6

Will Renault storm the market with its unconventional rear-engined city car, or do more mainstream alternatives do a better job?

More than 20 years ago, long before the city car class blossomed to accommodate the diverse range of models you’ll find in it today, a 3.4m, three-door, left-hand-drive-only Renault proved that small could once again sell in big numbers.

Offered with only one engine and in one trim level, the 1992 Twingo was a bold, characterful and utterly distinctive urban runabout of simplicity, compactness, value and abundant flair. It was more desirable than a Fiat Panda and more modern than a Mini and it beat the Ford Ka to market by several years.

The Twingo faces stiff competition from the VW Up, Fiat Panda and Hyundai i10

It was a hard act to follow. Launched in 2007, the second-generation Twingo should have built on its predecessor’s success but it never hit the sales heights of the Mk1.

Renault started work on a better-packaged, more original replacement in 2008. A rear-engined platform was the only way to take the car forwards, as Renault saw it, but prohibitively expensive.

Then along came Daimler, which needed something similar for its Smart brand, and a future for the Twingo was secured.

Time to find out exactly what that future looks, sounds and drives like.

What car new buying red 268

Advertisement

DESIGN & STYLING

Renault Twingo headlight

The original Twingo’s origins are a matter of debate. The car bears a striking resemblance to a prototype built by Polish manufacturer FSM for a project with which Renault was also involved.

The car was called the Beskid and the story goes that FSM never extended its patent. The Renault Twingo emerged on the market shortly after it expired.

The rear-engined layout was meant to make pedestrian protection better but has had mixed success

Renault's Mk3 Twingo was signed off in 2010, when the company’s tie-up with Daimler was inked. It was first previewed by the Twin’Run and Twin’Z concepts.

The biggest gain for the Twingo earned from its move to a rear-mounted engine, we’re told, is packaging – and good packaging is critical at this end of the market.

At just under 3.6m long, the new car is almost 100mm shorter than its predecessor, 90mm shorter than a Fiat Panda and 70mm shorter than a Hyundai i10. But it’s not the shortest car of its kind.

All three of the Volkswagen Group’s Slovakian-built sister models and the Citroën-Peugeot-Toyota triplets – five-door five-seaters all – require 100mm less space at the kerb. On the spec sheet, the Volkswagen Up also trumps the Renault on boot space, as does the i10. So there’s reason to be a touch suspicious about Renault’s claims that this car is packaging marvel.

The rear-mounted motor does bring other benefits. The entry-level 999cc naturally aspirated three-cylinder SCe petrol engine is mounted transversely, inclined by 49deg and reconfigured for compactness. It produces 69bhp and 67lb ft and drives the rear wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. This version, called the SCe 70, is also available with a stop/start system – a variant dubbed the SCe 70 Stop & Start.

Those are competitive but unexceptional outputs, but more puff can be had from a range-topping turbocharged 898cc model called the Energy TCe 90 Stop & Start. It produces a more respectable 89bhp and 100lb ft. While the recent addition to the engine range is exclusively used to power the Twingo GT which produces 108bhp and 125lb ft of peak twist from the same engine block.

With no engine to encumber them, the Twingo’s front wheels can turn through 45deg of steering lock in either direction – about 50 percent more than most front-engined cars’. The turning circle is just 8.6m; again, beatable, but solely in a Toyota iQ.

The Twingo is constructed of high-strength steel but has a ‘soft’ frontal section featuring bonnet, bumper and front wings made of Noryl memory plastic, which is light, good on pedestrian protection and pops back into shape after a minor ding. Suspension is via independent struts at the front and a de Dion torsion beam at the rear.

Committing to a rear-engined construction can’t have been an easy thing for safety-conscious Renault. As Daimler discovered with Smart more than a decade ago, front-engined cars tend to perform better in frontal crash tests because the weight of their engines doesn’t add to the deformation of the passenger compartment. In a like-for-like frontal crash, the average rear-engined car has 150kg of engine and transmission trying to force its way through the cabin.

Renault’s answer to this for the Twingo was to engineer crash pathways that force the engine down under the cabin floor in the event of a serious collision. Elsewhere, the car’s bodyshell is designed for particular strength in the transmission tunnel, sills and doors in order to preserve the integrity of the cockpit.

The car missed a five-star crash rating by Euro NCAP, scoring only 78 percent for adult occupant protection and 68 percent for pedestrian protection, despite its extensive ‘soft’ nose and under-bumper padding.

 

INTERIOR

Renault Twingo dashboard

Trim levels consist of entry-level Expression, mid-spec Play, Dynamique and flagship Dynamique S, while the GT model gets its own trim alongside its exclusive engine

Opt for an Expression trimmed Twingo and you'll find 15in steel wheels, LED day-running-lights and hill start assist on the outside as standard, while inside there is Bluetooth, USB connectivity, a smartphone cradle and front electric windows.

