Small sporty hatchbacks are perfect if you want a car that works brilliantly in the city but has the speed to be a complete giggle on the open road. With modest power outputs and a small footprint on the road, you can get more excitement from them, more of the time than bigger, faster cars.
Sadly, there’s been a lack of choice in the class recently. Fans of dinky hot hatches have spent years yearning for Renault and Volkswagen to replace the Twingo 133 and Lupo GTI – each brilliant cars in their own right. Finally, both have delivered. So which brand has made the greatest comeback? We’ve driven the Twingo GT and Up GTI back-to-back to find out.
It only takes one glance at this pair to see that both Renault and VW have nailed the looks. Both get 17-inch alloy wheels, both have extra badges and racing stripes, and both are rounded off with chrome exhaust tips – a pair for the Twingo GT, just the one for the Up GTI. The Up is available in some classic GTI colours – white, black, red and silver – while the Twingo comes in grey, black, white, or the fetching Blaze Orange metallic paint of our test car.
If the regular version of these cars are as cute as sleepy puppies, then the souped-up models are more like bear cubs – still adorable, but they could still probably bite your face off. Probably.
Head onto the road though, and it doesn’t take long to realise that the Twingo is just a little toothless. The steering is the first let-down – it doesn’t return to the centre or give any clues about how much grip the tyres can give. Not, as it turns out, that’ll ever be a problem, because the stability control cuts the power in a blind panic even if you begin to imagine what it’d be like to go around a corner in a hurry.
You can’t turn it off either – fine in an everyday car, but incredibly frustrating in something that’s meant to be sporty. It’s a shame, because beneath all of those nannying electronics is a darty, nippy car screaming to be let out.
The Up’s stability control is locked on too, but it feels much better judged. Much like the rest of the car, in fact – precise controls make it fun to drive even when you’re just pottering about. It really comes into its own on the open road though. If we’re being picky, the steering could be more precise, but otherwise, the Up can be thrown from corner to corner, drawing a grin on your face that few other cars can match.
Like the Twingo, the Up gets a thrummy little turbocharged three-cylinder engine. The VW has the Renault covered for performance – 0-62mph takes 8.8 seconds to the Twingo’s 9.6 – and, thanks to a well-judged sound synthesizer, it sounds better too. The more antisocial among us would want both to have a noisier exhaust system, but your neighbours will probably be grateful for the subdued tones that each car makes.
So the Up is the better car to drive, and it also has the better interior. Okay, it might not have the squidgy dash plastics you get in a Polo or a Golf, but it feels more sturdy than you’d hope for from a city car. The Renault doesn’t feel dreadful inside, but it just can’t quite match the VW’s solid feeling.
Sporty touches are used to perk up each cars’ cabins. On jazzy seat fabric alone, the Up gets the nod of approval – that tartan design is a throwback to old-school VW GTIs. There’s also a cool red digital print to the dash, and a lovely flat-bottomed steering wheel.
The Twingo’s seats look suitably lively thanks to some orange flashes, but they don’t have enough support at the sides, so you almost fall off if you take a corner quickly. Otherwise, it looks pretty funky, thanks to some aluminum pedals and big, bold controls. Bizarrely for a hot hatchback, however, there’s no rev counter.
But which fares best when it comes to the sensible stuff? If you do lots of motorway, get the Up – for something so small it feels stable and, a little wind noise aside, really comfy. The Twingo’s high sides get buffeted around by lorries and the suspension is slightly bouncier, so overall it’s not as relaxing.
The Twingo gains back some ground in town. Because the Renault’s engine is between the rear wheels rather the front ones its turning circle is hilariously small, performing U-turns in places that a Black Cab driver would think twice about. If you’re carrying four adults from time to time, the Renault has more headroom too.
When it comes to the infotainment tasks, the Twingo makes use of a TomTom-based touchscreen navigation system and reversing camera. It works smoothly enough, but it’s a £600 option.
The Up does things a little differently. Download the Maps+More App, and a Bluetooth connection allows your smartphone to control trip, media and nav functions. The cradle itself is made of hard plastic so it rattles the phone about, but other than that it works extremely well. Lack of reversing camera aside, it’s better than the Renault’s setup – and free.
When it comes down to numbers, the Up GTI starts to look even more tempting. It’s not just faster and more exciting than the Twingo GT, but cheaper. The three-door Up GTI costs £13,750, which is £500 less than the £14,250 Renault. Add rear doors and the Up GTI will set you back £14,150, so the VW is still cheaper.
So which should you choose? Well sadly, it isn’t the Renault Twingo GT. A nippy chassis and strong performance isn’t enough to overlook the most paranoid stability control system fitted to any performance car. It’s a huge missed opportunity.
On the other hand, Volkswagen has pretty much nailed the VW Up GTI. Tiresome performance car nerds will tell you how it lacks steering feel. For everyone else, it’s a huge laugh, it’s fast, easy to live with and, crucially, an absolute bargain.