Thursday, 28 August 2008

RenaultSport Twingo

How times change. The original iteration of the Twingo was never offered as a right-hand drive model because, according to Renault bigwigs, ‘the British market would not want a city car’. Missed a trick there – the number of irritating Smarts, G-Wizzes, Kas, Cinquecentos and cheap imported Suzuki Cappuccinos on the streets of London is testament to the extent of their Gallic boardroom wrongness. Still, can’t win ‘em all.

The Twingo was revolutionary in the domestic market, being a sort of design adventure into a quirky wilderness that, if not quite a last roll of the dice, certainly suggested an awareness that churning out such less-then-tantalising models as the 9 and the 11 didn’t seem to be doing Renault any favours. The monobox shape was clean and simple, but featured a number of quirky details that endeared it to a broad spectrum of consumers (although many of them had probably owned 2CVs in the past) – the little bug-eyes, the offset air vents on the bonnet, the colour-coded switchgear that gave the impression that the driver had dramatically burst a bag of boiled sweets… it was built to a budget, but the devil’s in the detail. Cheap, economical, easy to fix and low-spec enough that there wasn’t really much on it to go wrong, the Twingo enjoyed a production run of fifteen years before the last one rolled off the line in France in 2007.

But it wasn’t killed off… merely replaced. For, you see, there is a new young upstart that bears the Twingo name. You can’t really call it an evolution of its forebear because it shares very little with it in terms of a) styling cues or b) basic fundamental design principle, but nevertheless it remains the baby in the line-up. If it were to appear on a restaurant menu, it could be listed as ‘Piquant cheekiness in a Clio reduction’. On the face of it, it appears to be a small Clio-ette with a few more corners, but digging deeper reveals swirling depths of mischief and devilment…

You see, Renault is staffed largely by petrolheads. Always has been. The way they turn their mainstream models into fire-snorting tarmac terrorists is so far removed from what their accountants would perceive as being logical or sensible – they just do what the hell they like because they bloody love hot hatches and saucy saloons. The list reads as a roll call of heroic lightweights and hooligans your mother wouldn’t approve of: 5 Turbo & Turbo 2, 19 16v, Clio Williams, 5 GT Turbo, V6 Clio, Fuego GTA, Clio197 Cup, 8 Gordini… they seemingly love nothing more than stuffing spicy engines into diminutive bodyshells and watching people nailing them down country lanes and torque-steering into trees. The little French scamps.

So the fate of the new Twingo was sort of inevitable. It may have originally emerged from a corporate brainstorm in which words such as ‘city’, ‘sustainable’, ‘dynamic’, ‘urban’, ‘young’ and ‘no-frills’ were banded about, but the second generation means business. Just look at their new ad campaign: the slogan is simply ‘Twingo. Grrr.’ Oooh, scary.

The enthusiastically deranged brethren of the RenaultSport division have buggered about with it a little, as is their wont, and shoehorned in a nat-asp 1600cc four-pot that pokes out a respectable 133bhp – more than enough to be entertaining in a car that weighs as much as a pint of sea-snails and a garlic ├ęclair. The Cup chassis ensures a tight and entertaining ride (which is pretty much a gimme considering what a superb job the Clio Cup makes of both fast road use and sparkly-eyed track work) and, best of all, we see those garish RenaultSport graphics that first appeared on the Megane 230 making a colourful reappearance; they’re a delete option but you’d be an idiot not to keep them. They’re gloriously zany, and that neatly sums up the RS ethos.

Yes, it’s available in right-hand drive this time. Yes, it has a CD player and electric windows and all the other weighty luxuries that didn’t match the spirit of the original. And yes, you’ll have an absolute hoot hooning down your local b-roads in the comfort of that grippy and firmly bolstered seat. But no… it’s not cute or twee. Not any more. Any funny business and this little French tart will twist your bollocks off and staple them to your hat. Good thing too – it’s always been the RenaultSport way.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Dodge Challenger SRT

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. The hordes of revivalists, aficionados, backstreet spanner jockeys and fabrication geniuses that keep a steady supply of refreshed retro metal on the roads are testament to the enthusiasm with which we view the history of all areas of automotive design; from humble Allegros and 2CVs to stratospherically unobtainable works-built rally cars, every corner of the scene has a devoted following. Manufacturers haven’t failed to notice this and, of course, the revival of classic marques is a practice that’s been growing in prevalence for the last decade or so.

Sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss. You can’t deny the success of the new Mini as both urban runabout and credible track car, and the Mustang revival has certainly undone a lot of the negatives brought forth by, for example, the old Mustang II by cleverly blending modern aggression with classically mischievous styling cues. (Sure, it gets all confused when you try to drive it round a corner, but it’s American - they all do that.) The new VW Scirocco looks to be a winner, as do Fiat’s Panda and 500. Conversely, the revived Thunderbird seemed to stagger into the desert with an arrow in its back, while VeeDub’s reworking of the Beetle was a cynical styling exercise at best, with few sensible people choosing to buy what was basically just a less-practical Golf.

So where will the new Dodge Challenger fit into this spectrum? Well, hopefully it’ll be sitting somewhere around Mustang territory. Although this may be rather less than objective as I really just want it succeed. You see, I’m in love with the new Challenger. Actually properly in love with it.

