The cars we loved.
The tale of the Matra Murena reads much like the classic Cinderella story. The evil conglomerate PSA, as the step mother, comprised the European auto companies Citroen, Peugeot and Chrysler of Europe (with partnerships with others like Renault and Volvo) squeezed the small would be princess Matra to the point of killing off their promising new sports coupe the Murena.
Matra had produced a popular small coupe called the Bagheera. The rear wheel drive three passenger coupe was simple and inexpensive. Sold mostly in warmer southern markets, the Bagheera’s poor build quality and rust prone body limited its appeal as a true export beyond the few warmer climate regions in Europe it was available in. Matra’s answer was a promising new coupe with the similar hatchback styling of the Bagheera, but with a higher build quality and more power. First shown at the Paris Auto Show in 1980, the Murena ended up stealing some of the thunder from Renaults new Fuego coupe.
The interest the Murena generated was short lived because it was so long before actual production began. Meanwhile the Fuego was in showrooms quickly and became a import sold at Chrysler dealerships in North America, as well as Renault’s dealer network in Europe. Billed as sleek and aerodynamic in its ads, the Fuego’s cd. of .034 was higher than the Murena, which was a low unheard of .032.
The new car featured a innovative body stamping process using a rigid steel space frame with twelve plastic outer panels comprising the body. The mid-engine layout was similar to the Bagdeera with its row of three seats up front with the middle seat folding down as a arm rest. A 92 hp 1.5 litre 4 cylinder engine was just behind the seats controlled by a four speed manual or three speed automatic transmission. Matra officials tried getting the more powerful “Douvrin” 2.2 litre engine destined for the Renault Fuego, but was denied access by Renault. Peugeot refused another request for a larger engine, so Matra was stuck with the underpowered Chrysler unit that made it to the cars introduction.
Once the Murena was finally available, it got mixed reviews, mostly due to its underpowered engine. Critics noted that the Bagdeera was a cheap car, while the Murena was expensive. Although it was capable of hanging with the 924 and Scirocco GTi in the corners, it lacked the straight line performance expected in its price range. Even in Europe, cars were being sold based on their 0 to 60 performance and the Murena was at a disadvantage. Never mind the improved quality, six year rust warranty or the top notch road manners, buyers in this segment wanted looks and speed (1 out of 2). A new breed of hot hatchbacks shook the sports car landscape by offering speed and practically at a considerably lower cost and began to erode the sales of the Murena.
In a response to the critic’s claims of it being underpowered, Matra proposed a version called the 4S. It was to be based on the standard 2.2 litre engine, but with a 16 valve head and revised exhaust. Now with 180 hp., it would have become a formidable sports car by any standard. The 4S models also featured a distinctive body kit with spoilers and ground effects, effectively modernizing the car and further distinguishing it from run of the mill Murenas. Unfortunately, the 4S treatment added significantly to the cost and was never approved by PSA. After other pleas for another engine were passed over, Matra did get final approval to offer a detuned S4 kit that was installed by Talbot dealers. The kit added a revised camshaft and modifications to the inlets of the twin carburetors (PSA would not approve fuel injection) for a total of 142 hp. Not as much as the original 4S concept, but enough to match the looks of the Murena and to keep up with most of the competition. A convertible was offered, but it was not enough to sustain sales.
Only about 10,000 Murenas were built before PSA pulled the plug. The Murena competed with other products in PSA’s portfolio that were too similar. Matra’s affiliation was PSA was ended, but now Renault assumed a partnering role. When production stopped in 1983, Renault used the old Murena factory to built its new Espace mini-van. So unlike the story of Cinderella, the tale of the Murena is a sad story of disappointment as it was never allowed to go to the ball or even find the shoes that fit its flashy bodywork.