Me­gane RS

The new Me­gane RS is ready for its tri­umphant re­turn... but the com­pe­ti­tion has moved on

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Contents - WORDS: STEPHEN DOBIE / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: MARK RICCIONI

One of the hot-hatch big guns is back. Will it turn the cream of the crop (i30N, Type R, Cupra R) sour with envy?

Amo­ment of magic. That’s what you’re look­ing for. On the in­fre­quent oc­ca­sion one of the per­for­mance car world’s true he­roes is re­placed, your im­par­tial­ity can’t help but fal­ter a lit­tle, as you cross your fin­gers and toes, des­per­ate for the first tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence that it’s still spe­cial.

The Me­gane Re­naultS­port is one such car, yet af­ter sev­eral hours on the road in the all-new RS 280, no mo­ment has yet ma­te­ri­alised. The old one left you un­der no il­lu­sions about how spe­cial it was. You folded your­self into a snug Re­caro seat, bum right on the floor, and prod­ded it into life. It bat­tered you about as soon as you pulled away, cry­ing to be taken to a piece of road where it could show off just how supremely de­vel­oped it was.

Yes, it could be con­strued as a bit hard­core, yet here was a car – de­spite its hum­ble front-driven chas­sis – that could be drink­ing bud­dies with a Porsche 911 GT3. If you’re strug­gling with the an­thro­po­mor­phism, then their drivers have cer­tainly been drink­ing bud­dies, shar­ing a steak and beer in the Pis­ten­klause af­ter a day of bat­ter­ing the Nür­bur­gring into sub­mis­sion in like-minded cars.

But the new one’s not giv­ing me any of that. It still rides quite abruptly (we’ve got the tougher Cup ver­sion, tra­di­tion­ally The One You Want), but it’s more sub­dued, more grown-up. Its 276bhp is just 5bhp up on be­fore, so it ac­cel­er­ates no quicker. And it’s just not as im­me­di­ately love­able. The gear­knob is aes­thet­i­cally in­ter­est­ing but weird to hold, the un­branded sports seats look the part but don’t al­low the per­fect driv­ing po­si­tion, while the steer­ing wheel has Al­can­tara in the places you won’t hold it. Pre­sum­ably so it doesn’t gain any un­sightly wear. The old Me­gane felt like an en­gi­neer’s car; this one ap­pears to have had rather more in­put from the de­sign team. That does make it a much nicer ob­ject than be­fore, mind, and it’s so im­pact­ful in the metal.

Looks won’t de­cide this test, though, which is a worry, given what’s wait­ing for it in Wales. The old Me­gane RS was so ex­cep­tional, ri­val mar­ques all bought one and stripped it down to the core to see where the magic lay. Its in­flu­ence cour­ses through the com­peti­tors that have fol­lowed it, most no­tably the lat­est Honda Civic Type R, our reign­ing hot hatch cham­pion. Along­side that, we’ve gath­ered the bois­ter­ous new kid on the block, Hyundai’s i30N, and the lat­est – per­haps great­est – ver­sion of the Seat Leon, the Cupra R. All have a four-cylin­der petrol turbo driv­ing their front wheels, via a six-speed man­ual gear­box and a lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial

(or elec­tron­ics work­ing to the same ef­fect).

“Ri­vals all bought the old RS and stripped it down to see where the magic lay”

Yep, the Me­gane has re­tained a proper gear­box, though a pad­dleshifter is op­tional, and it’s been ma­tur­ing else­where. Its sports ex­haust emits the in­evitable ar­ray of pops and bangs, but the sound is muted in­side the car. In the cen­tre of the dash­board there’s a new, por­trait in­fo­tain­ment screen with track teleme­try at one end of the scale, and a choice of which colour of the rain­bow you’d like the in­te­rior am­bi­ent light­ing at the other.

Like all of the cars here, it has a whole suite of driv­ing modes on of­fer, and un­like them, it re­mem­bers your choice when you switch the car off and restart it later, a glim­mer of hope the engi­neers have still had their say.

