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AMC/Renault scores again with Encore

Equipped with a 1.4-liter, fuel-injected, 4-cylinder engine, the new Renault Encore - or is it the American Motors Encore? - is a worthy encore to the ''big show'' put on by the year-old Alliance.

When the front-wheel-drive AMC/Renault Alliance was sprung on the American public a little more than a year ago, the company talked of selling 100,000 in the following 12 months. ''A tall order, perhaps,'' I wrote at the time, ''unless the car market improves perceptibly, interest rates drop, and the car grabs the public eye.''

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Apparently, it did in-deed catch the public eye. Car lookers became buyers, test reviews were positive, and the first car to come out of the AMC/Renault alliance was on its way. Not only did AMC hit its target for the Alliance, but surpassed it.

The Alliance was so successful, in fact, that it now has a running mate; not a successorm but an encorem.

Basically, the two cars are the same. The AMC/Renault Encore, a hatchback version of the Alliance, employs an aerodynamic rear liftgate with wraparound glass and a shape that hints of the modern European look, yet it starts at an affordable price of under $5,800. (But figure on paying $1,500 or more above that, depending on the options.)

It's almost like a visit to a discount store in this era when automobile prices of $10,000 and $15,000 are as common as black bicycles on the roads of auto-sparse Peking. (AMC, by the way, has a joint deal with the People's Republic of China to produce Jeeps there.)

Like the Alliance before it, road handling and control of the Encore get high marks - and so does fuel economy. On a 380-mile, round-trip day drive to Westchester County, N.Y., from Boston, a 5-speed manual-transmission Encore delivered well over 40 miles to a gallon of unleaded gas. Not bad! Performance lags on the hills, however, even though the car steps off smartly from a standstill. Remember, the fifth gear in the manual transmission is an overdrive.

To maintain forward thrust on an upgrade, especially if the car is carrying a load, simply downshift as the car's zip begins to flag. That's a small price to pay for the original low price, economy of operation, and satisfying performance for most drivers under normal conditions on the road.

Using the same platform as the Alliance, the Encore has a longer wheelbase than the Ford Escort, Honda Civic and Accord, VW Rabbit, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and even the Renault 9 from which the Alliance/Encore was derived. What it means is a better ride than you might expect.

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But where did the manufacturer get that horn? It sounds more like a bicycle horn.

All carmakers, AMC/Renault included, are hammering on quality these days. In the car I'm driving, however, there are some lapses, none of them severe. It appears that the company got a delivery of bad fan-control switches, because, when you push the blower control to ''high,'' the blower stops. Maybe a bad connection? Also, an installation from under the dashboard is hanging by the wires. But that's niggling. In total, the car is well designed and the craftsmanship high.

Standard transmission in the base car is a manual 4-speed, although an overdrive 5-speed comes with the upscale LS and GS, with a 3-speed automatic transaxle available as an option.

The pedestal-mounted front seats, first introduced on the Alliance a year ago , ensure plenty of legroom for the rear-seat passengers. Head and shoulder room is also sufficient for four passengers, if not five. The seat-mount system frees up a surprising volume of floor space. The split folding rear seat increases the cargo capacity.

All instruments are within easy reach of the driver.

To upgrade the car to its maximum, a leather seat-trim option is available, as are numerous power options, such as automatic door locks.

At a mite over 30 feet, the turning diameter of the car is tight. The front suspension uses a MacPherson strut and coil springs with an independent suspension in the rear. Steering is rack and pinion. The shock absorbers are pressurized by gas.

A survey by Popular Mechanix magazine this year reported that 90 percent of all American Motors Alliance owners are happy with their purchase and would buy another one the next time around.

That's good for the company's ego. Yet despite the buyer enthusiasm, AMC still isn't making any money.

At a time when General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are racking up big profits - GM alone made almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in the third quarter this year, Ford a third of a billion, and Chrysler $100 million - AMC had one more disappointing three-month period, reporting a loss on continuing operations of $99.4 million. Better days lie ahead, AMC assures.

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