A small car from Renault... you mean smaller than the Clio and Modus?
Yes, that'll be the Twingo. Don't let the chunky looks fool you – this is very definitely pitched below the Clio in size and price, with a kick-off price tag below £8500. It'll only ever be a three-door model, and Renault is aiming it squarely at young, style-conscious buyers more concerned about image and car park kudos than space and outright pace. We're not sure if it's ticked all the right boxes for this market. Compared to the radical packaging, striking design and engaging character of 1992's original, Europe-only Twingo, this second generation isn't quite the design statement it could or should be. Nor are things helped by Renault's perplexing product strategy, which denies UK buyers the most desirable model.
Which version is that then?
The dCi turbodiesel, which Renault isn't giving us because it's trying to pitch the Twingo as a funky little sports hatch. So we are lumbered with the a petrol-only line-up – a 1.2 in Dynamique trim with 75bhp at £8375 and a 100bhp turbocharged GT, that costs a fiver under £10k. There's nothing wrong with the petrol engines – it's the palpable difference in ride quality between the diesel and petrol models that's the problem. Both share the same MacPherson strut and trailing arm suspension set-up, but in keeping with its sporty pretensions, the petrol model gets a rock-hard ride, while the diesel's is wonderfully compliant. The top-dog GT crashes over bumps and potholes, and feels brittle at low speed – very uncivilised and completely unexpected given Renault's ability to deliver a smooth and perfectly damped ride with exceptional body control. What was Renault thinking?
So should I take my funky young self off to a Renault dealer and buy a Twingo then?
We certainly won't be rushing out the door – yet. The original Twingo lasted 14 years in production and 2.4 million people bought one – for good reason. It was cheap, its monoblock profile was eye-catching (or weird, depending on your outlook) and its huge interior made it a highly utilitarian hatch. It also rode exceptionally well. Small, inexpensive cars didn't get much better. This new generation follows a sadly too familiar formula. It basically takes those original qualities, dilutes them, then makes the whole package a bit bigger, heavier and duller. That doesn't necessarily make the Twingo II a bad car, just a disappointing one. Which is not good when you're chasing funky money.
Go on, pretend you're a Renault salesman. Sell it to me...
Who am I, Swiss Toni? Okay then, the head and legroom in the front and rear are good for a car in this class, and a marked improvement on the last Twingo. Not difficult when the whole car is beigger. There's plenty of space for oddments too, if you're prone to using your runabout as a mobile, er, oddments carrier. But where the Twingo II really excels is, thankfully, from the driver's seat. Ignore the punishing ride and Renault's grown-up baby offers an emphatically sure-footed feel and lots of grip. It's tidy, engaging and gets a glint in its eye on a decent road.
That's a relief, but am I going to enjoy the cabin when I'm stuck in traffic?
More than likely. Clever details include the optional Mini-style tachometer attached to the steering column (which is adjustable for height only), iPod connectivity (which houses your player in the glovebox and gives you control through the multi-function steering wheel), and sliding rear seats for more legroom or luggage space. The brighter colour schemes suit the character of the car, as do the zesty upholstery options. Renault claims the cabin features top-class materials and build quality, but although there's no painted metal anywhere inside and the cabin feels solid and robust, most of the surfaces are rock-hard grained plastic.
That sounds alright, but how does it compare to all the other tiny cars out there?
Quite favourably, really. The Twingo II's rivals are the usual suspects from France, Italy, Japan and Korea, but its biggest headache will come from within. The Clio Campus – a last-generation Clio with a slightly revised front bumper and tailgate – continues to be made at the same Slovenian factory as the Twingo because it sells so well. And, at £7995, the five-door Clio actually undercuts the 1.2 Twingo by a few hundred notes. But it's common as muck and getting on a bit now, facts that a facelift can't hide. The 1.2 Twingo will also out-perform the Clio, with a respectable 12-second sprint to 62mph and a wallet-friendly 49.5mpg on the combined cycle.
In spite of our visual reservations, the Twingo is far from ugly and the cabin architecture is engagingly bold. It's also well equipped, Renault is promising significantly enhanced build quality and reliablity, and it should fall within many budget buyers' budgets. What it isn't is loaded with the kind of character that made its predecessor such a success. And the stiff and choppy ride quality is a real drawback – a pity when the rest of the car is such an enjoyable steer. It's a crying shame that Renault hasn't seen fit to bring the diesel to the UK. Its frugal but punchy engine and well-judged ride quality would, in our opinion, make it the pick of the range. If looks really matter, and you know a good psysiotherapist, go for the GT, which gives you smarter wheels, a nice bodykit (with the option of some dodgy decals, should you feel the need) and a bit more oomph. Get the 1.2 if you want some happy, cheap new transport. Or even better, get a diesel-powered Fiat Panda.