What bet­ter test of the Re­nault­sport Me­gane’s met­tle than a clash with our reign­ing hot-hatch champ, the Hyundai i30 N?

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Hot Me­gane takes on our reign­ing hot-hatch champ

THIS ought to be ter­ri­fy­ing. The road runs across a rolling plateau, open at first be­fore div­ing down­hill in a se­ries of ever-tight­en­ing, wildly cam­bered bends. Fat gobs of rain spat­ter the wind­screen. I’m at­tempt­ing to keep the teardrop-shaped tail lights of the Hyundai i30 N some­where ahead of the red rib­bon that marks top dead cen­tre of the Me­gane RS280’S steer­ing wheel. Rather than slow­ing for the cor­ners we seem to be ac­cel­er­at­ing, sucked into the rain­for­est as if we’re in a ven­turi, hav­ing crossed some un­marked event hori­zon. Ev­ery once in a while, the Hyundai’s tail lights dis­ap­pear mid cor­ner as it yaws into a big tail slide, be­fore blink­ing back out of the gloom, the tyres fir­ing bark and leaves in twin vor­tices be­hind it. I’m laugh­ing like an id­iot. The Me­gane will do that for you.

IT DIDN’T take too long to fig­ure out which car we ought to pitch the Re­nault against. The Hyundai i30 N’s beau­ti­fully judged blend of tal­ents were enough to land it top spot on the podium in our hot-hatch show­down in the April edi­tion. In or­der to es­tab­lish it­self as a wor­thy ad­di­tion to the Re­nault­sport canon, the RS280 at least needed to level with the $40K Ko­rean. At first, it seems as if the Hyundai stands lit­tle chance. The Re­nault’s overt dis­play of bulging arches, gap­ing vents, big rub­ber and a rear dif­fuser that might ac­tu­ally do some­thing makes the i30 N look dis­tinctly un­der­done. The Me­gane’s op­tional Tonic Or­ange sig­na­ture paint fin­ish also helped clone-brush the Hyundai into near in­vis­i­bil­ity. Still, there’s some­thing to be said for a cer­tain dis­cre­tion, even if the early money’s all on the French hatch.

One thing that’s worth know­ing from the out­set. The 202kw Hyundai and the 205kw Re­nault are vir­tu­ally line ball in terms of pace. At Heathcote the Me­gane was a mere tenth slower to both 100km/h and 400m than the i30 N, while on the open road, they’re im­pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate. The red car is two ki­los heav­ier than the or­ange one and while the Re­nault opens a torque ad­van­tage (390Nm vs 353), you need al­most an­other 1000rpm on board to plug into peak twist ac­tion in the Me­gane.

It’s clear that the Hyundai has a broader dy­namic reper­toire than the Re­nault, thanks in no small part to its adap­tive damp­ing. The sus­pen­sion can be ei­ther more ac­com­mo­dat­ing than the Me­gane’s or punchier, the drive modes eas­ily ac­cessed by the pale-blue steer­ing wheel-mounted tabs. Thing is, one re­ally well-sorted sus­pen­sion set­ting al­ways trumps a se­lec­tion of so-so cal­i­bra­tions and the Re­nault’s is a gem. Like all the best Me­gane hatches, the RS280 with Cup chas­sis feels fluid at speed yet body con­trol is ex­cel­lent with bril­liantly tele­graphed tran­si­tions into un­der­steer and, with a sharp lift of the throt­tle, over­steer. The sta­bil­ity con­trol in­ter­ven­tions are also mal­leable, if a lit­tle lax, but in Race mode it switches them out com­pletely.

