HOT HATCH RI­POSTE

With the dual-duty Me­gane RS, Re­nault re­turns with a vengeance

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - MOTORING - JOSHUA DOWL­ING

T he ri­valry be­tween France and Ger­many has spilled from the foot­ball field to the car park.

There is de­bate about who in­vented the hot hatch — a small car with a pow­er­ful en­gine — but both coun­tries have ex­celled in the genre over the years.

Ger­many has the up­per hand with the all­rounder VW Golf GTI and its de­riv­a­tives.

France’s ri­poste is the new gen­er­a­tion Re­nault Me­gane RS, the badge re­turn­ing af­ter a two-year hia­tus.

French hot hatches are typ­i­cally bril­liant to drive on a race track but the Ger­man equiv­a­lent is usu­ally bet­ter to live with day-to-day.

When France has re­acted to crit­i­cisms — by soft­en­ing the next model — it has of­ten ended up with a blanc­mange.

Is the new Me­gane RS the first French hot hatch to break the mould? It’s off to a good start with the adop­tion of a five-door body in place of the pre­vi­ous three-door.

Purists are up in arms but the new Me­gane RS wouldn’t ex­ist if it weren’t a five-door, due to the drop in de­mand for three-doors glob­ally.

An­other move to­wards the main­stream is the op­tion of an au­to­matic for the first time.

A six-speed man­ual is still avail­able but the six-speed twin-clutch auto opens the Me­gane RS to buy­ers who may not have con­sid­ered it be­fore and takes the grind out of the daily com­mute.

Key ingredients re­main: big­ger brakes, broader foot­print, sports sus­pen­sion, snug seats and more mumbo un­der the bon­net.

The 2.0-litre turbo — long a sta­ple of the hot-hatch class — has been re­placed by a 1.8litre turbo, which Re­nault claims is the most pow­er­ful of its type in the world.

A big­ger car than its pre­de­ces­sor, the Me­gane RS has put on 48kg (to 1427kg) for the man­ual and added 71kg (1450kg) for the auto — largely negat­ing the power gain.

How­ever, thanks to the won­ders of gear ra­tios Re­nault has still man­aged to ex­tract brisk per­for­mance.

Hot hatches aren’t only about straight-line speed but in the in­dus­try-stan­dard 0-100km/h test we stopped the clock at 6.0 sec­onds in the man­ual and 6.2 sec­onds in the auto, which has a dif­fer­ent spread of ra­tios. The of­fi­cial claim is 5.8 sec­onds.

The man­ual gearshift is OK but a bit notchier than ri­vals. The auto is one of the bet­ter twin-clutches around although it dis­plays a sub­tle shud­der at car park speeds.

Cars like this, how­ever, are about carv­ing cor­ners. The Me­gane RS ex­cels in this re­gard thanks to sticky tyres, well sorted sus­pen­sion and trick rear-wheel steer­ing, a first for the class.

It piv­ots the back tyres up to 1 de­gree in the same di­rec­tion as the front wheels at high speeds, and up to 2.7 de­grees in the op­po­site di­rec­tion in tight turns at low speeds.

Five driv­ing modes make the sus­pen­sion softer or stiffer, au­to­matic gear shifts gen­tle or abrupt, and switch the ex­haust from bor­ing to boy racer.

The muf­fler’s snap, crackle and pop are more pro­nounced in the auto thanks to the build-up in pres­sure in the split-sec­ond be­tween gear changes. The man­ual is oddly quiet.

There is greater per­son­al­i­sa­tion. The Me­gane RS starts from $44,990 plus on-roads for the man­ual and $47,490 for the auto.

The man­ual’s “Cup” op­tion pack, for $1490, adds a me­chan­i­cal lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial — pre­vi­ously stan­dard — bun­dled with black 19inch al­loys, 10mm lower sus­pen­sion and two­piece front discs with four-pis­ton Brembo brake calipers painted red.

On both ver­sions, the big­ger front discs — 355mm — bet­ter han­dle re­peated pun­ish­ment.

Other op­tions in­clude Bose au­dio ($500), sports Al­can­tara leather seats ($1190) and panoramic sun­roof ($1990).

The stan­dard sports sus­pen­sion is bril­liantly ag­ile when you want it to be and sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able the rest of the time.

The op­tional lower sus­pen­sion is a touch too busy for nor­mal road use, even for hard­core hot hatch fans.

Tyres are 19-inch Bridge­stone rub­ber. There’s am­ple grip but they’re noisy on coarse sur­faces and can hum on smooth tar­mac. Re­nault says this is the trade-off for grip but other tyres grip with less groan.

A high­light of the car is the steer­ing, which is re­mark­ably ac­cu­rate and gives pre­cise feed­back. The ef­fect of the rear-wheel steer­ing is difficult to de­tect — per­haps be­cause it is do­ing its job well.

In the man­ual there is a de­lay in power de­liv­ery below 2500rpm but beyond this point the surge is so strong the front wheels want to fol­low the con­tour of the road and the steer­ing wheel wants to wrig­gle out of your hand. You quickly learn to an­tic­i­pate and adapt.

The bulging sports seats are snug and sur­pris­ingly lux­u­ri­ous. Rear pas­sen­gers aren’t af­forded the same com­fort — with tight foot and knee­room — but they get rear air vents.

The large ver­ti­cal dash dis­play can be per­son­alised and there’s a large dig­i­tal speedo to keep your right foot in check. One blot: the rear-view cam­era view is grainy at night. Front, rear and side sen­sors help take the guess­work out of park­ing.

Mood lights in the doors and dash give the cabin a lift and au­dio buffs will ap­pre­ci­ate the pre­mium Bose fit­ment.

Other ob­ser­va­tions: the LED low and high­beams are re­mark­able, es­pe­cially on back roads in the dead of night.

Foot­note for fans: a hard­core Tro­phy edi­tion ar­rives next year with 220kW/400Nm in man­ual or auto and with the lim­ited-slip diff stan­dard.

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