IT’S A big claim to fame of mine, and a source of considerable pride, that I was the first person in Britain to note the potential of the Renault Twingo. Well, maybe not the first person. But, you know, right up there among, possibly, the first 50. The first 500, surely.
Somewhere in the mid-1990s I won a Twingo in the tombola that is an Italian airport car rental booth. It seemed in the context of the time almost comically toy-like in its tininess. Indeed, I think my first instinct was to return to the booth and ask: “Where’s the rest of my rental car?” But to drive, it was simple and practical and peppy and fun. So I came back and told my friends, and anyone else who would listen, about this thing called a Twingo. They would say things such as “How terribly interesting” and “That’s a chocolate bar, right?”.
And, OK, it wasn’t just me. Someone who worked in a Renault dealership at the time recently told me that they could virtually set their clock after the school holidays by the people coming through the doors with suntans and asking about a car they had rented in Portugal — the Tingle, was it? The Tango? That was us: the Twingo Brit vanguard.
But the dealers had to send us all away disappointed. The first Twingo never officially came to the UK. Renault didn’t have the wherewithal at the time to make a right-hand-drive version. By the time it did, it was 2007 and the car was into its second generation, in which it seemed somehow to lose about 70% of its distinguishing charm, growing slightly flabby and anonymous.
And in any case the city-car revolution had long been in full swing and the streets were now boiling with Smarts and Minis and Fiat 500s. By Renault’s own estimate, the Twingo in 2007 had no fewer than 25 competitors (much like now). At its birth, in 1992, it had five.
Here, though, comes the TwingoMk 3, the product of a collaboration between the French company and the small-car division of Daimler, and therefore a development that is part Renault, part Smart.
At the launch last week in Nantes, western France, Renault was being a little coy about which parts of the development were Renault and which parts were Smart, but if the car does its job — by which I mean if it turns out after all these years to be the Twingo we never had — maybe that isn’t going to matter very much.
Renault urges us to note stylistic allusions to the original Twingo and to pick up nostalgic flavours of the Renault 5 — and they’re definitely there, albeit not as loud as entirely modern flavours of the Fiat 500, for which from a couple of angles the car is virtually a stunt double. Still, why not? With its snubbier, chunkier nose, the Twingo is similarly cute, but without labouring the point.
The reason for the sawn-off bonnet is that the engine is in the back, hidden in a metal box under a thick piece of carpet. This shift makes possible a piece of architectural magic whereby the vehicle’s body is almost 4in shorter than that of the previous Twingo while its cabin is more than 8in longer. It also increases the manoeuvrability of the front wheels and yields a handily tight, sixpence-like turning circle (well, just over 28ft).
That expanded interior is bright and perky and extensively customisable, as the age demands. (Colour-coded removable wastebin? You’ve got it. Big plastic door grabs with an image of the car on them? Yours too.) As with the Fiat 500, it seats four, but in greater width and comfort, and unlike the Fiat it has rear doors, their handles mostly concealed within the window frames to maintain that illusion of twin-door sportiness.
Aloft on the engine — and carefully insulated to prevent the car from cooking your shopping before you get it home — the boot is still on a respectable scale (188 litres) and certainly easy to use, involving very little ducking, unlike the Fiat’s under-the-stairs cubbyhole.
There is, however, no additional luggage space at the front: the bonnet is essentially just a plastic lid concealing the radiator. The bonus, though, is in being able to flatten not just the rear seats, individually, but also the front passenger seat, which means that items of startling length are suddenly in play — albeit narrow ones. Renault suggests a double bass, or a basketball player. Window cleaners with ladders, and circus stilt acts might also find their interest piqued.
Away we go then — and given the rear-engine and the rear-wheel drive, you’re quietly expecting to squirt around the place in a haze of hot oil and excitement. With the 0.9-litre turbocharged TCe 90 engine I found the experience foggier than that, a bit polite and unpunchy.
Fitted with something noisier and more characterful, such as Fiat’s TwinAir unit, it would be glorious. As it is, you could argue that it’s more fun to park than it is to drive — but given urban traffic conditions these days, there’s a noble pragmatism in that.
In any case, I don’t recall the first Twingo being exactly a Porsche in disguise. There’s no denying, then, that it has finally arrived — the Twingo for which we’ve waited more than 20 years. You read it here first-ish.
Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1992
Renault Twingo TCe 90 Energy Dynamique
- Engine: 899cc, 3 cylinders
- Power: 89bhp
- Torque: 100lb ft
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 10.8sec
- Top speed: 103mph
- Fuel: 65.7mpg (combined)
- CO2: 99g/km
- Vehicle tax band: A (free)
- Price: £11,695
- Release date: On sale now
Renault Twingo rivals
Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir, £12,960
For Bags of character; great engine Against Expensive; poor ride; little cabin space
Toyota Aygo, £7,995
For Impressive fuel economy; striking styling; comfortable long-distance car Against Very small boot; rear windows don’t go down