When Re­nault Sport is let loose on the Mé­gane, a world-class hot hatch usu­ally emerges. No pres­sure for this all-new one, then…

Autocar - - THIS WEEK - TESTED 25.1.18, SPAIN ON SALE APRIL PRICE £29,000 (EST)

Few per­for­mance cars have been lav­ished with a more con­sis­tent tide of praise by hot hatch­back afi­ciona­dos than the Re­nault Mé­gane RS. This car has bossed the fast front-drive niche for most of its life, hav­ing ap­peared with that mem­o­rable ‘bus­tle-back’ styling in 2004 and promptly set new class bench­marks for driver in­volve­ment and han­dling poise. But it’ll take some­thing to re­claim that fa­mil­iar old perch now, with the new Honda Civic Type R hav­ing be­come a bril­liant driver’s car in its own right, and the Volk­swa­gen Golf GTI, in­com­ing Seat Leon Cupra R and four-wheel-drive Ford Fo­cus RS sud­denly mak­ing com­pe­ti­tion in the seg­ment seem lit­tle less fierce than that which Re­nault has been com­ing up against in For­mula 1 of late.

For that rea­son and oth­ers, you could call the launch of this new Mé­gane RS some­thing of a wa­ter­shed mo­ment. Can the firm that brought us the flawed Clio RS 200 re­dis­cover its sparkling form of old? What­ever it was that made so many of its hot hatch­backs so good for so long – has Dieppe still got it, or is it lost for­ever? Mean­while, has Group Re­nault’s Alpine A110 sports car, bril­liant as it may be, swal­lowed up so much valu­able engi­neer­ing at­ten­tion and re­source that what could be con­sid­ered Re­nault Sport’s most im­por­tant model has been left un­der­nour­ished? It’d be un­der­stand­able. But for­giv­able? I’m not so sure.

Some good news would def­i­nitely be wel­come – and maybe we’re about to get some. Al­though it re­tains front-wheel drive, the fast Mé­gane has been through an over­haul that would seem ev­ery bit as thor­ough and at­ten­tive, on pa­per, as that of any of its ri­vals. It has a new 1.8-litre tur­bocharged en­gine that’s smaller and lighter than the old car’s 2.0-litre yet de­liv­ers more power and torque than the Mé­gane 275 bowed out with – and it can be part­nered with a choice of six-speed man­ual or du­al­clutch au­to­matic gear­boxes. Un­like in the Clio RS 220 Tro­phy, then, you needn’t be stuck with two ped­als and two pad­dles if you don’t want them. Told you there was good news.

For sus­pen­sion, the Mé­gane RS sticks with struts up front and a tor­sion beam at the rear, but its front con­fig­u­ra­tion has new geom­e­try and re­tains Re­nault Sport’s Per­fo­hub tech­nol­ogy, which re­duces king­pin an­gle off­set and there­fore bet­ter re­sists torque steer and bump steer. The RS rides 5mm lower than a Mé­gane GT and has axle tracks widened by 45mm up front and 30mm at the rear.

The chas­sis fea­tures two key tech­ni­cal de­par­tures: a four-wheel steer­ing sys­tem and a set of rallystyle hy­draulic sus­pen­sion bump stops (see sep­a­rate story, p29). In more fa­mil­iar vein, you can have the Mé­gane with a slightly softer Sport sus­pen­sion tun­ing (part­nered with an elec­tronic brake-ac­tu­ated torque vec­tor­ing sys­tem) or firmer Cup set­tings. With Cup, you also get a Torsen me­chan­i­cal slippy diff con­fig­ured for greater lock-up under power and less drag ef­fect on a trail­ing throt­tle than the out­go­ing

Mé­gane 275’s GKN slippy diff was con­fig­ured for. En­larged, 19in wheels fit­ted with Bridge­stone tyres and up­rated light­weight brakes with alu­minium hubs are op­tions on Cup­spec cars. Prices are still un­of­fi­cial but are tipped to start at £29,000, with the order books open in April and first de­liv­er­ies in June.

