Twingo GT in Paris
Is the hot(ish) Twingo all mouth and no trousers?
It may be small, but you just expect to see a tousle-haired Rene Arnoux tumbling out of it, Gauloises in one hand, phone number for an attractive blonde in the other.
If the seventies and eighties were the last refuges for truly characterful drivers in motor racing, then they were also (arguably) the last period in which truly characterful racing cars were made.
These days, the rule book for racing is three feet thick and proscribes every act and action of both designer and engineer. No wonder racing has become so dull. Back when Arnoux and his ilk were top dogs, things were a little looser. Looking for a rallying weapon, Renault was able to ditch the back seats out of an R5, stuff in a colossally powerful turbo engine, bolt on wheelarches the size of a breakfast bar and go racing. The result was the Renault 5 Maxi and the rulemakers at the time waved it through with a casual glance. Great days.
This small, 2016 interpretation is the Renault Twingo GT and while it’s not a race car and isn’t even all that powerful, it is constantly arching its metaphorical eyebrows and glancing back at Renault’s glorious racing past. Come on, it seems to say, look at my stripes and my bijoux air intake strapped to the rear wheelarch. Isn’t it obvious that I’m a rolling tribute to the Maxi, to the R8 Gordini and so many more?
You’d be hard-pressed to argue with that. Like the Maxi and the Gordini, the Twingo GT has its engine where a race car should have one – in the back. While (somewhat sadly) the back seats remain in situ for now, the engine is actually propped up between the rear wheels, just as on the standard Twingo city car. It’s an 898cc turbo three-cylinder, shared (as is the rest of the Twingo’s understructure) with the Smart ForFour, but this one has been breathed on by the motor racing druids of Renault Sport, so instead of 90hp it has 110hp, much of it gained from the cool air being fed in through that boxy throwback wheelarch vent. Not a lot, perhaps, but not bad in a car weighing just over a tonne.
The Renault Sport boys have also dropped the springs (by 20mm), stiffened up the shocks (by 40 percent all round) and shoved in a new steering rack, which is variably geared so that it turns the front wheels more aggressively in town than on the motorway.
This all sounds marvellous. These days, racing drivers get about by private jet and chauffeur-driven Bugatti (I presume…) but back when racing was proper and everyone smoked, racing drivers had less money so had small, but fast, cars instead. Stirling Moss drove a Standard 8 (and still drives a Smart to this day). James Hunt had an Austin A35. So the Twingo GT’s diminutive size seems just perfect. A racing drivers’ city car? Sounds like fun.
And so, at first anyway, it proves. Not many car companies would be keen on launching their precious new product in the middle of Paris on a Monday morning, but Renault, De Gaulle-like, drew itself up full height and told us that this was what the car was designed for – making city driving more fun.
Taking off down the quay alongside the Seine, it certainly seemed so. The five-speed gear shift isn’t the smoothest, but that little turbo triple is just a sweetheart, revving with enthusiasm and making an endearing (if slightly noisy) growl as it does so. The Twingo isn’t quick, especially (although it will scamper to 62mph in less than ten seconds) but its dinky size and the heavy traffic of the French capital meant that it felt fast enough for us. That quickened steering certainly felt able to tuck the blunt little nose tight into mini roundabouts, and across the cobbles there was, perhaps, just a hint of the fact that Renault Sport has set the rear-wheel drive GT up for a little more looseness at the back-end than that of the standard, safe-and-sensible model.
Alas, it all rather falls apart once you get out of town. While the Twingo GT is surprisingly good at keeping up with main road traffic (thanks to a decent 170Nm of torque) it’s hopeless in the turbulent air alongside high-sides vehicles, getting tossed around like a pleasure craft approaching the edge of Niagra Falls. Worse still, get onto a quiet country road and it’s just not fun enough. That steering may be faster, but it has little-to-zero feel or feedback, and so while the Twingo GT is small enough, light enough and quick enough to chuck about, you just don’t get the true driver involvement that you should do.
Best to keep it in town, then. Find some plate-glass windows in which to admire your stickers and work on your Arnoux-esque quiff. Don’t forget the Gauloises.
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