Understeer, the experts will tell you, is the tendency for a car’s front wheels to slip outwards under increasing cornering loads.
The 'slip angle' of the front tyres increases as you go faster and faster, until the tyre breaks away entirely unless it’s tamed by an ESP system.
It’s a common condition, widely demonstrable in today’s front-drive cars, whose front wheels are well laden, even in a static condition, by the mass of an engine above.
Increase that load with energetic cornering and you fairly readily reach a point where the tyre won’t go precisely where it’s pointed. Let’s call this laden understeer.
But there's also a wholly rarer form of understeer, so hard to find today that I confess I’d all but forgotten about its existence until the new Renault Twingo came along. It’s unladen understeer – a common condition once upon a time in old-timers such as the rear-engined VW Beetle, Renault R8 and R10 (which would often abruptly change to oversteer and send you backwards through the hedge) and mid-engined models such as the Lancia Montecarlo and Fiat X1/9.
Last time it came to notice, I think, was in early examples of the Smart Roadster and the Lotus Elise.
This condition doesn’t result from the front tyres being overloaded by mass, but from the very reverse of this. The hoops are so lightly laden (car makers used to find it hard to specify tyres small enough in section) that they can find it hard to accept abrupt inputs of lock and steer the car as expected. You simply learn to steer a little more smoothly as a result.
In the case of the Renault Twingo, the condition is a mild curiosity, rather than a problem. The car is endemically very stable, and in any case it has a well honed chassis stability system that recognises the driver’s intentions and uses individually braked wheels to deliver them so exactly that for many, the location of the engine mass won’t even be apparent.
The Twingo’s behaviour at the limit is nothing like that of its treacherous ancestors and (as our recent road test made clear), if anything, the chassis stability system is a shade too timid and intrusive.
If you care about such things, you’ll also notice the unusual weight distribution in the ride quality. We’re all used to cars with a lot of nose weight that sometimes seem to lack front suspension travel, but the Twingo is different: bouncier but broadly equal in travel front and rear.
Mostly it feels like a 50/50 car, but occasionally the rearward bias becomes apparent – again, a curiosity and not a problem. And it may become an important positive in a month or two, when the traction of our driven wheels in ice and snow is at a premium.
Whatever, for those of us who care about such things, it’s nice to have a rear-engined four-seat car back in the showrooms. It does have a special way of going which I, for one, find engaging and different. So welcome back, Twingo. You’re a breath of fresh air.