(Pocket-lint) - Going against the grain is unusual in the automotive world. Standardisation, lowering the risk factor of product failure and making things easy to mass produce is the name of the game. Which is why unusual or new types of car are so rare.
When the Renault Twingo first appeared it ripped up the rulebook for what a city car should be given its mono-volume form and huge, Tardis-like interior. Generation two was a much more conventional affair, but generation three - which we're testing in its turbo-charged Dynamique TCe 90 form - picks up the "different is better" mantle, with a brand new platform that throws the engine under the boot floor and drives the rear wheels.
That might not sound like a big deal, but cars that don't have their engine under a front bonnet and that drive the rear wheels are few and far between these days. In the city car class, they're like hens teeth. The one car that has followed this format is the Smart, so it might not surprise you to discover that one of the reasons for the Twingo's new format is that it is twinned with the new Smart ForTwo and ForFour.
Under new design director Lauren van den Acker, Renault has rediscovered the design flair that led to its self-styled "createur d'automobiles" tag in the middle of the last decade. The new Clio and Captur vie for best looking cars in their classes, and the new Twingo successfully sidesteps the dweeb-like, apologetic aesthetics of many city cars with its purposeful face, flared shoulders and concealed rear door.
The overall look of generation-three is a step away from where the Twingo has been before - the volumes and surface language are very different - and if it calls to mind one car in Renault's back catalogue, then it's the Super5. That's a good thing.
The yellow colour of our review model probably helped, but during our week with it, the Twingo got plenty of admiring glances. On its comparatively large 16 inch wheels that comes as standard on this top-spec Dynamique model, it has a really nice stance. The design of the all-black tailgate makes it look much wider and more stocky than it is from the rear; and despite being a relatively high car (more of this in a moment) it doesn't outwardly look like a pillar box on wheels.
Renault has really dialled up the personalisation factor on its recent cars too, so you can spec a selection of different graphic decals - the flowing horizontal lines you can see on this model are called "strokes" - to emphasise the shoulder and wing flares, along with different alloys, colour inserts and an array of vivid exterior colours including a sort-of powder blue, crimson red and even brown.
World of interiors
Inside, the design story continues, with the Twingo only rivalled by the excellent Fiat Panda for its use of clever design to disguise its low-cost status and hard plastics.
The core driver dash zone is highlighted by a gloss plastic edging, available in red, blue or, as in our test car, white. Feature areas such as the speakers, storage bins and even the air vents are given special focus and design love too, which makes you think someone has really given a damn.
Highlights include the rear doors which, thanks to the fact the windows only pop out and don't roll down, have massive bins with a rubber bungee strap, meaning you can carry large bottles or baguettes of French bread in them. And we particularly love the door pulls, which are a rubberised plastic, featuring a cartoon silhouette sketch of the Twingo stamped in them. There's space under the rear seats to store stuff, too.
Continuing the storage theme are a removable centre bin up front, although we found it was a bit too removable during cornering encounters with our leg, and a large glovebox that - as an option - you can exchange for a removable unit, which comes complete with a strap and doubles as a small satchel bag.
If all this sounds like there's a lot to love, then you'd be right - it's exactly the kind of approach that makes small cars characterful. So it's a shame, given the rear engine format that is supposed to free up space, that the cabin feels small. It's because you'll be sat so high in the oh so big seats.
Originally, the new Twingo was engineered so that an electric version could be produced, which would carry batteries under the floor. And therefore you sit on rather than in the outsized, one-piece seats.
This, along with a steering wheel that doesn't adjust for reach rather hobbles your relationship with the controls of the car. And if you're over six foot makes it feel much tighter than it ought to. From the driver's seat it isn't so bad, but sit in the passenger seat and your feet feel un-naturally close to where your knees should be. And unless you're rather short then don't attempt to get in the back unless you can detach your own head.
Combine this with a shallow boot which looks big initially but struggles to swallow two carry-on bags and, if you've ever sat in an original Twingo, you're left questioning - from an interior point of view - if the new car represents progress or not.
Just R & Go
There are a couple of technology and interface options on the new Twingo, including Renault's R-Link system (seen in the Clio and Captur), which features a touchscreen, customisation through various approved apps and also a TomTom-branded navigation system.
