MID-AFTERNOON on Saturday and we’re getting slowly stewed like Welsh lamb in a hotpot by the unseasonably warm sunshine.
The team are sat in a quiet layby on the edge of a stunning hairpin watching as the quiet of the countryside is rudely interrupted as 263 horses liberally apply black rubber over a bumpy apex. I’m encapsulated in the Caterham as Smithy hides in a bush snapping away as the R500’s howl bounces off the hillsides.
With some cracking shots in the bag it’s time for a late lunch, so Rich and I volunteer to fetch some sandwiches from Crickhowell – a 10-mile cross-country sprint. Seeing as Rich is only here for the shoot – a pressing Mazda engagement meant he couldn’t stay the weekend – I grab my only chance for a blast in the Twingo.
Packing nearly a fifth less power than the DBS, the car I’ve spent the majority of the weekend in, I was dubious as to how the Twingo would stack up, especially with Rich following in the Evo X. But what begins to play out is one of the most exciting carves through the countryside I’ll have all weekend.
The route across the hills is littered with switch back after switch back, crests and blind falls – and the Twingo is screaming. Like all good little French cars should, the 133 loves revs; keep the tiny terror singing near the red line and it comes alive.
It reminds me of my soon-to-be-chopped-in Citroen Saxo VTR – it only feels involving when the red line’s pointing skyward – the 133 loves to be thrashed, just like the Citroen, and it grips and grips in a way it really has no right to.
On our sandwich run, the Twingo’s doing a fair job of holding the Evo off; granted the mighty Mitsubishi is chomping on the 133’s tailpipe, but on these twisty roads there’s nowhere for it to pass and I’m having a whale of a time behind the wheel.
As I said at the start, the Twingo is a strange inclusion in this company, but on these roads it’s starting to make sense. Not least when you consider you could buy 14 – yes 14 – for the price of the Aston.
Ok, so I know they’re in completely different classes; different schools in fact – but when it comes to fun roads like the ones glued to the side of the Brecon Beacons, the Twingo puts a huge smile on your face.
And that’s because you’ve got to work at it; you’ve got to carry speed through corners; you’ve got to eek out every last one of those precious 133 horses to keep up. And when you do, oh boy does it give you a real sense of achievement.
Our test Twingo came with the optional Cup chassis (£650), which includes lowered ride height, stiffer springs and dampers and smart 17-inch alloy wheels. Without having the standard model for comparison it’s hard to say exactly what sort of difference it makes, but there’s no doubt the Twingo’s handling is impressive.
It generates staggering levels of grip for such a small car – push hard into a corner and it sticks to the asphalt like chewing gum, cocking a rear wheel as it noses round the bends.
One thing’s for sure, Renault certainly knows how to make fizzy little powerplants and this 1.6-litre unit is no exception.
The VVT engine makes its headline 133bhp figure at the top of the rev range – 6,750rpm to be exact – which is why you really need to get it working hard to make swift progress. Peak torque of 160Nm arrives at an equally high 4,400rpm. It’s got a harsh note to it too, but not one that’s intrusive or annoying – more of a satisfying buzz, than painful din.
Inside it’s a bit on the basic side. The seats are figure hugging and supportive, but covered in cheap-feeling material. Trim is suitably sporty and the layout of the dash and interior is comfortable. There is a distinct whiff of the former Clio inside though – much of the car is based on that model – and you’ll certainly feel familiar with the driving position.
Heading back with two carrier bags full of carbohydrates, Rich and I are having just as much fun. This time it’s uphill and the Twingo isn’t as responsive as when gravity was playing an important part in proceedings. However, it’s still involving and incredibly enjoyable.
Parked up, we wolf down tasteless dough washed down by cans of Coke and listen as the Renault’s engine pings as it cools.
No-one can quite believe I enjoyed the Twingo as much as I did as I explain the fun I had skipping across the valley – perhaps it had something to do with the surroundings; something to do with the fact my short stint behind the wheel was isolated to the very roads it excels on. But the fact remains – this is a fun machine that, in its own unique way, rivals all three cars here. And for £11,500 that’s quite some achievement.
With the rest of photography rattled off, we say our goodbyes to Rich and Smithy as they head back towards England, and the DBS, Caterham and Evo plot a course for Tenby.
We revert back to factory settings with me in the DBS – sod the painful thighs – Dunc in the R500 and Dan in the Evo. The two-hour drive back to base takes longer in the dark, and as we leave the hills the roads are still as damp as we left them – our afternoon of sunburn a long and distant memory.
We arrive at our Haven home with a boot full of beer and heads full of memories, reflecting on the fact nothing has gone wrong. Yet…
SUNDAY – a day for quiet rest and relaxation, or enjoying a quarter million pounds worth of cars on some of the best roads in the UK? Unsurprisingly we opt for the latter and before 9am we’re on the road. Two miles of single-file road winds away from our Haven base before opening up on to straighter stretches.
I’m leading in the DBS and as I pass through Penally a glance in the mirror shows the Caterham peeling off into a pub car park with the Evo close behind.
Fearing the worst, and remembering what happened in the damp less than 24 hours earlier, I three-point turn and hurtle back. I can’t spot any damage as I pull up but a pair of disappointed faces hint at mechanical ‘issues’. It transpires Dan was following not far behind in the Evo when a cloud of white smoke covered his car. Dunc explains power was instantly sapped and he coasted to the side of the road.
Coolant is evaporating as it spills out of the corners of the exhaust mounts and forms a sad puddle on the floor. We pull off the engine cover and sure enough the coolant has disappeared completely – even I know what that means – head gasket.
The AA call centre insists on sending a patrol out to inspect the car, but sadly he doesn’t know what a Caterham is, let alone how to fix one. So, two hours later, the R500 heads back to Surrey on the back of a low-loader.
When I get back to Car Dealer HQ, I called Caterham and they said the R500 we drove had spent many hard hours thrashing around race tracks, bouncing off the rev limiter on dynos and suffering in the hands of ham-fisted journos (what were they trying to say?).
We were right in our assumption the head gasket had failed, but they said the one fitted to our yellow machine was an early unit and not the same fitted to customer cars.
NEXT… Part 5: Mitsubishi Evo X
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