Unusually, the Renault 21 was offered with disparate engine configurations. The 1.7 litre version featured an 'east-west' (transversely) mounted engine, but Renault had no gearbox suitable for a more powerful transverse engine: accordingly, faster versions featured longitudinally mounted (north south) engines. The two versions featured (barely perceptibly) different wheel bases: the engines were all relatively compact four cylinder units and the engine bay was large enough to accept either configuration without reducing passenger space. However, at a time when production technologies were relatively inflexible, the need to assemble differently configured engine bays on a single production line, along with the supplementary inventory requirements imposed both on Renault and on the dealership network, did compromise the Renault 21's profitability
In 1986, the R21 was launched. It had a razor-like design, which was different from contemporary cars of the era, e.g. the Ford Sierra (with its "jelly mould" design) and the Honda Accord (which had a straight-edge design).
The car was revamped considerably in 1989, both technically and aesthetically - the new sleeker outward appearance was similar to the also recently revamped Renault 25, and a liftback body style was also added to the range (which soon became more popular than the sedan in France) along with a sporty 2.0 L Turbo version. The turbo was also available with the four wheel drive Quadra transmission, and was capable of 227km/h.
The Renault 21 liftback and sedan petrol-fueled models ceased production in early 1994 on the launch of the all-new Laguna liftback, but the diesels and the Nevada (Savanna in the UK) remained on the market until their replacement Laguna variants were launched (late 1994 for the diesels and late 1995 for the Nevada (Savanna)).
The 21 also continued production in Argentina for some years after its European demise. The 21 was crafted in Argentina, at the Santa Isabel (Cordoba) Renault facility since late 1988 until early 1996.