For starters, just look at it. It’s very rare to find a car that you can’t find a single fault with - Ferrari 308 GTB, Lamborghini Miura, mkI Ford Cortina, Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, that’s about it – but the Dodge is so achingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful, so perfectly crafted, that it’s genuinely hard to look away. It’s like an ocular vacuum, it sucks your gaze right in. The front end acts as a solid statement of intent, seemingly designed specifically to look intimidating when spied looming in a rear-view mirror. Admit it, it’d be a reflex action to move over, right? The side-view offers a sumptuously flowing classic coupe silhouette, the wide hips giving a nod to its predecessor, while the mammoth 20” five-spoke alloys bring the profile cleanly up to date. As for the rear… well, it’s pure sixties traffic-light hero, isn’t it?

There’s extremely good news under the bonnet. The evocative Hemi name sprawls across the cam covers like a menacing promise of imminent annihilation; anything less than a V8 in a car dripping in as much drag strip heritage as this would be tantamount to sacrilege, so the 6.1-litre Hemi certainly doesn’t disappoint. It churns out an unstressed 425bhp – the same amount as a Formula Renault racer, for example, or an Audi RS4 or a Prodrive Aston Martin V8 Vantage – and 420lb.ft of torque, which is roughly enough to twist a Detroit drag strip into an attractive double-helix. The legacy of the classic Hemi is echoed in myriad styling cues throughout the car; the fuel filler cap, for example is a work of chromed art. The full-width tail lights are extremely sixties, and the snarling air intakes in the bonnet are pure retro mopar.

All of these glorious revivals are melded with some essential modern advances, with the 2009 model year SRT coming equipped with a six-speed manual ‘box and a limited slip differential. Everything – everything – about this car is absolutely spot-on. And you know what the most exciting thing is? The new Dodge Challenger retails for $40,000 in the domestic market. With current exchange rates you could have a shiny new one imported, SVA’ed and sitting on your UK driveway for around £25,000. Which is a fucking bargain. Furthermore, a quick Googling shows this sum to be approximately the same market value as one of my kidneys. I’ve got some serious thinking to do…

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Classic - DAF 600

The auto industry, as with every other industry, is driven by innovation, experimentation and sparks of genius. Take the seatbelt, for instance. Adaptations of aircraft-spec safety-belts popped up here and there in cars in the forties, and the three-point car safety belt was patented in 1951. In ‘58, Saab became the first auto manufacturer to fit seatbelts as standard – a move that revolutionised car safety. Ditto Henry Ford’s introduction of laminated windscreens in 1919, a move that marked the end of facefuls of pointy shards resulting from tiny stone chips.

Not all ideas are good ideas, of course. Look at Ford’s Nucleon concept of 1958. While Sweden was saving lives with cunning strips of canvas, Detroit was trying to convince people that strapping yourself and your family to a big fuck-off nuclear reactor was a bold stride into the future and not, as was pointed out by certain detractors, a bloody stupid idea. The potential for turning a cancerous green after a rear-end shunt was perhaps a little too high to see the idea move anywhere beyond the ‘ooh, aren’t we clever’ stage. Although it was quite pretty to look at.

There’s a middle ground between these two extremes where a certain set of ideas exist: ideas that were pretty good but entirely failed to revolutionise any aspect of the industry. The archetypal example of such sidelined notions is the Variomatic system as fitted to DAF cars. It was the first ever CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), featuring one constantly shifting gear rather than a series of separate ones, working on the principle that torque was constantly optimised and rev-stall on gearchanges was eliminated. Given that it had a reverse function, it could go just as fast backwards as it could forwards.

The first model to feature the revolutionary Variomatic system was the DAF 600, first appearing at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1958 (my, that was a busy year wasn’t it?) and rolling off the production lines a year later. This was, quite frankly, an amazing automobile. The first car for truck manufacturer DAF, it featured an innovative unitary steel construction and an aircooled twin-cylinder boxer engine – a sort of baby Porsche motor, if you will. The drivebelts took up the difference in speed between the driven rear wheels under cornering, thus eliminating the need for a differential; indeed, the belts themselves gave the effect of a limited-slip differential, meaning that you could have great fun hanging the arse out if you were so inclined.

While most of their competitors were still grappling with stone-age cart-springs, the 600 featured independent suspension all round. So, it could handle well, it had a throaty two-stroke-esque bark, it was strong and light, it was compact, and it had incredibly clever transmission… this should be a landmark car, right? As important as the Mini or the Mustang or the Topolino? Well, in theory, yes. But have you ever seen one? And when was the last time you even heard someone talk about one?

It’s a shame that the 600 (and it’s successors; the 750, 33, 44, 55, 66 et al) has sunk into obscurity, particularly as it can perform two very neat tricks. Number one: imagine you’ve driven from a standstill, kept your foot planted to the floor and have reached the top speed. Gently ease the accelerator up and what happens? You go even faster! The increased manifold vacuum from easing off shifted the transmission to an even higher ratio, making this the only car ever produced that goes faster when you stop accelerating. Number two: put this car side by side with pretty much any car in production today and have a race. There’s a very good chance that the DAF will win. (Of course, for this to happen it’s necessary for both of the cars to be racing in reverse but hey, it still counts as a victory.)

OK, so I lied. The Variomatic system didn’t ‘entirely fail to revolutionise any aspect of the industry’. Audi introduced their Multitronic system in 2000, based on the fundamental CVT principles of the DAF system. It’s not compatible with their quattro drivetrain but you’ll find it in A4s, A5s and A6s. Variants of CVT also appear in Mercs and all sorts now. It’s finally come of age… but it took a long bloody time to happen. Long enough for DAF to become a minor footnote in the history of the system, anyway.

Unfortunately Multitronic doesn’t directly mimic all of the mechanical functions of Variomatic. Can you imagine an Audi A8 3.7 doing 150mph in reverse? Now that would be a legacy that DAF could be hugely proud of…