Renault Vesta II

As you may have guessed, I absolutely adore fully-functioning prototypes. 

Concept cars are cool and all, but with drivable prototypes, like this Renault Vesta II, I feel companies are building vehicles closer in spirit to one-off carrozzeria specials from the '50s and '60s. A wealthy industrialist may not be tailoring it to his tastes, and it may see limited road use, but the design and construction of an all-new vehicle is a feat.

Why would Renault devote millions of dollars to building such an advanced prototype that it will never produce? With enough publicity, the vehicle may reflect well on other vehicles in the range. More important, however, are the lessons learned by constructing a vehicle that's a few years (or decades…) beyond what's already out there.

In the Vesta's case, this meant designing a vehicle to be extremely efficient while retaining the same footprint as the company's existing small hatchback, the 5. The Vesta may look like a Pontiac 'dust buster' Trans Sport that's been left in the dryer for too long, but I rather like its shape. Living through the '90s, I think we can all agree that the car would have blended onto our roads as if it was meant to be.

Vesta is not only a large asteroid in our solar system but she's also the Roman virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family. (I don't understand why they have to be virgins, but whatever.) Renault says it embodies the spirit of the latter, but its name is really just an acronym for Véhicule Econome de Systèmes et Technologies Avancées.

What I like most about the car is that it's designed to do normal highway speeds and save huge amounts of fuel while doing it. In the mid-'80s, the French government issued a challenge to automakers to design and construct a vehicle capable of using fewer than 3 L/100 km (78 US MPG) of fuel while traveling between 90 km/h (56 mph) and 120 km/h (75 mph).

Unlike much of the fuel-saving tech promoted today, the Vesta didn't rely on cheap tricks like auto stop-start systems to sneak under efficiency bars that governments have set. This is obvious, right? If you want great fuel economy, it has to be baked into the DNA of the vehicle. It took Renault nine Vesta prototypes to get it right, too. 

Its Cd is 0.186, bettering even the General Motors EV-1 and current Volkswagen XL-1. Unlike either, the Vesta retains two rows of seats, with bodywork a mix of metal, composites, and plastics; its windows are just 2 millimetres thick, and only the driver gets an opening one!

Active aerodynamics to manage airflow around the engine, plus a full underbody shield help, as does its air suspension that automatically lowers by 20 millimetres at three set speeds.

Under the hood is a carbureted(!) 716-cc three cylinder engine with 27 horsepower. This may sound depressing, but with its light weight of 473 kg (1042 lbs) means that members of the press were able to hit 138.2 km/h (85 mph).

Yes: members of the press. I know there are a few public relations professionals who read these stories, so let me put this tidbit in your heads: on a run from Bordeaux to Paris with a writer on board, Vesta used just 1.94 L/100 km (121 US mpg), a new world record at the time.

Did any of the lessons learned with this car filter into the rest of the Renault range? No, not really. And that's a shame.