Have you had those experiences in restaurants where the menu sounds like a cavalcade of Heston-cooked gastronomy, but when tasted is more Heston Services greasy spoon?
Well, a few miles into driving the new Twingo I was starting to think that Renault’s chefs had been on the sauce. After all, it’s a little city car with a short wheelbase, rear-wheel drive and a rear engine. As a recipe, it should be a Porsche 911 for the urban bob and weave. And yet…
What you have to get your head around of course is that Renault (and Mercedes for the Smart sister car, which was developed side-by-side, although Renault is coy about who exactly did what) didn’t choose rear/rear for oversteery fun, but for the more efficient use of space in a compact five-door car. Renault first mulled over this packaging concept in 2008, but couldn’t make it stack up financially, until Germanic economies of scale made development possible.
So the new Twingo’s not a sports car then. Quelle surprise…
Thing is, we started with the high-power, three-cylinder turbocharged, variable-ratio steering-racked TCe 90. Its steering ratio varies between lethargic and slothful and the three cylinders show as much inclination to punch as a pacifist in a bar brawl: the engine has been canted over at 49 degrees to fit, and has had half its components revised from the excellent motor in the Clio, in the process losing a lot of its character.
There’s not even any of that three-cylinder burr, just drivetrain whine and distant white noise.
The ride is on the firm side, but its body control from front to rear is well controlled and it tends to handle awkward surfaces as one solid entity rather than crashing through it, although there is quite a lot of wind noise at motorway speeds. The other controls – clutch, throttle, gearshift – just feel gloopy. A zingy little machine for pinching gaps and launching out of T-junctions, it is not.
So, if the more expensive, more powerful one doesn’t quite deliver, then I didn’t hold much hope for the dessert, the entry-level SCe 70. I was wrong. Barely much slower, the naturally aspirated engine revs more sharply, the steering makes do with one ratio which feels quicker, and a more precise gearchange and easier-to-place clutch pedal combine to make it a cracking little thing, an impish buzzbox that brings a smile to your face.
Because of the lack of engine, the front wheels have been given licence to turn further, to as much as 45 degrees against the usual 30 for cars such as this, and the low speed turning circle is comically small. If you think you’ve already seen some crazy French driving in Paris, you haven’t seen anything until the Twingo arrives. Whirling the steering wheel round to make the Twingo chase its own tail like a demented puppy is tremendous fun. But to stop city-dwellers spinning into bus queues of old ladies, the stability-control system cuts in early and brutally if you try to push things too hard.
And doesn’t it look cute?
It’s a poppety looking thing. Proportionately it is fabulous, as the lack of frontal mechanics allows for a cute, stubby nose, wheels pushed to the very extremities and a tightly arcing roofline. I adore the nod to the Renault 5 Turbo in its sharp rear hips, and love the range of retro ’80s sticker options that nod to Group B rally cars and turbo’d F1 racers, all done without becoming too much of a Fiat 500-style exercise in self-indulgent pastiche.
Although the car is 10cm shorter than the previous one, the wheelbase is stretched by a significant 12cm and the cabin is in fact 22cm longer without all that oily stuff up front, and so there’s plenty of room inside, especially so for a car of this size. The cabin is beautifully judged, with cunning little touches and plenty of dash, while still feeling cheap. I use this term in the positive context because the Twingo has always been at its best as proletarian transport. The cloth glovebox bag, the hard yet sturdy door cards, and grippy plastic wheel show materials used cleverly and well in a car built to a price.
The first Twingo, launched just over 20 years ago, let amorous young Frenchies turn the seats into a bed, and while the new car might not be quite as dogging friendly, the rear seats can tumble flat or sit up more vertically to free up boot space. Again, there’s a very simple, very French solution: a piece of L-shaped metal with two hooks hinge and latch into two catches on the seat backs depending on where you want them to sit. Perfectly functional, almost agricultural, there’s no way the Germans did this bit. Also a nod to French utilitarianism, the rear windows are hinged rather than dropping into the doors. I’d have let the Germans do this bit.
What kind of kit do you get with the 2014 Renault Twingo?
At the swankier end, more expensive models get Renault’s R-Link touchscreen system, but actually you’re better off (unless you have a wonky old Blackberry like me) with the cheaper R&Go system, which holds an iPhone or Samsung thing and displays trip computer, music and sat-nav on it via apps. It’s the only way to display a rev counter too, not that the TCe ever feels like is might need it, such is its recalcitrance to threaten the redline.
There are plenty of storage areas, such as the cave under the rear seats which might prove the ideal spot for kids to leave rotting food, a kind of thick sling with Velcro on the end to divide objects in the boot, and a lunchbox in front of the gear lever that tends to pop out going round corners. For £14.50 you can option a rear parcel shelf too, which seems a bit tight not to be included in the first place, and it covers 188 litres of boot space. Even though the engine is lying in a box under a thick blanket in there, that’s only eight litres less than a Citroën C1.
This entry-level model then is everything a city car, and especially a Twingo, should be. Cheap, extremely cheerful, fun to drive and superbly packaged. A mouth-watering Michelin-starred recipe.