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The TG Nan Prix

  1. Stig is not impressed. Our tame racing driver never looks thrilled, exactly, but right now, stood on the start-finish line and looking down the track at the Renault Twingo, Hyundai i10, Suzuki Alto and Chevrolet Spark, he seems even more irritated off than usual.

    I think I know what’s happened here. Stig, as he is wont to do, got wind that we were descending on the track with 279bhp and £30,000 of metal. Clearly he wasn’t expecting those figures to be split between four cars. Still, Stig can’t be upset that we’ve delivered him 14 cylinders (two threes and two fours, if you’re counting) and a combined top speed of 390mph, can he? Ah, yes, he can.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Photos: James Lipman

    This feature was originally published in the March issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. But before we let Stig loose on our budget heroes, here’s a quick rundown of each car’s specs: 

    Chevrolet Spark
    Engine: 1.0-litre 4cyl
    Power: 68bhp
    Torque: 68lb ft
    0-60mph: 15.5secs
    Top speed: 96mph
    Economy: 55.4mpg
    Emissions: 119g/km
    Price: from £7,215

  3. Renault Twingo

    Engine: 1.2-litre 4cyl
    Power: 75bhp
    Torque: 79lb ft
    0-60mph: 12.3secs
    Top speed: 105mph
    Economy: 55.4mpg
    Emissions: 119g/km
    Price: from £6,595

  4. Suzuki Alto

    Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl
    Power: 68bhp
    Torque: 66lb ft
    0-60mph: 13.5secs
    Top speed: 96mph
    Economy: 64.2mpg
    Emissions: 103g/km
    Price: from £7,820

  5. Hyundai i10

    Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl
    Power: 68bhp
    Torque: 70lb ft
    0-60mph: 14.8secs
    Top speed: 93mph
    Economy: 67.3mpg
    Emissions: 99g/km
    Price: from £8,195

    Over to you Stig…

  6. Our tame racing driver surveys all four-and-a-bit litres of bristling intent parked up on
    the main straight of Kent’s Lydden Hill race circuit, I try to explain to him
    that we haven’t gone soft. Please, please don’t let it be thought that this
    test is some sort of zeitgeist-embracing, new-era-of-austerity-recognising nod
    to the financial pressures facing modern motorists. It really isn’t.

    We’ve
    drawn together four of the cheapest cars on sale today in a simple bid to prove
    that small, budget cars are more fun than big, expensive cars. If you’ve ever
    thrashed a rental to within 25 millimetres of its life, you’ll know where we’re
    coming from. A BMW M5 is great if you’ve got an infinite expanse of empty
    runway, but on real roads with real trees and real people, getting anywhere
    close to its outer limits is a surefire recipe for crashy death. Unless, of
    course, you’re the Stig. I’m not sure any of our low-cost quartet is
    registering on his radar as a car.

  7. He wanders over to the Twingo and pokes the A-pillar
    inquisitively. Why the Twingo, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s emitting the faint
    smell of RenaultSport. Maybe it’s the ham sandwich in the boot. Satisfied, it
    seems, that the little Renault is at least a vehicle, Stig hops into the
    driver’s seat and, with an anguished moan of tyres, buzzes off down the
    straight and into a corner. Let the games begin!

    Now might be good time to admit the ulterior motive to this
    test. Last year, after a magnificent cross-Italy hoon in a rental i10, I
    proclaimed the Hyundai to be the greatest car on the planet, a heady concoction
    of no-frills honesty, sprightly handling and one of the finest gearshifts in
    history. Despite some frank discussions with TopGear colleagues, this opinion
    has remained unmoved. Here’s where I prove I’m right.

  8. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the fact that the i10
    isn’t an especially arresting proposition in the looks department. As my
    esteemed colleagues point out with wearying regularity, the i10 looks like the
    sort of thing you’d expect to find trundling along Worthing seafront with a
    mobility-impaired octogenarian behind the wheel. Having long maintained that
    the i10 actually retains a classy, understated dignity without recourse to
    flimflam surfacing or spangly light clusters, I now have to concede that it’s a
    bit of a dog’s dinner. An over-tall, forgettable dog’s dinner.