We prob­a­bly wouldn’t have cho­sen a two-pedal Mé­gane RS with Re­nault’s EDC trans­mis­sion for our first taste of the car but, as it tran­spired, we hadn’t had ac­cess to one with a man­ual gear­box as th­ese words were writ­ten, or one with Cup sus­pen­sion, so im­pres­sions of those con­fig­u­ra­tions will have to wait un­til later. At least it’s prob­a­bly fair to sug­gest that if the Sport-level dual-clutch car hits the right notes on driver ap­peal, we can have plenty of rea­son for op­ti­mism about the stature of the other ver­sions.

The cur­rent Mé­gane’s cock­pit makes for a de­cent de­par­ture point for a per­for­mance treat­ment, al­beit one with some mi­nor frus­tra­tions. The RS 280’s Al­can­tara sports seats are good and sup­port­ive, and the driv­ing po­si­tion they grant is also good by class stan­dards: you don’t sit un­com­fort­ably high and the con­trols are well lo­cated in front of you. Re­nault Sport’s at­tempts at en­rich­ing the cabin ma­te­ri­als are mixed, though. The RS’S red-striped seat­belts and red trim ac­cents are bright and ef­fec­tive but its par­tal­can­tara sport steer­ing wheel has fairly or­di­nary-feel­ing leather where your hands rest on the grips (at quar­ter to three) and soft suede at six and 12 o’clock where you seem to touch it less.

Equally odd are the part-ana­logue, part-dig­i­tal in­stru­ments, which con­sist of a square dig­i­tal screen made up mainly of dif­fer­ently themed ana­logue rev coun­ters and a dig­i­tal speedo but whose avail­able screen space is dras­ti­cally cur­tailed by over­sized ana­logue fuel level and wa­ter tem­per­a­ture gauges to ei­ther side of it. One big­ger screen, with tem­per­a­ture and fuel in­for­ma­tion you could call up when you needed (or at least scale to your pref­er­ence), would have been a much more in­tel­li­gent lay­out.

De­tails, per­haps. Still, they mat­ter, es­pe­cially since de­tails also ini­tially pre­vent you from en­joy­ing this car’s driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as much as you might, at least un­til you be­come fa­mil­iar with the task of driv­ing around them. Chief among those are the po­si­tion­ing and ac­tion of the shift pad­dles for the Mé­gane RS 280’s EDC gear­box. Oh dear, I know: same record. But hav­ing been crit­i­cised so strongly for the Clio RS 200’s flimsy-feel­ing pad­dles, it’s amaz­ing that Re­nault Sport should have re­peated al­most ex­actly the same of­fence with that car’s new big­ger brother.

The Mé­gane’s shift pad­dles have bet­ter hap­tic feel than the Clio’s, to be fair, and the ‘crushed corn­flake’ ac­tion is no­table by its ab­sence. But they re­main awk­wardly placed on the steer­ing col­umn (dis­placed up­wards by Re­nault’s trusty old col­umn-mounted au­dio re­mote con­trol) so they’re a slight stretch for your fin­ger­tips ev­ery time you need to grab a gear. They also lack that solid, de­fined ac­tion that’d tell you be­yond ques­tion when you’ve suc­cess­fully se­lected the next gear. As they are, they feel light and woolly and it’s easy to half-pull one, then tug it again just to be sure, only to find you’ve ac­ci­den­tally up­shifted twice.

Re­nault’s EDC gear­box it­self does a re­spectable job of managing the car’s gear ra­tios and gives you some­thing more like that close con­trol you want over the driv­ing forces go­ing into the front wheels than the Clio RS 200’s

On a trail­ing throt­tle, you’ll be amazed by how eas­ily you can just flick it into de­li­cious lit­tle neu­tral-steered drifts

gear­box ever man­aged. It’s much quicker on the up­shift than on its way down the ’box, though, and noth­ing like as smooth or ju­di­cious with its shift tim­ing in ‘D’ as the bet­ter ‘flappy-pad­dle’ hot hatches with which you might com­pare it.

And what about that crit­i­cal new me­chan­i­cal oily bit that gear­box is con­nected to: the en­gine? On this ev­i­dence, I’d say it’s strong enough; com­pet­i­tive with the pre­vail­ing stan­dard for the av­er­age full-sized hot hatch­back, cer­tainly. But as a re­place­ment for the old Mé­gane 275’s blown 2.0-litre en­gine, I’m not sure ‘bet­ter than av­er­age’ makes it wor­thy. Be­cause al­though the Mé­gane RS 280 has abun­dant real-world on-theroad per­for­mance, it’s not thanks to its en­gine. The mo­tor is torquey and free-ish revving but also sounds a bit or­di­nary, suf­fers a lit­tle with iffy throt­tle re­sponse through­out the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal travel and doesn’t breathe in and keep haul­ing with any­thing like the high-range ur­gency of a Civic Type R’s 2.0-litre. As hot hatch en­gines go, it’s just all right.

