and others on technical and other non racing activities
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