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Alliance sales will test marriage of AMC and Renault

With a base price of $5,595, it's the most important car the company has yet introduced.

If the new American Motors-Renault Alliance doesn't make it - and make it reallym big - the alliance between the French government-owned automaker and hard-pressed AMC could face a strain.

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The 2- and 4-door, front-drive Alliance is the first all-new car to come out of the 42-month partnership between AMC and Renault. It is also the first totally new car in decades for AMC.

Adapted from the popular Renault 9, a hot seller in Europe, the Alliance is aptly named. Its job is to expand the Renault foothold in the US car market - something the French carmaker has been trying to do for more than 20 years without success - and to move AMC into the black.

Can the car do what is expected of it? Both AMC and the Renault management in the United States believe it can.

''It's the first small, 5-passenger sedan built in America with European standards of technology and design and at an affordable price,'' asserts Dale E. Dawkins, vice-president of the product group for AMC.

In a late-spring unveiling to automotive writers in the Napa Valley of California, the car was put through its paces and came up with a high score. It could, however, use more punch in the engine, especially in the higher gears.

The 4-cylinder, in-line engine displaces 1.4 liters and is rated at 68 horsepower. The base engine in Europe is even smaller - 1.1 liters.

Why not a turbocharger at some point?

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AMC alone has put a record $170 million into the project, including a major retooling of its production facilities in Kenosha, Wis.

The Alliance runs with a wheelbase of 97.2 inches and a height of 54.5 inches , weighs just under a ton, and has 4-wheel, independent suspension.

''The rear suspension,'' Dawkins says, ''is a coaxial-torsion-bar-sprung independent suspension representing one of the most package- and weight-efficient rear suspensions ever developed. There are no coil springs surrounding the shocks, which would increase the rear-wheel-house intrusion into the trunk.''

While the fundamental engineering was done in France for the Renault 9, introduced in France a year ago, at least 75 percent of the Alliance will be built from components produced in the US.

Looking at the competition, Dawkins reports: ''We didn't want just another econobox.''

As in all French-built cars, the seats rate a triple-A for comfort, but what French car doesn't? Nor are the safety bumpers offensive to the overall design and finish of the car. It is a significant improvement in interior decor over the Renault 18i. The trunk is large. Nor does the car contain those unfamiliar quirks - unfamiliar to Americans, that is - that the French too often design into their cars.

Feeling and road handling are good, without an abundance of body roll. Suspension travel is large so that even on extremely rutted roads the car will not ''hit bottom.''

The French like comfort in the cars they build - with a big ''C.'' Sound insulation in the body structure, both in the basic and up-styled models, is heavy, thus reducing noise penetration.

The shock absorbers were adjusted for US roads.

The Alliance goes on sale in September. However, it may not be sufficiently different in appearance to make it stand out significantly from the competition. AMC-Renault wants to sell at least 100,000 units a year - a tall order, perhaps, unless the car market improves perceptibly, interest rates drop, and the car grabs the public eye.

The new AMC/Renault car is aimed mainly at the imports, such as the Toyota Corolla, Mazda GLC, Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic, and VW Rabbit, although it is also sniffing out the Chevrolet Chevette, Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx, and the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon.

While it is only an inch longer than the Ford Escort, the wheelbase, at 97.2 inches, is three inches longer - longer than the Honda Civic and Accord, the VW Rabbit, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and even the Renault 9, the car from which the Alliance is derived.

Too, while slightly narrower than the Escort overall, the Alliance has more than 8 inches of added rear hip room and only an inch less hip room than the much large Chevrolet Citation X-car.

A 6-way manual front seat is available as an option.

On economy, the car, with a 5-speed manual transmission, checked out at about 40 miles per gallon on a segment of the San Francisco-Napa test route in the spring - highly competitive in the fuel derby.

To get attention in today's tough auto market, the Franco-American duo is counting on technological sophistication, high fuel economy, and quality.

Renault now is looking for a payback after funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into AMC over the past few years. It paid $300 million up front for a 46 .4 percent stake in AMC, plus $50 million in subordinated debentures, which, if turned into voting stock, would give Renault 56 to 57 percent of the US carmaker. Yet the French carmaker says it has no plans to take a majority stake in AMC at this time.

Did Renault get its money's worth? If the new car gets off to a fast pace and keeps it, the answer is probably yes. But if the car backfires in the slow lane, the French carmaker will have to decide what to do about it.

Both companies are counting heavily on the Alliance.

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