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Renault taps into F1 renown with sports car deal

By Laurence Frost

PARIS (Reuters) - Renault, hoping to harness its Formula One prowess to boost the flagging core brand, unveiled plans to develop a high-performance car in a deal with British specialist sports car maker Caterham.

The French automaker, which has flopped with recent attempts at larger or sportier models like the Laguna car, Vel Satis limousine and Wind roadster, also plans to revive its defunct Alpine brand for the new model, to go on sale by 2016.

The road-legal Alpine and an equivalent Caterham model will put racecar engineering within reach of more customers than rival Formula One-derived road offerings, Caterham Chairman Tony Fernandes and Renault Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said at a joint news conference.

"If you look at Formula One, there's only Ferrari and McLaren, which are extremely expensive," Fernandes said. "We'll produce a car that many more people can afford with F1 technology."

Renault sold its Formula One team in 2009-10 but continues to supply engines to Caterham Formula One, as well as the Williams, Lotus and Red Bull teams.

The companies declined to give details of pricing, sales targets or their financial transaction - which sees Caterham acquire a 50 percent stake in Automobiles Alpine Renault, a subsidiary of the French automaker.

"We're talking about several thousand vehicles a year," Ghosn said.

According to a French media report, the cars will be priced from 35,000-40,000 euros ($44,700-$51,100), a far cry from McLaren's £800,000 ($1.3 million) P1 supercar or the entry-level Ferrari California at 185,000 euros.

Existing Caterham models are priced between £14,500 and £45,000.

Alpine, a legendary marque among older French racing fans, was founded in the 1950s by French garage mechanic Jean Redele, whose souped-up Renault 4CV cars scored a number of racing victories.

Their success continued throughout the next two decades with the addition of the more powerful A110, and Renault acquired the brand before eventually killing it off in 1994 amid dwindling sales.

"Sometimes people hold really warm feelings towards brands even if they haven't been around for a while," said Manfred Abraham, head of strategy at branding consultancy Interbrand.

While potential sales volumes are often limited, performance offerings can have a "halo effect" on mainstream models, Abraham said, citing a shift up-market by Volkswagen's Audi brand helped by its TT and R8 models.

The last decade has seen several mass carmakers dust off discontinued names to roll out retro-styled compact cars commanding higher prices.

Fiat introduced a modern version of its iconic 500 in 2007, six years after BMW revived Mini. PSA Peugeot Citroen followed suit in 2009 with a range of upscale cars named after the Citroen DS, first sold in 1955.

Ghosn's No.2 executive, Carlos Tavares, had indicated earlier this year that Renault was planning an Alpine sports car along with pricier mainstream vehicles under a new sub-brand, Initial Paris.

The Alpine and Caterham models will be built at Renault's plant in Dieppe, northwestern France, which employs around 300 workers assembling zippier Renault Sport versions of the company's production models.

(Editing by David Cowell)

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