The new Renault Twingo is something of a maverick in the city car class.
Rather than the simple front-wheel-drive, front-engined layout favoured by rivals such as the Hyundai i10 and Volkswagen Up, its three-cylinder engine sits beneath the boot floor and drives the rear wheels.
This, Renault claims, brings various benefits including more space for passengers, an incredibly versatile cabin and also allows for a tiny 8.6-metre turning circle to help make light work of u-turns and tight car parks.
That three-cylinder engine comes in two different sizes: either a non-turbo 1.0, or a turbocharged 0.9 as the range-topper – although the turbo is available only in the most expensive, Dynamique, trim.
A five-speed manual gearbox is the only option currently, but a six-speed dual-clutch auto will join the range in September 2015. There are plenty more tricks to the five-door only Twingo, including a phone dock that – courtesy of a free 'R & Go' app – allows you to use your Android or Apple smartphone as a nav, media interface, and even a rev-counter, by linking through the car’s standard Bluetooth connection.
What’s the 2014 Renault Twingo like to drive?
Fun? Not really. Fit for purpose? Definitely. Of the two engines we tested, the cheaper 1.0 SCe 70 is definitely the one to go for. It’s not exactly what most people would call nippy, even compared with its city car rivals, but builds speed steadily, and revs more smoothly than the turbo 0.9 TCe, which it shares with the larger Clio.
So while the entry-level car needs to be worked a little harder if you want to nip into fast-moving traffic, it still feels peppy enough around town, and it’s easier to drive.
It even hustles along well enough at steady motorway speeds, once it reaches them.
However, vague clutch- and brake-pedal feel can be an irritation regardless of engine, which makes either Twingo difficult to drive smoothly in town. Push the middle pedal and there's a lot of dead travel before the brakes finally start to bite – making it hard to stop progressively in stop/start traffic.
Handling is better on the 1.0 70 SCe. The higher-powered 0.9 TCe gets variable-ratio steering, so it responds more quickly as you apply lock, but in practice this just makes it feel inconsistent, where the base car’s slower steering is less disconcerting.
Both steering set-ups are usefully light, but with almost no weight through the rim (even in tight corners) it falls well short of the sense of confidence and connection to the road that you get in the VW Up – or even the Hyundai i10.
Body lean is kept to a minimum through corners, and there’s plenty of grip, particularly riding on the optional 16-inch alloys of our test car. The Twingo is easy to drive, but rarely much fun, which is a shame given the chic retro styling.
It does at least feel settled at higher speeds, but those large wheels also thump heavily over sharp-edged potholes, and very scruffy surfaces can send shudders through the cabin through the steering wheel. Larger obstacles such as speed bumps and undulations in the road are dealt with better though, with little disturbance felt by those inside.
Refinement is hit-and-miss, too. While engine noise is fine – especially in the 1.0-litre base model – the thrummy engines make a fair racket if you rev them hard. On the motorway you’ll also notice a lot of wind noise over the windscreen and front pillars.
What’s the new 2014 Renault Twingo like inside?
The good news is that the engine layout has really paid off in terms of interior space.
While it is a little narrow inside compared to rivals such as, say, a Hyundai i10, there’s plenty of head- and legroom in the front and back of the Twingo, making it one of the roomiest city cars around.
Most adults will be comfortable in the back, too, unless sitting behind a very tall driver, when their knees may be brushing the seatbacks. However the optional fabric sunroof (£850) cuts rear headroom significantly – so don’t choose it if you plan to regularly carry adults in the back seats.
Rear access is good, too – there is no high sill to step over, and the rear doors open wide enough to make getting in and out easy, unlike in rivals such as the Citroen C1 and Seat Mii.
As you’d expect, the boot floor is quite high because the engine sits beneath it, but the boot is big enough to carry a couple of cabin bags quite easily. The 50/50 split rear seats fold flat easily and are flush with the boot floor – so there is no step to push your luggage over when filling it to the roof.
The Twingo has the added bonus of a front passenger seat that folds flat for maximum load space – and there are various cubbies around the cabin, including generous storage bins beneath the rear seats (a £20 option).
With a smattering of gloss plastic inserts (the white trim in our photos is standard on all models) and contrasting textured plastics, the Twingo’s cabin looks great and quality is reasonable by class standards.
Even without the optional R-Link 7.0-inch touch-screen fitted to our car it looks good, with fairly well-damped switchgear, although the loose glovebox and hard surfaces lower down the cabin still betray its low asking price.
Entry-level Expression trim gets the Smartphone-based media system, as well as two USB inputs (one behind the phone dock, for charging, and one to connect another MP3 player). The ‘R & Go’ App has its foibles – the phone screen can be hard to see in direct sunlight, as with other phone-based systems we've tried. It’s also prone to freezing, and the nav directions can be hard to understand on such a small screen.
It is also tricky to connect at first, and the standard phone mount actually blocks the buttons on the radio, making it difficult to perform certain functions. Your phone is also not locked into the app while you use it – so a phone call or email may tempt you to fiddle with it while driving, which could be very distracting.
Base Expression cars get two-tone upholstery, although you can choose different colours and decal packs from the array of personalisation options Renault offers.
Front electric windows are included, but the rear windows are hinged on all models, so only open out a few inches rather than rolling down – not great for any kids with motion sickness. Safety kit includes head and side airbags for front occupants, traction control, central locking and hill-start assist.
Most buyers will opt for mid-spec Play trim, which costs an extra £500 and adds air-con, fancier-looking wheel trims and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. However, the Twingo’s steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach; you can move it up and down only.
With seat height adjustment specified most drivers will be able to get comfortable; there's reasonable lateral support, a big speedo that’s easy to read regardless of your driving position and excellent forward visibility over the bluff nose. The seat is set quite high though, and tall drivers may catch their knees on the steering wheel.
As with all city cars in this class, you’ll also notice the shortage of lumbar support on long journeys, when the hard seats can cause back ache.
If you want the 0.9 TCe engine you have to go for top-spec Dynamique trim, which adds such luxuries such as alloy wheels, cruise control, stop-start (on both engines), a leather-covered steering wheel, electrically adjustable door mirrors and lane-departure warning.
Should I buy one?
There’s lots going for the Twingo. It manages to blend something of the Fiat 500’s retro style with an interior that’s as spacious as any other in the class, and in some ways is much more versatile.
We remain to be convinced by the buggy Smartphone-based infotainment system, but otherwise the Twingo is well equipped, while a four-year, 100,000-mile warranty and – if you go for finance – free servicing will help make running costs very competitive.
However, the 0.9 TCe is very hard to recommend, given that it’s quite expensive in the first place and doesn’t get the £600 fitted colour touch-screen and nav as standard; something many buyers will value, and kit that comes free in several rivals.
The cheaper 1.0 70 SCe is better, because it’s easier to drive around town, more refined at all times and is very well priced in Play trim with a few choice optional extras.
It’s a shame that, even in the better SCe 70 guise, the Twingo remains resolutely average to drive, though. It’s decent, but just not good enough to beat the best.
What Car? says...
Renault Twingo Expression SCe 70
Renault Twingo Dynamique Energy TCe 90