Impressive stuff, those nuclear scientists in their giant tunnel under Switzerland, whizzing protons into each other at the speed of light in their quest to discover God and dark matter and how to scare those of us who don’t understand physics.
But, in a secret bunker in deepest France, the mysterious scientists of RenaultSport are plying their own brand of miniature, highly charged alchemy on the anodyne little Twingo to create the atomically correct, proton-packed Twingo 133. It’s an art they’ve been perfecting for years, armed with nothing more than an infinite supply of croissants and a number of large spanners. Before this Twingo we’ve seen such creations as the Clio 197 – brilliant. The Megane R26 – equally brilliant (and the lightweight R26.R should be better still). Even the Laguna GT’s four-wheel steer – the Laguna’s only really desirable bit, in honesty – was engineered by the RenaultSport guys. If you want small and fast, they’re right up there with the guys at CERN.
It’s about time that the little Twingo entered RenaultSport’s hot-hatch particle accelerator. The omens are good. Renault’s little city car sits on the same platform as the last-generation Clio – the Clio that, in the hands of RenaultSport, begat the 172 and the 182 (and the mid-engined V6, though let’s not mention that) – respectable underpinnings for a chuckable little hot hatch.
So, back to the Twingo 133. I’m sat in it at the bottom of a tight, winding, gnarled mountain road. With the exception of a few ill-advised decals, it looks good. Those 17in alloys make a huge difference, as do the fatter arches. They’re not just for show, either – the 133 sits on a track some 60mm wider than the stock Twingo.
The visual enhancements aren’t limited to the exterior. Renault has gone down the Mini-chic personalisation route in the cabin: you can spec an aluminium gearshift knob, a colour-coded key fob and even Playstation-style ‘Stop’, ‘Pause’ and ‘Go’ button covers for the pedals. Too much, maybe, but the new bucket seats are a welcome addition.
Drop into the 133, though, and it doesn’t instantly grab you. Literally or metaphorically. Yes, you’re seated lower than in the garden Twingo, but the sensation remains that you’re on the 133 rather than in it, atop it rather than cocooned right in the middle. It’s not awful, but it’s not perfect.
No matter. At least it’ll sound good. Before handing over the keys to the Twingo, the RenaultSport engineers spent a long time explaining what a long time it’d taken them to give the 133 a decent engine note – the word ‘manifold’ was mentioned a lot – so as I fire up the motor, I’m expecting a raucous festival of popping and burbling.
It doesn’t arrive. As evidenced by the Clio 197, the RenaultSport guys like the revviness and flexibility of a naturally aspirated engine, so the 133 gets a thoroughly worked-over version of Renault’s 1.6-litre four-pot, developing 131bhp at a lofty 6,750rpm. It sounds grown-up. Sensible. A bit shouty at the top of the rev band, yes, but the shoutiness of a little four-pot being revved to death rather than the evil cackle of a deranged hot hatch.
No matter. We’re up and running now, slicing through dark woods and ramshackle villages on a snake-backed valley road. Come on then, RenaultSport. Let’s see just what you’ve done.
Flatness is the first sensation. I’m driving the Cup chassis, which drops the Twingo 4mm lower than the standard 133 (and 14mm lower than the standard Twingo) on stiffer springs and bigger wheels, and it feels, er, flat. No other word to describe it. There’s no tilt or roll, just a kart-like sensation that the centre of gravity is some way below the tarmac.
Grip comes next. So much grip. As the road narrows and begins to climb, I try to provoke the Twingo into doing something silly, stepping a bit sideways maybe, but it simply clings on, refusing to wash wide and instead tucking its nose in and dashing for the next blind hairpin. No slip, no understeer, just masses of grip. It might sound churlish, but there’s almost too much of the stuff – you need to get up to some pretty silly speeds before the back end even considers working loose.
Does that make the non-Cup chassis the better option here? Maybe. I drive the standard 133 the next day, and it’s a much smoother, suppler ride – on its short wheelbase, the Twingo can get seriously crashy on the stiffer suspension. It’s a tough choice: no, you don’t get the lovely 17-inch wheels, but at least you won’t get bounced off a potholed B-road. That said, if you’re planning on a few track days, there’s no competition here. Cup all the way.
Whichever one you go for, you have to drive the 133 hard. Not just because it’s so flat and grippy, but because, with no turbo to provide low-end boost, the engine needs a proper kicking to extract any real pace. It goads you on to the red line, winding up to a pique of revs and thrashy noise. Clip the 7,000rpm rev-limiter, and a green light of commendation flashes up on the rev counter. Nope, not a red light ordering you to change up – a green light, a thumbs-up.
That’s the essence of RenaultSport, right there in that green light. And that’s what the Twingo 133 is, in fact: pure, refined essence of RenaultSport, distilled down into a tiny, tenacious, terrier-like package.
As I sidle back down to base camp, eagerly pursued by the tell-tale smell of hot tyres and even hotter brakes, a RenaultSport cove wanders out to take the keys. “Did you switch off the ESP?” he asks. No, I say. Hell, it was tough enough to get the traction control light blinking at all.
“You can turn it off, you know,” he says. “And off means just that. Really off. Totally off.” That’s why the RenaultSport guys rule. Mastery of hot-hatch engineering combined with just a soupçon of disregard for personal safety. Let’s keep them away from that black hole machine, eh?