What Happened to Renault?

The French automaker's presence can still be felt around the world.


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You don’t have to go all the way to Europe to see a Renault. After a dramatic series of events in the 1980s, the French brand retreated from the U.S. market, but it remains a hidden presence here thanks to existing automaker alliances.

Renault Is Gone but Not Forgotten

Renault is a major brand in many other countries, but it last sold cars in the States more than three decades ago. It still sells cars in Mexico, which will explain why you might see one with Mexican plates in a border city or while on vacation.

The Early Days

The U.S. got its first taste of postwar Renault in the 1940s and ’50s with the 4CV and the Dauphine. These were more affordable than an equivalent postwar imported car such as the Volkswagen Beetle. There were, however, build-quality concerns. The Dauphine tended to rust, it was slow, and contemporary reviews characterized it as ponderous to drive. Those qualities were enough to tank Renault stateside, and the carmaker eventually stopped selling its vehicles here — for a while, that is.

In the early 1970s, the Renault 5 debuted in France with modern styling and a remarkably spacious interior. Executives eyed the U.S. market and rechristened it the quaint Le Car. They inked a deal with American Motor Cars to sell the cars in their dealerships. Under a complex AMC-Renault partnership, the French company also provided capital, parts, and expertise to AMC.

The deal produced some solid cars, including the boxy 1984 Jeep Cherokee. While it was designed by AMC, the groundbreaking Cherokee’s engineering chief, François Castaing, joined the company from Renault. The Cherokee could be had with a gas-saving Renault electronics system called Renix that helped it meet European standards involving weight and fuel efficiency, too.

Beyond that popular Jeep model, Renault and AMC had a complicated relationship. AMC built small Renault cars in Wisconsin, while the two firms collaborated on a bigger sedan sold under the short-lived Eagle Premier name.

Strapped for Cash

Investing in AMC, however, put Renault on financial thin ice. While AMC constructed a new plant in Canada, there were cuts and closures at Renault’s plants in France. Renault CEO Georges Besse was certain that Renault had a future in North America, citing the development of new engines and the Jeep brand’s success.

Unfortunately, Besse was assassinated on Nov. 17, 1986. With him out of the picture, interest in maintaining a presence in the U.S. faded. Renault sold its share of AMC to Chrysler for $1.5 billion in 1987.

The Days of Platform Sharing

These days, Renault maintains an indirect presence in the U.S. through its partnership with Nissan. The Renault-Nissan Alliance started in 1999 and added Mitsubishi in 2016.

Globally, the alliance shares platforms and parts. For example, the Nissan Rogue Sport uses the same platform as the 2015-2022 Renault Kadjar. Similarly, the last generation Nissan Rogue used the same platform as the Renault Koleos.

While the Renault brand doesn’t have a direct stake in the U.S. market, it does have research centers in California’s Silicon Valley through its alliance. The research focuses on autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, and infrastructure and collaborates with other Nissan-Renault research hubs around the world. Just because it doesn’t have a Renault badge doesn’t mean that the French automaker wasn’t involved in its development.

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Sami Haj-Assaad
Sami Haj-Assaad is an award-winning automotive journalist who has contributed to several automotive, electric vehicle, luxury lifestyle, and technology publications. His work isn't just limited to the written word, as he's also hosted YouTube videos and podcasts. Having grown up in the '90s, he has a strong sense of attachment to that era's style, though he also loves to geek out about the modern, futuristic tech and powertrains rolling out today.