  9. But at least it’s green. We’ve got the first face-lifted i10
    in the country, which sports a new 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol and emits
    just 99g/km of CO2, thanks to a stop-start system and low-rolling-resistance
    tyres that are virtually invisible when viewed straight-on. When the Hyundai is
    following you down a road, it looks like it’s floating six inches above the
    ground. In fact, it might be. There’s nothing on this car to weigh it down. Not
    even remote locking. This might sound insane, but to gain access to the i10’s
    cabin, you actually have to stick the scrawny key into the door and turn it.
    This must have been what Soviet Russia was like.

  10. The Chevrolet Spark, successor to the woeful Matiz, is less
    green but considerably more green. Of all the cheap cars here, it’s the one
    making the most effort to look modern. Perhaps too much effort: the Spark has
    the faint whiff of something your gran might describe as ‘trendy’. Creases and
    angles abound, while those headlights are simply enormous, taking up a good
    third of the length of the car: clusters of similar proportion on a
    long-wheelbase Jag XJ would require measurement in furlongs.

  11. The Spark sports the quirkiest interior, too, its speedo and rev counter housed in a pod stuck to the top of the steering column. The speedometer dial looks so much like a sticker ona kid’s toy that it’s a genuine surprise to see the needle move for the first time. Speaking of stickers, there’s one on the Spark’s dash that reads: ‘This vehicle may be fitted with options over and above its standard specification’. What, exactly? What could be removed that would allow the Spark still to be classed as a car? The cigarette lighter cover?

  12. The Suzuki Alto - identical in all but badge to the equally
    budget Nissan Pixo - does indeed possess some options over and above the
    standard specification. Because it’s a big cheat. While the other cars here
    have been plucked from the basement end of their line-ups, the only Alto we
    could get hold of was the plush, top-of-the-line (OK, it’s a relative
    description) SZ4 model, which comes with split-folding seats, body-coloured
    door handles, foglights and - most nefariously of all - 14-inch alloy wheels.
    Ooh, alloy wheels, eh? Aren’t we Mr La-Di-Dah? Bet you’ve got one of those
    new-fangled ‘tape decks’ too, haven’t you?

  13. Stig is back, hoofing the Twingo across the finish line for
    a lap time of 1:03.7. Is that fast? No idea. It should be: the Renault is the
    snarling performance car of the pack. If not exactly turning up with a knife to
    a fist fight, the Twingo has at least brought a dangerously sharp spoon: its
    1.2-litre four-pot packs a potent 75bhp to the piffling 68bhp of each of the
    other cars. It’s also the cheapest. This is the Bizu edition, from Renault’s
    new budget range, which sports precisely no additional kit but lists at just
    £6,495. Unless you’re able to source a pre-registered Perodua Kelisa in
    resale-crushing brown paint, you won’t find a cheaper car on sale today.

    Six-and-a-half grand! To get a new, full-size car for that
    price, complete with wing mirrors and an engine and seats and a warranty and
    probably half a tank of fuel if you bargain your local dealer really hard…
    well, that’s a bit astonishing.

  14. Stig has switched into the Suzuki. I’m not sure he’s ever
    driven a mint-green car before. In truth, I’m a bit worried about this one.
    Yesterday, on a cross-country B-road thrash in these cars, the Alto revealed
    itself to be… what’s the word? Ah, yes. [A very rude word.] Though the little
    three-cylinder engine is charmingly raucous, sounding like a tiny, tinny
    washer-dryer on the final spin cycle when you give it death, the rest of the car
    is as torpid as week-old roadkill. Difficult to believe that the Alto was
    actually ‘set up’ in any active sense by engineers, at least not engineers that
    had ever seen a road with corners and bumps. Faced with a lumpy bit of tarmac,
    the Alto clangs into the first rut and sinks down, defeated. The steering and
    front wheels divorced some years ago, and the brake pedal is squishier than
    James Corden’s midriff.

