TG's big city car showdown
Up vs Cactus vs Smart vs Twingo: who’s nailed the 21st-century town-car conundrum?
Question: is the VW Up the best city car money can buy?
Usually when a crowd-pleasing nugget of gold like the Volkswagen Up arrives, every rival scrambles to copy the formula, as per iPhones or vampire romantic fiction. But we've assembled the Up's rivals for an urban turf war, and there's a distinct lack of flattering imitation. These four all do the same job - go a little distance, drink a little fuel, look funky in the process - but the approaches suggest that five decades on from Issigonis's Mini moment, there's still no silver bullet for this brief.
Renault's new Twingo is a rear-engined, rear-drive, turbocharged hatch. The new Smart ForTwo is similarly rump-engined, but banks on two seats and dinkier dimensions. The Citroen C4 Cactus blazes its own trail: crossover looks, bubblewrap panels and a lightweight ethos that puts it within 100kg, as tested, of the Volkswagen (despite being quite a bit bigger). Drawn from three different classes, these are the key small cars of right now. So are they onto something? After all, the Up was initially slated for RWD before the accountants demanded Polo parts-sharing. Time for a Central London street fight.
Pictures: Matt Howell
This feature originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Up isn't perfect inside, but it's close. Ergonomic gripes begin and end with the penny-pinching decision not to fit dual electric window controls to the driver's door. Its ambience is darker than a Hollister store, but when there's this much space, such finely graded materials, the comfiest seating position... it's almost spot on.
Climb back, er, up, into the Twingo and while its materials aren't as Fort Knoxy, you will appreciate the far brighter ambience, if not the cramped rear seats. Twist the key, and the rear-mounted turbo triple settles into a smoother idle than the Volkswagen.
Here's where the Twingo threatens to steal a march on its closest foe. Like the Up, it's only available with 1.0-litre three-cylinder power, but, unlike the Up, which gets by with equally sluggish 59bhp and 74bhp versions, the Twingo offers a 70bhp naturally aspirated model, or this 89bhp turbo version. Thing is, just as the styling harks back to the old Renault 5 Turbo, the inconsistent ‘lag, b-o-o-OOST' calibration of the throttle is distinctly Eighties too. It's not going to spear off into a Beefeater or try to mount Nelson's Column, but smooth acceleration away from red lights is a learning curve.
The new Smart is basically a chopped Twingo under the two-tone skin, but we've gone for the lo-fi, naturally aspirated version in a desperate effort to keep the price sensible. This basic Passion model is within a few hundred pounds of top-end Twingos and Ups (boasting twice the seat count and luggage space). It's the same old Smart dichotomy - it's not so narrow that you slip through the jams, the titchy wheelbase struggles to handle shoddy surfaces and speed bumps, and the parking-space trump card seems a little moot when none of these is exactly a chore to park. The VW has optional sensors. This Cactus has a camera and a £325 autonomous parking system. The Smart is in danger of looking like a Noughties fad, ageing faster than the lava lamp.Advertisement - Page continues below
Except for a couple of inconvenient truths. It's not just night and day better than the old ForTwo - this one is weeks, months, seasons better. And secondly - damn - I like it. The cabin is the first triumph: like the latest Mini, it's a cheery design now rationalised for grown-ups. Renault switchgear, Mercedes graphics and Pagani vents meet in a much roomier, better constructed pod. Not too sure how well the dashboard trimmed in swimming trunks netting will wear, though I guess it brings a new meaning to ‘soft-touch materials'.
The new ForTwo is better to drive too. Yes, the ride is still a hopscotch. The manual gearbox, though leagues ahead of the old robotised manual nonsense, is notchier than Harry Styles' bedpost. And what you gain with the world's tightest road car turning circle, you lose with numb, three-turns-between-lock steering that prevents elk-test barrel rolls. But that square wheelbase and sub-900kg weight means this thing's as agile between red buses and skyscrapers as an X-wing fighter skimming down that trench on the Death Star. You sit high and bolt upright too - not the comfiest for long trips, but perfect for spotting those lane-hopping opportunities in crosstown traffic.