The Renault would benefit from more headroom in the back

Upgrade to Play and luxuries such as air conditioning and a height adjustable driver's seat is added to the package, while the Dynamique models gain cruise control, front foglights, 15in alloy wheels, and electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors.

Topping the standard Twingo range is the Dynamique S trim which adorns the Twingo with 16in alloys, a sporty-looking bodykit, a part leather upholstery and orange interior details, while the RenaultSport tweaked GT model includes, 17in alloys, a beefier bodykit inclusive of a rear diffuser, twin chrome exhaust system, and sports-tuned chassis and suspension as standard. Inside there is automatic lights and wipers, climate control and tinted rear windows thrown in.

But Renault aren't finished there, as they have offered six personality packs for owners to choose from to help them showcase a bit of their character through their Twingo

The Twingo’s cabin has plenty of colour and visual interest, as well as some novel storage solutions, but there’s a bit of sleight of hand going on in here: eye-catching features intended to cover up for a cabin that isn’t as practical as it should be.

The driving position is sound, but you don’t get the reach adjustment on entry-level models, and neither do you get ISOFIX child seat anchorages for the front seat as standard, which could be an issue for parents with child seats that are too bulky for the back. Adding ISOFIX points to the front requires that you opt for the 'Seats pack', which also adds front seat heating.

There’s decent room for your extremities up front but headroom in the back is poor. Most adults will struggle with only 860mm of it. An Volkswagen Up gives you 920mm and most family-sized cars at least 950mm.

Up front, we like the pragmatic universal mounting clip for a smartphone, which fits neatly into the centre of the audio control console. Less impressive is the gimmicky storage box, which doesn’t fit so neatly into its dock ahead of the gearlever and sticks out sufficiently proud of the fascia to foul your left leg. There’s a pair of cupholders underneath it, but they’re small and shallow.

The seats are comfortable and the front passenger’s seatback folds flat to allow through-loading. But the boot is only averagely large for the class. Our biggest disappointment, though, is not to see more imagination in the layout of the instruments and secondary controls.

The original Twingo had centrally cited dials, vibrant upholstery and handy storage cubbies crammed into every corner but it was also a car introduced before the widespread adoption of airbags. But despite having two extra doors and a sunroof, this Twingo still isn’t flattered by the comparison.

In a fairly obvious bit of marketing, Renault has identified that this car will be bought by the smartphone generation so it has provided a handy universal mount to hold said hardware. It fits neatly into the fascia, has its own USB connection and power supply and it’s standard equipment. Genius.

Download Renault’s free R&GO app to your phone and you’ll also instantly endow your Twingo with navigation, extended communication, multimedia and trip computer functions. The nav is provided by CoPilot and the mapping is downloaded with the app, so using it doesn’t eat into your data allowance.

Renault’s R-Link touchscreen multimedia set-up is optional on Dynamique spec cars. it has a 7in screen, voice control and surround-sound audio by Arkamys. It’s part of a Techo Pack, together with a reversing camera. We can’t imagine that many will go for it, though.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Renault Twingo rear quarter

Neither the quality nor the quantity of what the naturally aspirated Twingo offers in this department impresses.

It’s not a painfully slow car, but it’s sufficiently pedestrian to be hard work to drive at times, and it’s less flexible and less refined than its competition.

The 89bhp TCe version has a much more likeable power delivery

Were it the job of an Autocar road test to make excuses for a car that doesn’t quite cut the mustard, we might explain the Twingo’s failure with overly long gearing or tightness in the engine.

But, frankly, so what? Most of the comparable cars that have braved our timing gear in the past five years have done so with little more than 1000 miles on the odometer, and every one – from Chevrolet Spark to Toyota Aygo via Hyundai i10, Kia Picanto, Ford Ka, Vauxhall Adam and Volkswagen Up – needed less than 15sec to hit 60mph from rest. The Twingo took 17.6sec.

It’s a shortfall that you inevitably perceive on the road. Seldom are you afforded the opportunity to accelerate from low speeds in this car using less than about 90 percent throttle, out of duty to avoid holding up traffic behind.

Overtaking is possible out of town, but you need lots of room and, ideally, a descending gradient. On the motorway, the car’s cruise control often fails to conjure enough power to maintain 70mph up a long climb in top gear. Such concerns may be unlikely to bother city dwellers, but a torquier delivery would certainly give the car more authority in the cut and thrust of urban traffic and make it feel less exposed the rest of the time.

Whether you’re in town or out of it, the engine’s relatively rough manners at low crank speeds, where it grumbles and thumps a bit before settling down to work, don’t speak of attentive engineering.

The turbocharged version, however, makes up for some of the naturally aspirated unit's shortcomings. Renault quote a much more spritely time of 10.8sec for the 0-62mph sprint, while the additional torque results in a car which feels much brisker – particularly during in-gear acceleration.

Renault's turbocharged Twingo is also quiet. Its clutch action is less progressive than the other cars though, which can make it more difficult to drive in urban environments. The Twingo GT is also hushed, but is capable of reaching 62mph in a more palatable 9.6sec and on to a top speed of 113mph.

