Motor Trend owes me an apology—and 6000 bucks

In 1983, I bought Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year.” Nowhere are quotation marks more appropriate than in that title, because just 12 short months after the magazine honored the third-generation Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, and a year before the award went to the all-new Corvette, I bought an AMC-Renault Alliance.

Thanks a lot, Motor Trend.

In the magazine’s defense, back then I could have closed my eyes, thrown a rock and it would have hit an automotive writer who liked the car. And it’s true that no one put a gun to my head and made me buy one, although I assume some Alliance owners considered taking “the easy way out” at some point. But I blame Motor Trend for setting the trap. Before I realized what was happening, I found myself caught in a snare of hoopla, affordability, and my own ignorance.

I wasn’t a car guy; perhaps you’ve already guessed that. I was a full-time college student who was also working a lot, and I was sick and tired of nursing broken-down cars. So I did the math and figured that for the right price I’d be better off buying new.

My thinking got a little muddled after that.

Motor Trend got into my head, dang it. So did my father. I trusted both. My dad was my dad, and the magazine had been handing out the Golden Calipers trophy since 1949. So when I read that voting for the ’83 Alliance was unanimous, I was intrigued. Who wouldn’t be? This is the sentence that really got me: “A unanimous result is usually a sign of a completely engineered automobile.” Key word: Usually.

The magazine wasn’t alone in its praise. Road & Track called the new Alliance—which was the first product from the American Motors-Renault partnership—“an efficient sedan that lives up to its name.” AutoWeek labeled it “an automotive bargain.” And Car and Driver proclaimed, “If we were some other magazine, this would be our car of the year.” With all that positive press, I would have been a moron not to at least consider what appeared to be the greatest Franco-American product since SpaghettiOs. Right? Anybody?

So I ran the idea past my father, and we test-drove an Alliance. I enjoyed the drive, but considering that a ramshackle Chevette was my mode of transportation at the time, I probably would have appreciated the road manners of a 1941 John Deere. Plus, I was practically incapacitated by that new-car smell.

My dad gave the Alliance two thumbs up, too. Seriously, it seemed like EVERYBODY loved this thing. I’m certain there was a method to Dad’s madness, however. Since the car offered little output (64 horsepower from its 1397-cc inline-four engine) but provided great gas mileage (37–52 mpg), it was the best of both worlds for my father, who had some concerns about his lead-footed youngest son. Dad’s only caveat: Buy a four-door. “Trust me,” he said, “you’ll be glad you did.” And I was. At least he never said, “Someday you’ll thank me.” A lifetime of therapy would not have healed that wound.

Under the guise of practicality, I thumbed through the Alliance brochure about a dozen times, took a second test drive, and then kicked things around in my head for a day or two. And then it happened. I pulled the trigger on an Alliance L in Deep Night Blue, a car “for the buyer who knows real value when he sees it.” While I appreciated the back-slapping affirmation from AMC, my choice really had less to do with my good sense and everything to do with dollars and cents. I liked the car but couldn’t afford the DL or Limited versions. The L, on the other hand—with an MSRP of about $6000—provided a more manageable loan payment. Sadly, it also came with so much more.

My decision to save a few bucks and go with the L meant—surprise!—the front seats didn’t recline. And since reclining seats are a gateway drug to horizontal hijinks, I’m pretty sure my father knew this little detail before I bought the car. He said nothing. I think he did, however, have a smirk on his face when I signed the papers.

Also, while I expected the car’s lack of power to cause a certain amount of frustration, I didn’t expect to be passed by Yugos, Beetles, and the occasional jogger pushing a baby stroller. (OK, that’s a stretch. I was never passed by a Yugo.) But the gist is this: An uphill climb in a new automobile shouldn’t be a trip that requires packing a lunch.

From the start, mechanical problems were commonplace. For instance, the clutch cable on the Alliance seemed to be made of braided rubber bands. Twice I stepped on the pedal to shift gears and, with a loud snap, found myself stranded in the middle of busy intersections. Passersby offered choice words and sage advice on both occasions, but I don’t recall any of them shouting, “Hey, dude, sweet Alliance!”

And the car’s CV boots wore out faster than flip-flops. No wonder the Alliance got such great gas mileage. Testers must have included the number of miles you were forced to walk while the car sat in the shop.

I also discovered that the plastic center piece on the Alliance’s steering wheel was removable. Since things sometimes popped off the car whether they were supposed to or not, this was a feature I found by happenstance. However, I chose to consider it an “option,” since it provided an awesome hiding spot for cash — on those rare occasions that I had any.

Alas, you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. We have to live with our mistakes and move on as best we can, hoping that perhaps we have learned a valuable lesson or two along the way. Some choose to ignore the skeletons in their closet (no apologies from Motor Trend); others just come out and admit they blew it. Car and Driver did exactly that in 2009: “Here and now, in vivid HTML, Car and Driver formally apologizes for naming the Renault Alliance to the 1983 10 Best Cars list. For the past 26 years, it’s been gnawing at our collective gut like a shame-induced ulcer. The car was trash. We should have known that back then, and it’s taken us too long to confess our grievous mistake. Let this frank admission be the start of our penance.”

I also paid my debt to cardom and lived to tell the tale. Better still, I eventually sold the Alliance to my older brother, the fool. Pretty sure he gave me a hundred bucks for it, but it definitely cost him more in headaches and irritation. That’s what he gets for picking on me when we were kids.

(Editor’s note: In March 2022, Motor Trend defended its choice of the Alliance as its “Car of the Year.” Sort of.)

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