Now guess what’s bet­ter than all right. The Mé­gane’s chas­sis: yup, bet­ter than all right. Balls to un­der­state­ment: it’s sen­sa­tional. The car steers faith­fully, with useful weight and plenty of feel. But the deft­ness, sup­ple­ness and fluency of its ride is out­stand­ing on bumpy roads, and is some­how set off against first-rate, pro­gres­sive body con­trol in a com­bi­na­tion that no ri­val hot hatch­back could match, I’d wa­ger. But bet­ter still are the Mé­gane RS 280’s true show­stop­pers: to­tally ab­sorb­ing han­dling agility, bril­liant cor­ner­ing bal­ance and a flair for play­ful­ness that might even make a Type R seem straight-laced.

The Mé­gane RS 280’s four-wheel steer­ing sys­tem con­trib­utes tellingly to all three, and to great­est ef­fect when you use Re­nault Sport’s Race driv­ing mode, which raises the thresh­old speed at which it switches from steer­ing against the front wheels to steer­ing in the same di­rec­tion as them. In most four­wheel-steered cars, this hap­pens at around 30mph. In the Mé­gane RS 280 – and in Race mode, re­mem­ber – you get a counter-steered rear axle all the way up to 62mph. And so the car turns in with amaz­ing alacrity and car­ries big mid-cor­ner speed so ef­fort­lessly on a bal­anced throt­tle. On a trail­ing throt­tle, mean­while, you’ll be amazed by how eas­ily you can just flick it into de­li­cious lit­tle neu­tral-steered drifts, the rear wheels ef­fec­tively guid­ing the back of the car ever so del­i­cately into the slide. That’s

an in­cred­i­bly en­liven­ing inf lu­ence on the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of a front-driven per­for­mance car at fairly low speeds, when the bends you’re tack­ling are tight, clear and well sighted.

And where does that leave the Mé­gane RS 280? Pretty plainly, it’s stag­ger­ingly good in some ways, ‘all right’ in oth­ers – and not with­out the odd frus­tra­tion. In this form, it wouldn’t cut it for me next to bet­ter, slicker and more com­plete du­al­clutch op­tions from the Volk­swa­gen Group sta­ble. But that’s not the end of the story. Be­cause al­though I’m not con­vinced this car has the en­gine it re­ally de­serves, the pad­dle-shift gear­box is an op­tion you need not have. Mean­while, the han­dling could yet prove it­self ca­pa­ble of hit­ting even greater heights in Cup spec­i­fi­ca­tion than it has al­ready in Sport trim.

If it does, how much will a slightly or­di­nary en­gine and some cu­ri­ous fix­tures and fit­tings re­ally mat­ter to a de­voted petrol­head? Could this be yet an­other land­mark new af­ford­able per­for­mance car, set to cut short the Civic Type R’s reign as our hot hatch­back champion? I’d sug­gest the pos­si­bil­ity is very real in­deed. Per­haps Re­nault Sport didn’t let all of its best en­gi­neers don those newsea­son Alpine polo shirts, af­ter all.

Driv­ing po­si­tion is good – not too high – and the con­trols are con­ve­niently sited

Turbo 1.8-litre makes 276bhp and 288lb ft but this chas­sis mer­its a bet­ter mo­tor

A larger dig­i­tal dis­play and an in­creased abil­ity to cus­tomise it would be wel­come

Roof spoiler, rear scoops and prom­i­nent dif­fuser make the RS 280’s in­tent clear

Man­ual gear­box (pic­tured) is avail­able but our test car had the dual-clutch auto

Sil­ver and red flour­ishes help to give the cabin a sporty flavour

RS 280 runs on wider tracks and sits lower than the warm GT ver­sion

Al­can­tara-trimmed RS sports seats are sup­port­ive and com­fort­able

Large, cen­tral tailpipe looks the part, al­though the key card is more understated

Straight-line pace is ad­e­quate but it’s the cor­ners where this car re­ally comes into its own

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.