RIDE & HANDLING

Renault Twingo side profile

The Renault Twingo does an entirely reasonable, broadly uncompromised job of covering the dynamic basics and satisfies its primary purpose as a manoeuvrable, manageable city car adequately.

However, it doesn’t go very far above and beyond that remit to conjure the qualities of bigger hatchbacks like the better city cars can. It doesn’t ride or handle well.

The car's front end won't be hurried, and the stability control only stays out of the way if you're super-smooth

And, tellingly, you could drive it 150 miles without realising which axle was driven. Which is exactly how Renault wants it. You can be reassured by the handling of this car, but not really engaged or entertained by it.

The opportunity to produce a feelsome steering system, thanks to plenty of mechanical advantage and low weight on the front end, has largely been missed. There are almost four full turns between locks on the Twingo’s tiller; skinny five-inch-wide rims on the front axle too, as standard. But although you get fleeting snatches of contact patch feedback, there’s not quite enough of it to be worth noting.

Moreover, the hoped-for cornering balance of an even vaguely sporting rear-driven machine has been painstakingly engineered out, lest you happen to be a giddy 19-year-old who’d freeze at the very idea of it. The chassis develops only limited lateral grip at the front wheels, and the ESP intervenes very early before understeer is given the chance to morph into knee-jerk throttle-off oversteer.

The adhesive limit of the Twingo’s handling is easy to approach and defined absolutely by its front wheels. Early-onset understeer, managed by a sensitive ESP system, has been deemed a small price to pay to stop almost any chance of lift-off oversteer. Many would claim that’s an appropriate compromise for such a car. To us, though, a balanced, progressive and controllable chassis is always the safest and best option.

The car’s propensity to plough on isn’t so serious that it’ll present at town speeds, but you could certainly encounter it on a wet country road at plenty less than 60mph. The steering just about communicates the point of breakaway, and the ESP chimes in subtly, allowing you to keep your foot in as if nothing was happening.

You have to be very committed and aggressive to elicit even a hint of oversteer from the car. We managed it once during several kinds of limit handling test — and the electronics managed the situation almost instantly.

Driving the car remotely keenly gives you the impression that Renault has deliberately taken grip away from the front end, so that the stability control will keep cornering speeds down almost routinely – like a proxy for a tutting driving instructor. Turbo versions benefit from a steering rack which is half a turn quicker than the naturally aspirated models, though, resulting in a slightly more keen feel.

Being rear-engined, the Twingo is inevitably more prone to directional disturbance than something with its mass centred further forwards, so over bumps, camber changes and through crosswinds, it’s not as stable and directionally faithful as it might be.

The car rides quietly but not with the low-speed absorbency of an Volkswagen Up. At higher speeds and over more troubling surfaces, the necessary firmness of the rear suspension manifests in a tendency towards head toss and a noticeable fidgeting in the body control.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Renault Twingo

There are plenty of good micro cars with prices that start with an eight; a few, even, with a seven. The Twingo starts at £9545.

Knowing that most city cars are bought on finance, Renault will probably offset some of that price penalty against lower interest rates, and will rightly be able to factor the car’s four-year, 100,000-mile warranty, four years’ breakdown cover and four years’ free servicing into the monthly payment mix.

Expect the Twingo to retain around 40 per cent of its value after three years, which is no bad result

Still, on the face of it, the car’s not cheap. Neither is it overly frugal, despite Renault’s claims. On our touring economy test, the naturally aspirated Twingo returned 51.7mpg. Under the same circumstances, the more powerful Volkswagen Up nudged 60mpg, and the current Toyota Aygo bettered it.

Residual values aren’t expected to be stellar, although they are competitive. And insurance costs should be competitive, too, with only a handful of cars in the class qualifying lower than the group two rating of the entry-level car.

We'd recommend opting fro a Dynamique TCe if you can. It'll be more economical in the real world and just as cheap to tax, but a bit more to insure. It comes well equipped but give yourself a personalisation budget to play with.

What car new buying red 268

VERDICT

3 star Renault Twingo

The new Renault Twingo is an attractive addition to the city car ranks chiefly because it’s handsome and unusual.

The car is fresh and appealing to look at and comes across as likeable and charming – and among younger buyers, that may be more than half the battle. But the car is likeable mostly in spite of its handling, performance and practicality.

The Volkswagen Up is the quality option. The Panda is more fun, though, but the VW still just has the edge

Truth is the Twingo’s rear-engined configuration brings more apparent compromises than gains – as the sanitised handling, disappointing refinement and flawed cabin packaging attest.

Add given the car’s sluggish performance, mediocre real-world economy and unexceptional value for money and you’re left with a lot to overlook for the sake of some amiable visual character and a tight turning circle.

Too much, clearly, for us to be able to declare the new Twingo much more than a competent new city car.

What car new buying red 268

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Renault Twingo 2014-2019 First drives