  15. All of which, backhandedly, compliments the other three cars
    on this test. They might cost less than a Waitrose ready meal, but the Twingo,
    i10 and Spark all deal with nasty, twisty, potholey British roads in
    surprisingly grown-up fashion. OK, that previous sentence must be suffixed with
    ‘for a trio of sub-seven-grand cars’, but honestly, they aren’t the tragic
    clangers you might expect. The i10 is a springy, enthusiastic little thing,
    while the Spark, though not exactly a lively drive, feels settled and passably
    solid. The Twingo is a blast, scurrying about with a vim that hints at its
    distant relationship to the last-gen RenaultSport Clio.

  16. Back to the track, and Stig has clocked a lap-time of 1:04.4
    in the Alto, seven-tenths down on the Twingo. But he’s taken umbrage with the
    Suzuki’s traction control system which, even when it’s off, is still on. On icy
    public roads, this assistance would be useful. With a barely tame racing driver
    at the helm, it’s singularly frustrating.

    There’s no traction control in the Spark. Stig takes full
    advantage, giving the Chevrolet’s poor tyres some serious abuse. As he leans
    hard into a fast, tight left-hander at twice the pace of anyone with even a
    basic self-preservation instinct, you can see the Spark’s thin strips of rubber
    being dragged off their rims, the car tilting precariously over. It’s a
    spectacular way of getting round a track, but not a quick one: Stig clocks a
    1:06.4 in the Spark, two seconds down on the Alto. Oh dear.

  17. Hyundai time. Stig straps into the i10. Come on, you
    beautiful, terrifying creature. Crush the Twingo’s lap time. Prove the i10 is
    the greatest car in the world. He’s giving it his best shot. Three corners in
    and the i10 looks fast. No, ‘fast’ isn’t the description I’m looking for.
    ‘About to explode in a tiny fireball of death’. That’s the one.

    Across the line, and… Stig has had enough. He screeches to
    a halt and stomps from the car, slamming the door behind him with a tinny thud
    and stalking off. The time? Well, that’s not important, is it? Oh, OK. The i10
    has clocked a shambolic 1:06.8. Last place.

  18. A punt around the track reveals why. Though entirely decent
    on the open road, the i10 is truly inept at going round a racetrack. There’s no
    front-end grip at all. Turn into a corner at anything above walking pace, and
    the skinny front tyres refuse to turn in, the nose sliding to the outside of the
    bend like an fictional deer on ice. To think some idiot once claimed it was the
    best car in the world.

  19. OK, it’s unfair to expect Exige-style pointiness from a front-wheel-drive city car riding on tyres the width of pram wheels, but it’s intriguing how much better the rest of the cars in this test deal with the track. Yes, the Alto’s ineradicable traction control is frustrating, but its lumpen ride isn’t half so evident on the smooth tarmac. Though the Spark makes coastal erosion look rapid, it’s a cheerily straightforward thing, brimming with buzzy honesty. And the Twingo? Bloody magnificent. Not content with being the stand-out act on the road, the Renault is a monster around the circuit, too, clinging onto the tarmac like a red barnacle: brakes and steering positive, balance neutral. 

  20. The Twingo isn’t just fun for a cheap city car. It’s more of a laugh than performance cars of five times the price. Not that it’s perfect: a long way from it. The speedometer readout is located in a frankly insane spot, way over to the left of the dash, under a plastic cowl that obscures the display if you’re over six-foot tall. The infotainment system (ha!) seems to have been sourced from the late Eighties, and you can feel the steering linkages twisting against your feet when you corner. You sit at least a foot-and-a-half too high. And, unlike the rest of the cars here, the Twingo only has three doors. But, hell, it’s six-and-a-half grand, and it feels properly engineered - built by people who understand that just because you’re spending seven rather than 70 grand on a car, you still want something with a bit of fizz. In laughs-per-quid, there’s nothing to match it.

    So, I concede. The i10 isn’t the greatest car in the world. The Twingo Bizu, on the other hand…

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