Following on from DTW’s earlier impressions, we finally drive the Renault Twingo SCe70
The first thought on driving the Twingo is Why? Had I never read about the car, and had you sat me in it, I might have driven for hours before I finally twigged that something was, mechanically speaking, different from its competitors. The engine starts and a quiet burble appears in the cabin. It is unobtrusive, for a small car, and comes from no particular direction.
Of course, although it may be possible for someone to modify a Twingo to be a true R8 Gordini for the 21st Century, any idea that the showroom version would be such is fantasy. With a rear engine, you could set the car up to give you oversteer fun at roundabouts and, with reduced weight at the front and reasonably modest tyres, it’s even likely that you could do without power steering and recapture that lovely direct feel that few cars possess these days. But, despite recent odd decisions, Carlos Ghoshn and his team are not that foolish, strangeness does not sell and the usually uninspired engineers at Renault are, for once, to be congratulated in producing a car that is, on first acquaintance, indistinguishable from the front drive competition.
But it begs the question, why rear drive? The obvious answer is because this car is as much the basis of the successor to the Smart as the Mark 2 Twingo. The packaging of the short Smart ForTwo benefits more from the rear drive layout than its bigger ForFour and Twingo siblings and I’m certain that Smart would have considered no alternative. So has this layout compromised the Twingo to no advantage? Is it only there because Daimler AG was footing the development bill? And if the driving experience is so resolutely not different in any way, is there an upside?
It takes a while to find out. My car was in 70 bhp normally aspirated form. By all accounts the 90hp turbo engine is a bit thrashy when pushed, but this engine is pleasantly subdued, giving a cute little growl on acceleration that sounds willing but fools no-one. The gearchange is fine, the steering is dead but accurate, with a tight turning circle. The whole car feels more mature than either of its predecessors and the cabin is a nicer place to sit, with a good view ahead and great headroom. The seats are comfortable for me, and my back is generally intolerant of bad seats, but the all in one, unadjustable headrests could be irritating for shorter drivers, especially when reversing. So the apparently odd option of a reversing camera on a car so small might make sense for some. With passengers in the back, the boot will accommodate a decent supermarket shop and, with the rear seats folded, there is a high-ish floor but still decent enough room with the additional option of stowing stuff under the rear seats and of folding the front passenger seat for anything long, but reasonably narrow. All that is lacking from a Panda or Up is a bit of depth but, in fact, the vertical intrusion of the engine is very discreet. There is, however, no spare tyre or option for such, so make sure your roadside recovery is kept up to date. I’m tall and, although I quickly made myself comfortable, it was only after driving a way that I realised quite how uncompromised and spacious my position felt for such a small car. The illustration here compares lengths of Twingos 1, 2 and 3, plus a Fiat 500 for good measure. This shows quite how much cabin space is liberated by the rear engine. It also suggests that an evolution of Twingo 1’s monospace would have suited this layout well, but I think that would have been too coolly logical for today’s market.
The engine cover reveals itself when you lift the padded boot mat. Six twist fixings release it to lift it off and the compact, 1 litre 3 cylinder is revealed, open to elements and road dirt from below. This might seem a recipe for letting muck into the interior except, apart from oil, and it’s unlikely to be an oil burner, the battery and fluid reservoirs live at the front. So generally the engine is forgotten and the lid stays undisturbed. Up front, accessing the reservoirs is a bit ungainly. The front lid doesn’t hinge, it slides forward after you have removed two plugs in the grille and turned the key in a lock. It’s no big deal but imagining this process on a dark, rainy, windy night is another matter. But this disregard for such things is all really a tribute to the modern car’s reliability.
The lack of a transverse engine in the front allows the car its excellent turning circle but it’s only as you make progress on London streets that another possible advantage appears. I have two cars that treat sleeping policemen in different extremes. My Citroen approaches them with disdain, the faster you go the happier it is – not quite the intention. My Audi lurches on its shallow tyres and hard springs, moaning and throwing anything that isn’t strapped down into the air. I expected the Twingo’s behaviour to be nearer to the latter but, although no soft riding Citroen, it is remarkably civilised for such a short wheelbase. It occurs that the extra weight of the engine, possibly combined with the De Dion rear end, keeps the back wheels more firmly put.
So, after a while, a smidgen of difference, a thin veneer of character does make itself felt but it is so very discreet. Disappointingly so? Not really because I expected no more. In Mark 2 RS form at least, the Twingo was great fun to drive, you could chuck it around and everything felt nicely weighted. And your passengers, unless they were 18 year old lads and up for it, would probably have hated being driven in that way. The original Ka was a light little go-kart, its successor is stodgy in comparison but a nicer car to be driven in. The same applies for the Panda. The Mark 3 Twingo is also very grown up and, although Renault have plans for a sporty Twingo (but probably not called an RS, since they can’t get enough power from the engine), it’s unlikely to be as harsh as its predecessor. For most drivers wanting a city car that is pleasant to average the same 14.7 mph in as everyone else, whilst getting great fuel consumption and being easy to park, it is a fine thing. certainly preferable to many including the Ka or 500 or Panda, in my eyes, though I retain an affection for the latter’s more logical yet stylish body. Having back doors is nice, even if you’re only putting shopping on the rear seats and, although those doors lack the clunk that an UP’s probably have, so what?
Following on from my first impressions, My second encounter with the Twingo has done nothing to put me off the feeling that it it would be a decent device to buy. It has rather shamelessly cribbed some of the Fiat 500’s style, but really it is a better car. It’s what the Fiat could have been with a bit less cynicism. The lack of certain traditional features, such as spare wheel, bonnet hinges and easy engine access, emphasise how much the car in general has changed over the last 20 years. Soon it really will join the other consumer devices, designed for maximum style and convenience with no user serviceable parts inside. But am I really grown up enough yet to be ready for one?