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Let's not forget the Encore: Renault’s second act

The Renault Encore was supposed to be the hot ticket for 1984. The subcompact world wasn't too keen on 4-doors.
The two-door look Encore passed the litmus test... 4-door not so much!

The two-door look Encore passed the litmus test... 4-door not so much!

American Motors dealers were waiting for a miracle to lift passenger car sales in the early 1980s. At that time, the new-car market was being decimated by a combination of a depressed economy, fierce competition from Japanese imports, high unemployment and the worst inflation in decades. AMC management delivered that miracle in the form of the 1983 Renault Alliance subcompact, a car so far ahead of its rivals in technology, fuel economy and features that it couldn’t help but sell. And for an encore, it promised to introduce another new line of small cars as a follow up. Those cars arrived the following year in the aptly named Renault Encore, a line of subcompact hatchbacks based on the Alliance platform.

This was mostly a good move. Small hatchbacks were very popular in the early 1980s, accounting for two-thirds of sales in the subcompact market, and the Encore was every bit as advanced a product as the Alliance. However, the company made one maddening error when introducing the Encore; it offered the new car in both two- and four-door models. The two-door was trim, attractive and sporty; the four-door was weird, distracting and, in my humble opinion, homely.

There’s an old saying in the automobile business: “It costs just as much to style an ugly car as it does to style a good-looking one, so you might as well style your cars to be good-looking.” The problem was that, by 1984, AMC’s “partner,” Renault, was in complete control of the company and was calling all the shots. And the French thought the four-door Encore looked spiffy. They authorized its production, and thus the tooling money that might have been spent on a much more lucrative product was instead spent creating one of the sorriest-looking cars of the decade. You might call it “AMC’s Pontiac Aztec.”

The sad thing about all of this is that AMC stylists had designed a new Alliance four-door station wagon model, and it was a beauty — and at a time when small station wagons were selling quite well. But the Alliance wagon ended up a stillborn product, and only a few grainy photos remain of what might have been a successful addition to the 1984 or 1985 product line. Too bad.

The Encore debuts

The Encore was introduced for 1984 as a follow-up to the award-winning Alliance. In mechanical specifications, the Encore was essentially the same car with front-wheel drive, a fuel-injected 1.4-liter four-cylinder as the only engine offered that first year and a choice of four- or five-speed manual transmissions, both featuring overdrive, or a three-speed automatic transmission. Like the Alliance, it was assembled in Kenosha, Wis., home of AMC’s main auto plant.

Also like Alliance, Encore boasted standard rack-and-pinion steering, power front disc brakes, comfortable bucket seats up front and a nicely trimmed interior. Riding the same 97.2-inch wheelbase as Alliance, Encore offered good handling and a smooth, controlled ride courtesy of its four-wheel independent suspension. Unique to the Encore was a rounded glass hatchback and a fold-down rear seat.

The roomy interior was rated for five passengers, which it could hold with a fair degree of comfort. There was plenty of headroom, while foot space was enhanced by the clever pedestal-mounted front seats that provided generous under-seat room for rear passenger’s feet. The large greenhouse eliminated any feeling of claustrophobia.

You might think that a small, 1.4-liter engine developing a mere 55 hp would make for a very sluggish car, but you’d be wrong. Now, I’m not saying the Encore was a powerhouse — it certainly wasn’t — but when equipped with either of the manual gearboxes, it was sprightly enough for just about any driver. Accelerating from 0-60 mph took 14.9 seconds, a bit leisurely, though not unusual for that era, but the trade-off was fuel economy of 40-plus mpg on the highway! Part of this was because of Encore’s trim weight — around 2,010 lbs., which was about 40 lbs. more than an Alliance. Another bonus was that the shifter was pleasantly smooth to operate. I would consider performance with the automatic transmission to be adequate, just like many other small cars of that era, and fuel economy took a hit, although it was still better than many other cars.

Four trim levels were offered: base, S, LS and GS. Prices ranged from a low of $5,755 for the three-door base model to $7,547 for the three-door GS model. A special high-trim, limited-availability Diamond Edition model appearing mid-year was priced at $7,570 for the three-door and $7,770 for the five-door.

Base models were available only in the three-door configuration, and offered good quality vinyl upholstery. The S and LS models, which could be had in three- or five-door version, did likewise, but also offered fabric trim as an option. Fabric upholstery was standard on the GS, which also featured leather trim as an extra-cost option. Exterior color choices were limited to just five on base cars, while the others had an extended color pallet from which to choose. The upper-range models also had extra trim on the exterior, including bright wheel hub covers on the S. The LS and GS had bright windshield moldings, grille bars and bumper strips; bright belt moldings; and full wheel covers, along with better tires. Alloy wheels, air conditioning and up-level radios were popular options.

The Alliance had been Motor Trend’s Car of the Year for 1983, demonstrating how very impressive of a small car it was, and the Encore was just as good, though it won no awards of great significance. No matter; the public responded well, making Encore a sales success in its first year, with some 87,000-plus units produced for the model year, although it did cannibalize some sales from Alliance, which was to be expected. Every road tester who drove an Encore liked it, although compliments about its styling weren’t as effusive as had been the case for Alliance. I don’t recall any writer praising the four-door Encore’s looks, but the two-door did come in for some nice remarks.

The Encore with 4-doors didn't garner any praise for its styling.

The Encore with 4-doors didn't garner any praise for its styling.

Encore’s encore years

For 1985, Encore continued to offer the 1.4-liter engine as standard equipment on most models, but also introduced an optional, new 1.7-liter, fuel-injected four-cylinder engine of 77 hp for a nice increase in performance. The 1.7-liter mill was standard on Encore GS and extra cost on others. The new engine helped answer any buyer concerns about performance, though, naturally, the fuel economy wasn’t quite as good as the smaller engine. It represented a reasonable trade-off, though.

Meanwhile, the subcompact market in America was shrinking fast. The high fuel prices that had ignited tremendous demand for small cars had now abated, and people were once more looking for larger, more-powerful cars and trucks. The sudden interest in stick-shift cars, also a result of the desire for better fuel economy, also slackened, which hurt Encore and Alliance, because they were most appealing when equipped with the manual transmissions. To counter slowing demand, AMC introduced a new Encore Spring Special model that included a very stylish two-tone color scheme, unique stripes and graphics, rear spoiler, color-keyed wheel covers, fog lamps, front air dam and upgraded interior trim. These features represented $581 worth of optional equipment at a special price of just $281 on the Spring Special. It helped somewhat, though Encore production fell to 58,000 units for the 1985 model year, the result of the shrinking of small-car market.

For 1986, Encore moved upscale, dropping the base model, and adding a techie-oriented “Electronic” three-door model equipped with a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) instrument panel, a bright, clear display with LCD readouts for speedometer, tachometer and fuel level, and a comprehensive trip computer. The lowest-priced Encore, the three-door S, was now $6,710, while the Electronic was $7,498. Production fell dramatically this year, to just under 20,000 units, as fickle American buyers continued to avoid small, economical cars.

When the curtain dropped

That marked the Encore’s end. For 1987, AMC decided to re-badge it as an Alliance hatchback in an effort to reduce marketing costs. It appears that somewhere around 5,000 1987 “Alliance Hatchbacks” were produced before production ended for good. Also in 1987, Chrysler Corp. made a deal to acquire AMC from Renault, and it had no use for the now-aging Alliance; they ordered the line dropped. Prior to that decision, there had been talk of offering a value-priced Alliance “America” model similar in concept to the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon “America” models (i.e., well-equipped cars offered at a bargain price), but nothing came of that. There would be no encore for Encore. It was finis!

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