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When a popstar designs a Twingo

  1. I am sat in a Renault Twingo next to a girl called Nicola. The Twingo’s cabin is lined in cream ostrich skin, festooned with spangly jewels and hung with pairs and pairs of earrings. In the footwell is a jewel-encrusted microphone and a jewel-encrusted shoe. Where the rear seats should be lurks a full-size recording desk, topped by an espresso machine. The rear mirror is surrounded by tiny bulbs, a twee facsimile of the looking glass in a theatre dressing room. Covering the dash are dozens of make-up pots.

    Visible through the windscreen are three other modified Twingos. One has seats upholstered in hundreds and hundreds of dried pasta tubes. Another is painted matt black, its interior incongruously decked out as an 18th-century Parisian ballroom, all carpets and gold tassels and candelabras. The third has been shorn of its seats, the cabin fitted with a book-lined ‘library’ and a log fire, an unironic copy of Clarkson’s ‘Anne Hathaway’s Cottage’ S-Class.

    This is not the work of an over-sugared GCSE textiles class. This monstrous array of Twingos is Renault’s own concoction, Renault’s own masterplan for shifting more Twingos over the next few years.

    Words: Sam Philip

    This feature was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. The Nicola sat in the driver’s seat beside me is Nicola Roberts, a member of TV-talent-show-created pop sensation Girls Aloud. As part of Renault’s drive to demonstrate the face-lifted Twingo as an ‘artistic’ car, Nicola Roberts has been chosen as one of four European ‘artistes’ (my inverted commas, not theirs) to personalise a Twingo in their own ‘artistic vision’. These artistic visions appear to comprise, in order: diamanté, pasta, velour and wood-burner.

    If you are (a) a lover of cars and (b) not a 12-year-old schoolgirl, you may well be entering the throes of retroperistalsis about now. Clearly, something has gone very awry in the world of car-marketing to land TG in this garish situation. But what, exactly?

    It’d be easy to scoff at Renault’s choice of artiste. Nicola Roberts may be part of a mega-platinum group, but, individually, she’s not - how to put this? - troubling the top echelons of the celeb alphabet, is she? A Renault insider admits they couldn’t afford Adele.

  3. But it’s unfair to blame Ms Roberts for this marketing disaster. She may not be Adele or Cheryl Cole, but she doesn’t seem to be a bad human being. She’s pleasant company, less precious than any other pop starlet I’ve chatted to (my experience is admittedly limited). And though I’m no aficionado of electropop, people who know about such matters assure me her new album is entirely respectable. She has a nice voice. Unless we’re advocating the banning of any celebrity endorsement of any product, we probably have to concede that, as Famous People to Advertise Cars go, she’s not the worst by any means.

  4. I should imagine that, were Nicola Roberts papped sashaying from her Renault Twingo to some super-trendy London nightspot, it might just help to sway a few highly impressionable 17-year-olds currently haranguing Daddy for their first car.

    But Nicola Roberts doesn’t drive a Twingo. “I like big cars,” she tells me cheerily, revealing she owns a Range Rover Vogue and a Porsche Cayenne. She admits that, if she were to live in London rather than Surrey, she might possibly consider a Twingo. I suspect she might opt for something a little less prosaic (I ask her what her now-cream-leathery Twingo was like pre-modification. The words “grey” and “bog-standard” feature prominently).

    So, there’s no chance of Nicola Roberts being snapped emerging from her Twingo before diving into Mahiki or Boujis. Which makes Renault’s Twingo-selling strategy rather more complicated than: “If it’s good enough for Nicola Roberts, it’s good enough for me.” Renault’s strategy relies on you accepting that, one, the Twingo is an ‘artiste’s car’ and two, that Nicola Roberts is such an artiste. I might humbly question both these propositions.

  5. Ms Roberts, for all her undoubted qualities, doesn’t seem to be an artistic visionary, as such. Not many singers made famous through reality TV are. Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, the French fashion designer behind the matt-black-with-grand-carpet Twingo, at least explains his absurd creation by referring to high-minded concepts like ‘sentimental archaeology’ and ‘dystopian futures’. I have no idea what either of those things is, but they sure sound artistic. I’m near certain Nicola Roberts has never considered ‘sentimental archaeology’. Most of us have not. Nicola Roberts’s lofty artistic brief for
    her Twingo? ‘My life in a car’.