De­spite the fun­da­men­tal ex­cel­lence of the RS280’S chas­sis, there’s a thin but im­per­me­able mem­brane of ar­ti­fice that sits be­tween the Re­nault’s con­tact patches and you. The 2.7-de­gree four-wheel counter steer can sud­denly and un­pre­dictably al­ter the car’s cen­tre of bal­ance to a point over your left shoul­der, as if you’ve sud­denly taken up the slack on a steel hawser teth­ered to the cor­ner apex. The first time it does it, you think it’s the diff drag­ging you in, but you’ll feel it even

The 202kw Hyundai and 205kw Re­nault are vir­tu­ally line ball in terms of pace

off-throt­tle. Then there’s the fact that the steer­ing, which, un­like Fer­rari’s sys­tem that re­tains speed of re­sponse when you need it most – that is when you’re re­ally pil­ing on the big num­bers – the Me­gane’s rack ini­tialises its 1.0-de­gree vir­tual long wheel­base setup when you’re look­ing to at­tack a cor­ner hard. A lit­tle more of­ten than nec­es­sary it feels as if you’re re­act­ing to the Re­nault rather than dic­tat­ing to it. It’s un­de­ni­ably ef­fec­tive, though, and huge fun when you tune into its nu­ances. It makes a Civic Type R feel a lit­tle straight-laced in com­par­i­son.

The Hyundai, which came in look­ing wholly out­gunned, more than holds its own. Switch it into N mode on smooth roads or, on scab­bier bi­tu­men, the cus­tom set­ting that of­fers all the an­gri­ness but with the softer damp­ing, and it feels puck­ishly no-non­sense. It’s al­most as easy to swing the back out and get the nose en­gaged into a cor­ner, the i30 N just feel­ing a lit­tle edgier in yaw, due in no small part to a slightly shorter wheel­base, both real and vir­tual. The Hyundai’s gearchange is night and day bet­ter than the Re­nault’s, of­fer­ing a well-oiled slick­ness al­lied to ped­als that are bet­ter weighted for heel and toe down­shifts. If you can’t be both­ered with that, Hyundai also of­fers switch­able rev match­ing like that in the Civic Type R.

The i30 N sounds fiercer than the Re­nault too, its en­gine cam­mier and more char­ac­ter­ful at idle, while de­liv­er­ing a cleaner build in vol­ume and a more ex­tro­vert set of bangs and crack­les on the over­run. By con­trast, the Me­gane’s fire­works sound muted, our testers con­vinced at first that they were com­ing from the rear speak­ers rather than the tailpipes.

There’s lit­tle doubt that the RS280 looks tougher and has more go­ing on in­side. The Hyundai feels a lit­tle too close to the cook­ing i30s and the seat­ing po­si­tion feels too high, whereas the Me­gane co­coons you low and piles on one sport­ing cue af­ter the other. In the show­room, the Re­nault ap­pears to eas­ily jus­tify the price dif­fer­en­tial of $5K be­tween a base RS280 and an i30 N, and the loy­alty of hard­core Re­nault­sport fans and hard-won cred­i­bil­ity of the badge can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated. That RS badge has be­come a guar­an­tor of a cer­tain level of ex­cel­lence.

Buy­ers will be re­warded with a hot hatch that goes straight into the top drawer of cur­rent con­tenders. What they won’t get is a bet­ter car than the Hyundai i30 N. Drive the Me­gane at ab­so­lute ten-tenths and it prob­a­bly has a ve­neer of tal­ent be­yond even the i30 N. That’s fine for the odd track day but re­quires a level of com­mit­ment in­com­pat­i­ble with pub­lic roads. For the huge ma­jor­ity of the time, the Hyundai is a more sat­is­fy­ing and more rounded propo­si­tion. Cheaper, just as quick and pos­sessed of a broader skillset, it does enough to get the nod here.

The de­cider comes upon the re­al­i­sa­tion that were you in­ter­ested in a Me­gane with se­ri­ous track day chops, it’s likely that you’ll sit on your money un­til the 220kw Tro­phy model with bi­modal ex­haust, Re­caro seats and su­per-sticky Bridge­stone S007 rub­ber ar­rives in 2019. That’ll be the one that un­corks all of the Me­gane’s po­ten­tial and sends us into parox­ysms of hy­per­bole. So it’s a fa­mil­iar story from Re­nault­sport then. The RS280 is good, but we’d hold out for some­thing bet­ter. It’ll likely be worth the wait.

Me­gane RS280 is a hot hatch that goes straight into the top drawer of cur­rent con­tenders

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