Road Test: Renault Twingo GT

Suddenly the supermini, a Continental speciality, is everywhere. Renault's latest aims to replace cuddly with cool, but John Simister just wants to have fun


Price: £9,995 (Dynamique 8,375). On sale September



Engine: 1,149cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 100bhp at 5,500rpm, 107lb ft at 3,000rpm



Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive



Performance: 117mph, 0-62 in 9.8sec, 47.8mpg official average,



CO2: 140g/km

Another supermini. It's getting to be a habit, what with the Mazda 2 last week and a cuddly small car from Fiat next week. This week's arrival has a name familiar to anyone who has spent much time across the Channel, although the breed hasn't officially been sold here before. Meet the Renault Twingo.

Like the last one, launched 14 years ago, it's an entry-level supermini with an emphasis on cuteness and practicality. But there are crucial differences in concept and emphasis. The first Twingo had a bug-eyed smile and a body designed in a single box, as if it were a shrunken MPV. With its simple, Fisher-Price-like interior design it was meant to appeal to young, cool types who liked the idea of a low-cost urban transport capsule. But it didn't work out like that.

Curiously, for a car to appeal to a car-savvy youth it must have a slightly masculine edge, a touch of attitude. And that applies regardless of the buyer's sex. This meant that the cuddly Twingo missed its target market, which bought Peugeot 106s and Citroë* Saxos instead. Twingos were bought (in great quantity) as second-car runabouts or by empty-nesters, and Renault was determined not to let that happen this time.

This time, too, it's made in right-hand drive, Renault having listened to the barrage of complaints from potential UK buyers last time around. And because the science of the supermini has advanced quite a lot since 1993, even this low-cost car has underpinnings of a sophistication undreamt-of back then. Under the new-look skin is the structure of the previous-generation Clio, still made at the Novo Mesto plant in Slovenia where the Twingo is also now produced.

This Twingo is a bit bigger than the last one, but unlike the latest Clio, it's still a supermini-sized supermini. And that means it doesn't weigh too much: like last week's Mazda, and the Fiat Panda that is its closest rival, it manages to stay under one ton.

Most of Europe gets a full range of Twingos, from the base model to the plush Initiale and sporty GT. But we UK buyers get just the Dynamique and GT versions, both with a more aggressive face and a fake aerodynamic splitter under the back bumper. Both have 1.2-litre engines which fit into Renault's Eco2 programme, meaning their carbon dioxide output averages 140g/km or less. That, in the Dynamique, generates up to 75bhp, while the GT's engine goes to 100bhp. That's pretty good for a low-emissions, so-called 1.2 (actually 1,149cc). Light-pressure turbocharging is the key, making this another example of the downsize-and-turbocharge trend that points to the future of petrol engines.

Sounds good so far, but I wonder if the Twingo's design is sufficiently coherent and distinctive this time around. You get a sense that its visual innocence has been lost, even if the near-vertical tail remains. And wacky graphics (optional) don't necessarily salvage the situation: choose from fragmented double-stripes over the bonnet roof and tailgate, Chinese-looking graphics, concentric semicircles on the exterior door-pulls, even spindly tulips complete with leaves. There are signs of desperation here, I feel.

That practical, jaunty side remains, though. Look at the dashboard: it still has a digital speedometer in the middle and a plethora of storage spaces. Our sporty versions have a Mini-like rev counter in a pod dead ahead of the driver, too. Then there are the individually sliding, reclining and fully-folding rear seats. There's plenty of rear leg room even with the seats slid forward, and if they are moved back you have lounging space not far off a limousine's. And even then there's a sensible amount of boot space, enough to shame a Peugeot 107, or even a Mini.

We probably should not expect this Renault to achieve what other recent Renaults have managed, a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. The weight and cost involved would have negated the point of making the Twingo, and the previous-Clio base is tough enough in a crash anyway.

So I'm sitting in the driving seat, surprisingly high even with the adjuster wound down. My front passenger is sitting even higher, with a grandstand view over the outcrop of grey plastic that is the dashboard.

First impressions as we head out into the traffic around Ljubljana, near the Twingo factory, are of a mushy accelerator response, a brake-pedal feel similarly afflicted, and an engine making two disparate sets of tuneless noises. We're in the GT version, identified by GT badges in the metal-look surrounds of the foglights, by a rear spoiler and by various other snippets of aluminium-effect detailing. It gets air-conditioning, a leather-rim steering wheel and darker-tinted rear glass, too.

The turbocharger whistles and whoops like the siren of a distantly following police car, and instantly I'm wracked with speed guilt. Slovenes, on the whole, do not drive fast.

We bumble along busy roads by beautiful lakes and verdant mountains, and the Twingo is feeling, frankly, pretty ordinary for all the commanding viewpoint it offers. Frustrated, but fortunately equipped with a good map, we search out a more car-revealing road. This is a car called GT, after all. Driving fun should have been in the engineering brief somewhere.

We snake up a hill, a scenic return route to Ljubljana. It just shows how important it is to find the right road when assessing a car, because suddenly the Twingo has taken on a new character. The gear change is quick, slick and precise, with short, slop-free movements. That little turbo engine sounds fairly disharmonious when worked hard but pulls energetically in the middle speed ranges, enough to make light work of the hills. Better, it has very little turbo response lag when you want to accelerate from low speeds. Once past that initial mushiness, you're away.

But here's the best bit. Right at the end of the previous Clio's life as Renault's main supermini, the company launched the 182 Trophy version. It was one of the great hot hatchbacks, fabulously responsive and endlessly entertaining. The Twingo GT has firmer suspension settings to suit its sporty badge, and as we course through the plentiful bends I get a strong sense of the Clio 182's genes.

The steering is a modern, energy-saving system but it's quite a good one with a natural feel and terrific precision. The Twingo rides tidily over bumps.

It fulfils its new fun-car role well, and deserves to be popular for that reason. I do wonder what happened to Renault's design spark, though.

The Rivals

Fiat Panda 100H - £9,995

Same power as the Twingo, a similar pace, sweeter engine, lumpier ride, great handling and five doors. Sporty appearance works amazingly well with the Fiat's utilitarian form.

Citroën C2 VTR Sensodrive £11,470

This closest French rival with a sporty bias has a 110bhp, 1.6-litre engine and a sequential paddle shift transmission. Looks more fun than the Twingo, but is less fun to drive.

Ford Sportka SE £9,995

The Ka hides its age well and is still one of the most fun-to-drive superminis around. The Sportka version has a 95bhp, 1.6-litre engine; it sounds modest but does

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