Some cars have more in common than they let on.
Thus Seats, Audis, Skodas and VWs are related to an incestuous degree. European royal families used to inter marry and spawn heirs in much the same way.
With cars it’s all about reducing development and production costs. Cash can also be saved by using the same bits in as many different vehicles as possible, because the more those bits are churned out, the cheaper they become.
This is one reason why a lot of cars are very similar technically and tends to result in pragmatism rather than innovation. So most little cars have front engines and front wheel drive, with the exception of the dinky Renault Twingo, whose 3 cylinder, 1 litre motor lies under the boot floor and drives its back wheels. Lots of cars were built like this in the 1950s and 60s, and some had distinctly wobbly handling as a result, but many were also compact and space efficient.
Although it could do with more rear legroom, the Twingo is cleverly packaged and isn’t dodgy to drive. It is refreshingly unconformist, but Renault would struggle to turn a profit from it if the car’s components didn’t have wider applications, which is why variations of them have ended up in the latest Smart cars, with the five-door, ForFour being a Twingo with a serious makeover. I had the interesting experience of spending a week with both (a non-turbo 70PS Renault and a turbocharged, 90PS Smart -engines available in either model).
Sharing the same sub structure, door frames and most of the glazing means that you can tell they’re related. The Renault has a latter day 1960’s French chic, but the snub-nosed Smart is more singular than it at first appears. Virtually every panel has a slightly different contour or profile. Even the door handles have changed.
Inside the cabin architecture is the same, but has been cleverly re-worked, with the Smart having an array of controls for the heat/vent system and other things that reminded me of an old transistor radio, and which I rather liked, although my wife thought it looked daft. It buzzed under acceleration, and neither of us liked that.
‘Why is the speedometer wearing a hat’ asked my beloved, as we climbed into the Renault and peered at the cowl shrouding this half moon shaped instrument. Again, this didn’t offend me. Overall I thought the Smart’s dash more interesting, the Renault’s slightly easier to use.
Both cars had plenty of storage space although I could have done without the Smart’s rear floor mounted oddments box that meant it could only carry four people. Luggage decks were high thanks to the rear engines and boot space OK, although with the seats folded not fantastic.
Both cars had nice high seating positions, tombstone front seats and thick rear quarter pillars, which conspired to create big, irritating blind spots, which given these cars’ town friendliness was a significant black mark. However, the rear engines meant that the front wheels have been given really tight locks, making both cars brilliant at squeezing into tiny spaces.
They had joggly rides and quick steering, although the Smart, which had slightly smaller tyres, was more composed, and I actually preferred the way it handled. The weight of the engine was more apparent in the Renault. Both were pushed about by motorway cross winds in a way front engined rivals wouldn’t be, and this might make longer journeys a bit wearing, but were mechanically quiet thanks to much of the engine noise being left behind.
I’d pay extra for the turbo motor, as the less powerful, non-turbo Twingo felt rather flat footed when accelerating, although it perfectly relaxed once wound up.
The Renault had a pleasing, slick gear change, the Smart a rather gritty action, which is odd, as both use the same components and are built at the same factory.
Overall I rather liked these little cars, which were flawed in places, but distinctive and interesting in a world where many of their rivals are not. If forced to choose I’d go for the Renault because I preferred its looks. You might think the Smart has a winning pug dog cuteness, but neither car will be mistaken for anything else.