The return of the rear-engined city car


As is the way of such things, last week’s Geneva Motorshow was heaving with vastly expensive, entirely impractical and, for the most part, somewhat irrelevant product. I have no problem with this and, indeed, seeing such machines is one of many reasons I attend these shows.

But in terms of its importance, not just for what it is, but for the change of thinking it represents, the new Renault Twingo was the most interesting car at the show. It might look like just another French hatch – cutely styled, but otherwise of limited interest – but it’s not. Its secret is that, despite having five seats and four doors, its engine is in the back and drives the rear wheels. And, right now, that makes it unique.

There was a time when small rear-engined cars were the rule, rather than the exception. In the 1950s the likes of the Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat 500 and Renault 4CV were multi-million sellers that all placed the engine behind the driver and, as we shall see, for very good reasons. But so too did the layout bring problems in terms of both active and passive safety.

Placing so much weight behind the rear axle created a layout where the back continually wanted to overtake the front and, if you combined their primitive suspension with their primitive tyres and threw in a greasy road for good measure, precisely this could and did happen. Then if you were unfortunate enough to nose into some roadside object, the primary frontal crumple zone was usually your legs. Then in 1959 the Mini appeared and changed everything.

But I think it’s time it changed back; at least so far as city cars are concerned. Just because the world fell out of love with the rear-engine/rear-drive configuration for such cars didn’t mean their advantages were lost, but merely put on hold until technology could address their foibles.

Now I don’t know until I drive it if a Twingo is going to suffer from catastrophic lift-off oversteer on a wet road, but I would bet my house that it won’t, and even if it tried to do exactly that, electronic safety nets would intervene before it ever became an issue. And I’ll guarantee it’ll crash every bit as well as the average car in the class. Firstly because Renault’s recent reputation in this area is at least as good as that of any other mainstream manufacturer and, secondly, because the next car to use this platform will be a Smart, and Mercedes is not going to let its reputation be tarnished by an unsafe car. So let’s assume the reasons people fell out of love with rear-engined, rear-drive city cars no longer exist – why should we fall for them again now?

Let’s compare the Twingo to the class-leading Volkswagen Up!. The Twingo is fractionally longer (by 5cm) and has an only slightly smaller boot – an achievement in itself when said boot has to share space with the engine for there is no storage available in the nose. But there is far more room in the back, the result of Renault being able to push the whole cabin further forward into the area you’d usually expect to find the engine. To give you an idea of what’s been achieved, Renault says the new Twingo’s cabin is 13cm longer than that of the old, despite the car being 10cm shorter…

Sit in the Twingo and you’re instantly aware of how much better forward visibility is because there’s no engine for the bonnet to rise over and were you able to drive it, you’d discover that because there are no driveshafts to get in the way, its turning circle of 8.65 metres is an entire metre tighter than the class average.

I must now drift briefly into the world of conjecture because, having not driven it, I cannot say if the new Twingo is any more fun to drive than a conventional city car. But I can say it ought to be. Not only is it rear-wheel drive, but the lack of weight on the nose should enable Renault to provide steering that’s quicker to turn and more lucid in feel.

Which is why I’m more excited about the Twingo than any another city car in recent or even distant memory. Renault has still to prove it can realise the potential of this design, but if it does, you’re looking at the most exciting and interesting development in small-car design since the original Mini, the car that ironically enough did more to kill off the rear-engine/rear-drive layout than any other. It may be the first city car to go back to the future – I doubt very much it will be the last.

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