Weirdly, the bonsai-SUV Cactus feels altogether low-slung when you get into it from the Smart. You'd think it was up there with the Qashqai, wouldn't you? But no, Citroen's escaped concept car is really a cleverly styled supermini. Still, it's not massive inside - avoid the glass roof if you need rear headroom, and the boot's loading lip is waist-high.
The Cactus has a power advantage (because Paul Horrell's long-termer - that we have here - is a top-spec version), and thusly it's the zestiest engine here. A relatively massive 151lb ft from the blown 1.2 means it's five seconds faster to 62mph than the Smart and VW, though in the city it merely translates into more ambitious roundabout entry speeds.
No matter. It's still the least sporty car I've driven. Don't worry, this isn't some ‘there's no steering feel and it won't lift-off oversteer around Piccadilly Circus' irrelevance - the approach is refreshing. Granted, the fidgety medium-speed ride (somehow worse than the Smart's, despite a wheelbase advantage), lazy body control and slow responses grate next to the Up's sneering composure. The Cactus is more immature - less happy to throw down its coat and cover the potholes and puddles of the urban jungle for you to step across.
But, you have to remember the Cactus has been pared back - it's 200kg lighter than the straight Citroen C4 nobody buys. Officially, it's within 80kg of the Twingo, so naff soundproofing and unruly suspension isn't a huge surprise. The shocking driving position is, though: Citroen, why do I, as a fairly average six-foot-one chap, have to sit bolt upright to reach the Allegro/LaFerrari steering square, which then bashes my knees every time it passes a quarter-turn? After half an hour at the wheel, my back aches and there's cramp in my left leg. Not even the topsy Smart disagreed with my lanky frame this much.
Seeking a distraction from sciatica and traffic, I play pat-a-cake with the cabin. The Cactus might be stripped-out underneath, but it doesn't feel it inside. That huge glovebox with Braille studs up top, the stitched strap doorhandles - it reeks of attention to detail. A few rattles suggest build quality didn't enjoy the same budget.
BMW's i3 deserves a tip of the hat for donating its twin-screen info layout too, though not its usability - that touchscreen is the usual Peugeot-Citroen playschool effort.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Cactus is not the car to buy if you want to charge across town at rush hour. The Smart is your companion for that - it's like a delivery scooter for people, not pizzas. You'll never see a Cactus being driven quickly - the car only settles when its baggy gearchange isn't rushed, so if you slow right down, its old-school comfy French compliance starts to work its magic on you. The Up mocks its refinement, but the obliging softness to the whole car - not just its Airbump acne - will find plenty of friends among the anti-Nürburgring brigade.
The Twingo, however, should be more fun to drive. You can tell it's rear-driven - the steering telegraphs less ‘noise' and it feels light over the nose over crests, but you get the sense Renault is petrified of a worst-case scenario: a young Ken Block fan arrives at a greasy, tightening, off-camber mini-roundabout just as the inconsistent boost hits the tyres. The result is a chassis muffled by incessantly interfering traction control and a predictable surrender to safety understeer. Hopefully that's leaving headroom for the Twingo GT hot hatch. Safe to say, the engaging little Up isn't the raciest car here just because it has the sole tachometer.
All should be cheap to run - spec carefully and all invite zero road tax, a sub-tonne kerbweight and claim virtuous frugality. Which is why our city trip has ended at The Crystal, in London's Docklands. What looks like The Shard post-earthquake is actually one of the world's greenest buildings, built with recycled materials and powered solely by renewable energy. No fossil fuels burned here. It's a vision of how future skylines - and even our homes - will be thought out to minimise our eco impact and manage our world's move towards megacities. And this class of 2015 is ideal transport.
Parked up next to this mass of technology, art and eco-savviness, you marvel at these disparate approaches to building an urban-friendly car.Advertisement - Page continues below
The mere fact that the Smart has been properly executed this time is a sea change - even if it remains a pricey enigma. The Cactus is a flawed diamond - brilliantly original and a machine your family will accept for its imperfections and bond with. It's just so characterful, which counts for a lot - I mean, the 2CV was never actually that good in its day, was it? And, likeable though the Twingo undoubtedly is, the clinical VW schools it everywhere except for that indeterminable charm we love little cars for. That, and dual window switches.