However, our test car didn't feature this - it had what, in our opinion, is a much more interesting solution which primarily relies on your smartphone. It all looks innocuous, and - for a car - straightforward enough. Built into the dash, in the centre of the radio present buttons, sprouts a fairly rudimentary phone holder. Clip in your smartphone, connect it via USB to the slot in the radio (or via Bluetooth wireless) and you can, like many other cars, play music and receive calls with your phone.
But the fun starts when you download Renault's R & Go app, which is available for free on Android and Apple iOS. Once running, R & Go presents you with a chunky four-tile homescreen for music, navigation, phone and vehicle. Your phone then becomes the main interface screen through which to control the radio (in fact, the interface through the app is better and simpler to use than the built-in radio), make calls, run the CoPilot navigation app (£19.99 extra) and pool data on the car.
Intriguingly, given the Twingo's dashboard only features a speedo and fuel gauge, through the app you can run a digital rev counter - which we found became our default phone screen, because of the way this engine delivers its power. It did seem to track ever so slightly behind reality, but we think Renault should be applauded for making a very intuitive app through which you can add basic functionality to the car. Perhaps our phones really are the future of in-car interface after all?
Where's the fun gone?
All of which bodes well for the Twingo until you set off down the road, at which point things rather fall down.
There are some good points in among the experience though. The rear drive and engine mean that the front wheels can swivel out at a crazy angle, and makes the turning circle as tight as a London taxi. Tight car parking spots become a doddle.
Similarly, the rear engine means that there's comparatively little engine racket even at high speed. On the motorway you're only buffeted by wind noise coming off the A-pillar and door mirrors, and for a city nipper the Twingo is quite refined. Meanwhile, the gearshift - while only a five speed - is direct and sharp in a way few Renaults manage. We'd say it's the best point of the drivetrain of this car.
Sadly, that last sentence is a segue into the fact the rest of the driving experience of the Twingo is at times frustrating. The 0.9-litre, three-cylinder turbo is a neat little engine that's a re-engineered version of the one that sees service in the Clio. And which we like a lot in that car. Yet something in the conversion to the rear position (it's been tilted through 49 degrees) has caused this engine's characteristics to become somewhat odd. It might have simply been our test car, but it exhibited an old school level of turbo-lag with power coming in quite abruptly at just over 2,000rpm and often catching you off guard. Together with a slow throttle response and no weight over the front wheels, this often makes town driving a jerky, head-nodding affair.
This wouldn't matter so much if the delivery wasn't so inconsistent, at times seeming to really rip-up the road and at times seeming to fall off boost just when you weren't expecting it. Throw a corner into the mix and the combo of slow steering and the fact that Renault's made the traction and stability control system ultra-cautious just means the Twingo's no fun.
We can see the logic: clearly some customers might be put off by the rear engine/drive format. And so not allowing the Twingo to be lairy in corners, which rear engine cars have a tendency to be, avoids the car being scary. Therefore the systems are designed to give you no leeway. The minute you over-egg things they cut in, but that this seems to happen at such a low threshold. And it's compounded by a ride which, on the 16-inch wheels, is a little on the knobbly side.
The Twingo also didn't prove massively economical in our hands, struggling to get above 40mpg in what was, admittedly, mostly driving in and around town.
After a week with it, journeys felt like chores rather than a joy. So much of that is down to the inconsistent engine characteristics - and while we haven't driven it, but predict - that the lower powered SCe engine (which isn't turbo-charged) could be a much sweeter drive. Do try before you buy because, quite often with smaller cars, less is more.
The French have always been innovators, even pioneers, when it comes to small cars. The long history Renault has - as with the 4, 5, original Twingo and Clio - is continued with the latest Twingo. But it doesn't quite achieve that innovative star.
We admire the company for going down a different layout to its rivals, but at times it's very hard to see what the benefits for the customer are. What is clear is that the design - exterior, interior and interface - are in most cases a step above what rivals offer, and that is the core aspect of this car's appeal.
The reality, however, is that many of its rivals are better to drive and easier to live with. Their interiors feel more spacious and they're easier to drive. Some of that is undoubtedly down to this engine, and we'd urge you not to dismiss the Twingo entirely, but instead try the lower powered car. At the same time, we look forward to the hotter model that is being promised, and hope it finds a bit of the fun factor this car could clearly have if tuned in the right way.
Ultimately, the TCe Twingo, despite all its design leadership, asks you to make compromises for its cause. Some will be happy to do that, and we always like to get behind products that feel special, and tread a different path. The problem is that different doesn't always mean better.