    So all those make-up pots on the dash are there because Nicola Roberts has a make-up range. Nicola Roberts mentions her make-up range at least a dozen times in the course of the evening. The recording studio is there because she likes to record music. The jewellery is there because she… likes jewellery. You get the picture. Is ‘my life in a car’ really art? My car is generally half-filled with empty packets of biscuits, CD sleeves and pasty wrappers. An accurate reflection of my life, yes, but I’m fairly sure it isn’t an art installation.

  6. So, what is this Twingo-ruination really about? The reason, as always, is money. Consider how on earth Renault makes any cash when it sells you a Twingo for £10,000. Once you’ve taken out the cost of research and development, the raw materials, the manufacturing, the shipping and the cut taken by the dealer, that leaves roughly a fiver of profit to go into the Renault coffers. But if you slap £5,000 of options onto that Twingo - some leathery bits, parking sensors, a set of ill-advised stripes, that sort of thing - that vigorish is going pretty much straight into the corporate pocket. Options equal profit. It’s a trick that BMW nailed with the new Mini, Fiat with the 500 and Land Rover with the Evoque.

    Renault wants a bit of that option-profit pie, and the best way to convince buyers to add lots of extras is to bill them as ‘personalisation’. Everyone loves to feel unique. You’re not being sucked into speccing kit you don’t need - you’re personalising.

    That’s why Nicola Roberts has been painstakingly taping earrings to the visors of her Twingo: a marketing department’s ham-fisted demonstration of the newfound personalisability (ssh, it’s a word) of the facelifted Twingo. You can’t spec yours in ostrich leather or with a recording deck in the back, but you can order your Twingo with a mighty array of decals, colour combos and plastic grass on the dash to hold your mobile phone.

  7. Not our - or presumably your - cup of tea, but we’d let it fly if, as part of the facelift, Renault had sorted out the Twingo’s many existing problems. It hasn’t. The Twingo’s mid-life refresh consists of a gurning new front end, many personalisation options and, erm, that’s your lot. No new engines (in the UK at least), no chassis tweaks and, worst of all, scant revisions to the awful early-Nineties dash.

    This is deeply frustrating. We like the Twingo. Early last year, I declared the entry-level Twingo Bizu (£6,495 to you, good sir) the greatest cheap car in the world. A moment of overexcitement, perhaps, but the Twingo boasts a far more sorted chassis than other cars in its price range. However, it was a good car with many easily fixable flaws. Renault hasn’t fixed any of them.

    It’d be naive to suggest that Renault should have spent less time arsing around with a Girl Aloud and more time making its car better: whatever Ms Roberts’s fee for her Twingo, I can’t imagine it’d cover more than the development of a new stereo knob. But it’s a matter of priorities, surely? Isn’t a dash that doesn’t look sourced from a 20-year-old Renault 19 and a speedometer mounted vaguely within eyeline more important than letting a starlet loose in the dressing-up box?

  8. Priorities. A week after the Nicola-Roberts-Twingo extravaganza, Renault quietly announced it was dropping more than half of its models on sale in the UK, including the Laguna, Espace, Modus, Kangoo and Wind. All gone, dead, buried (on these shores at least - if you really, really want a Wind, you’ll have to pop over the Channel to buy it). Some of these losses we’re more upset about than others - we can’t say we’ll bemoan the loss of the Modus - but it seems bizarre that Renault, the company that invented the big MPV, won’t sell the Espace in the UK any more.

    Renault, we want you to survive. You make unsurpassed hot hatches and, unusually for a modern car company, seem to care about making even your everyday cars good to drive. So, please, Renault, stick to what you do best and remember these two things. First, you’re a car company, not a Brighton boutique. Second, if you put a wood-burner in a Twingo, you really ought to remember to install a chimney, too. Anyone got a fire extinguisher?

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