► Renault approved electric conversion for classic 5► €15,000 including fitting, but not the donor car
► 50-mile range, 30bhp and 62mph top speed. Eventually

In case you’ve missed it, the Renault 5 celebrates its 50th birthday this year. As old French hatchbacks aren’t particularly fond of cake or surprise parties, its maker decided to drag it into the 21st century instead.

No, we’re not talking about the upcoming Renault 5 Electric, a car still firmly in the prototype stage. Instead, this is the 5 Retrofit, an original model that’s had the internal combustion engine removed and replaced with an electric motor and battery pack.

This isn’t some hack job that’s been thrown together in a shed either, it has Renault’s full backing and is fully homologated for legal use on the road. Given France’s stringent rules when it comes to modified cars, that’s no mean feat.

renault 5 retrofit review: electrifying an icon

Do I need to be handy with a set of spanners?

While the conversion is supplied as a kit, this isn’t something designed to be carried out in your garage over a weekend or 15. Instead, you must go to a Renault approved local workshop who’ll take around 25 hours to electrify your 5 for €15,000, a price that doesn’t include a donor car.

For that money you get a diddy 10.7kWh battery pack bolted to the boot floor, a 30bhp electric motor mated to the original car’s manual gearbox and all the electronic hard and software needed to make it all work. If for whatever reason you crave the original car’s engine once more, the conversion is completely reversible.

renault 5 retrofit review: electrifying an icon

Wait, did you say manual gearbox?

The four or five-speed self-shifter is left in place along with the clutch, so the only real hint of the powertrain is a small digital readout next to the speedo. A crude looking electrical socket in place of the fuel filler gives the game away on the outside, although the vivid metallic yellow paint and colourfully reupholstered interior of these examples will get your attention first. Oh, and that €15,000 won’t replace your scruffy seats and sagging headliner.

Charging takes 3.5 hours from a normal mains supply with no option to rapid or fast charge here, and that’ll take you around 50 miles in mixed conditions or more like 60 if you’re tootling around town.

renault 5 retrofit review: electrifying an icon

Why so little power and range?

To answer succinctly, regulations and compromises. The rules state that power must be between 65-100% of the base vehicle’s original output while a larger battery would mean you’d at best have no boot and at worst no rear seats. That leaves you with a car that’s best suited to urban environments or shorter runs.

You might be surprised at who’s expected to buy the Retrofit. With car enthusiasts expected to be concerned about harming the donor car’s value, it’s those who have fallen in love with the 5’s shape but want turn-key reliability from their city car that will be the biggest buyers.

renault 5 retrofit review: electrifying an icon

So, what’s it like to drive?

It turns out a prior drive in the Electrogenic Mini was perfect practice for the 5 Retrofit as both have a couple of identical quirks. For a start first gear is forbidden, partially because of what the torque could do to the elderly gearbox but also, as any attempt to reverse will tell you, due to the ‘throttle’ response being so sharp. Backward travel is a jerky affair unless you treat the skinny pedal like it was made from dry pasta.

renault 5 retrofit review: electrifying an icon

So, press the clutch down, engage second, reengage clutch and then press throttle. Similarly gearchanges require no blending of right and left pedals, something you get used to very quickly. Unlike a modern single speed EV, you’ll need to stir the gearlever to make progress. Although you can leave it in third most of the time, hills require a deft shift down to second and acceleration is at its least sluggish if you row through the cogs, just like the petrol original.

However, a very early 782cc 36bhp original feels sprightlier despite struggling to hit 60mph itself. Even full acceleration from a standstill in the Retrofit is tardy, so don’t expect to beat many people away from the lights. Instead, you’re better to enjoy the smooth and quiet power delivery (the 782cc four’s valvetrain is unbelievably clattery) safe in the knowledge there’s no fussy carburettor or flaky wiring to dampen your spirits.

renault 5 retrofit review: electrifying an icon

Does it feel like the original apart from the engine?

It also means you can enjoy the car’s delightfully comfortable ride, the four-wheel independent suspension soaking up surface imperfections in a way that a modern luxury limo would be jealous of. The downside of this is some of the most pronounced bodyroll I’ve experienced in over 20 years driving. Grip is plentiful, but the diagonal view of the world during committed cornering will have you lifting off way before the tyres let go anyway.

You’re also very aware of the hefty battery sat high over the rear axle. Where the original has a reassuring balance, the 5 Retrofit feels a lot livelier with the tail moving oh-so-slightly while the nose is pinned to the Tarmac. To make matters even more interesting the steering doesn’t feel as accurate as an original’s, either. It’s unassisted and delivers a decent amount of feedback without being too heavy when parking, yet you find yourself working at the wheel at speed to keep it on your desired course.

A drive of an Alpine 5 based Retrofit confirms wider tyres and stiffer springs make it feel a lot more stable with greater precision to the steering, too. It’s still remarkably comfortable so it’s a real shame that there’s not more than 30bhp to play with. Both have brake pedals that are refreshingly easy to get on with, the regen force being similar to engine braking in an ICE car and pedal response predictable and reassuring.

renault 5 retrofit review: electrifying an icon

Renault 5 Retrofit: verdict

There’s an awful lot to love about the 5 Retrofit, but it’s somewhat hampered by regulations. The tiny power output almost certainly helps the range and also longevity of the original ‘box, yet you do feel somewhat exposed on the open road with such modest acceleration. Another 20bhp or so would cheer things up no end, although the idea of even more heavy batteries in the boot does not appeal at all.

However, as a quirky city car for those in no hurry the 5 is an utter joy as the smile found in every picture will attest to. The idea of those looks and driving experience with the kind of dependability owners of classics can only dream of is a very appealing one, especially knowing that you’re emitting no local emissions and giving a 5 an environmentally friendly second life.

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