It’s the only car here without adap­tive sus­pen­sion – you make your choice be­tween Sport and Cup per­ma­nently, in the showroom – which might make you pon­der the im­pact of having switch­able modes. But its com­plex

4Con­trol four-wheel steer­ing has sev­eral lev­els of ag­gres­sion, so there’s def­i­nitely use in flick­ing be­tween Neu­tral, Sport and Race.

So, while it proved dis­ap­point­ingly sen­si­ble on the way to­wards the Welsh hills, once there it’s a mat­ter of sec­onds be­fore I prod it ten­ta­tively into Race and feel the car sharpen. Four-wheel steer­ing is new in this class of car, and I’ll ad­mit that with the rear wheels’ an­gle op­pos­ing the fronts’, it neatly short­ens the typ­i­cally hor­ren­dous hot-hatch turn­ing cir­cle (of which the Hyundai’s par­tic­u­larly guilty). No seven-point turns here.

Be­yond that, it takes some get­ting used to. Turn into a cor­ner and it feels ab­surdly ea­ger, flick­ing the car in quicker than feels nat­u­ral. Find a cor­ner well-sighted enough to do so with some vigour, how­ever, and that magic mo­ment fi­nally ma­te­ri­alises, the rear axle abruptly fol­low­ing the front to al­low a small, eas­ily con­trolled slide. On bumpier sur­faces you might pick the in­side rear wheel clean up in the air, too, a prover­bial tip of the hat to its dinkier, Clio Re­naultS­port fore­bears. At higher speeds, the rear wheels steer the same way as the fronts, cur­tail­ing that ea­ger­ness and in­creas­ing sta­bil­ity, help­ing im­bue the Me­gane with the coun­try­side-de­vour­ing pace we’ve come to ex­pect of a Premier League hot hatch. The old car man­aged it all without four-wheel steer­ing, though.

The tech has the po­ten­tial to open up a whole new dy­namic reper­toire, but without be­ing able to prop­erly ex­plore it via the safety of a race cir­cuit, its com­plex­ity does seem to get in the way of good old-fash­ioned fun.

There’s no such con­fu­sion in the Hyundai. Here’s a hot hatch from the old school, with the frisk­i­ness of some­thing lively from the Eight­ies if you dare to un­shackle its elec­tronic as­sis­tants on a wet or badly sur­faced road. But with a frankly baf­fling 1,944 com­bi­na­tions of its ridicu­lously cus­tomis­able driv­ing modes, there’s a set-up for all tastes and tal­ent lev­els.

“The i30 is a hot hatch from the old school, with the frisk­i­ness of

some­thing from the Eight­ies”

And in each and ev­ery one of them, this is a car with an in­fec­tious sense of hu­mour.

On first ac­quain­tance, you could ac­cuse it of be­ing a bit con­trived; this i30N Per­for­mance, the top-spec ver­sion, gets an ut­terly ju­ve­nile sports ex­haust that the cyn­i­cal might de­scribe as ‘a bit much’. The up­shift lights and il­lu­mi­nated rev-counter (which hikes up the red line as the en­gine warms) are also very nerdy. It takes two cor­ners to throw all your wor­ries about that stuff out the win­dow, though. Here’s a car that shim­mies around and lets you get stuck in at thor­oughly le­gal speeds, a too-rare oc­cur­rence as car­mak­ers chase in­creas­ingly high power out­puts. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the i30N is the least pow­er­ful car here, and it’s far from the least fun.

It’s a whole 45bhp off the pace of the Civic Type R, in fact, and climb­ing into the Honda is like climb­ing into a dif­fer­ent class of car. Per­haps un­be­liev­ably for some­thing that looks so car­toon­ish, it feels very pro­fes­sional. The gear­stick is no big­ger than is nec­es­sary, and op­er­ates the tautest, most ef­fi­cient shift here, while the trans­mis­sion’s rev-match­ing func­tion only blips the throt­tle when you need it, avoid­ing the em­bar­rass­ing blare of noise as you shift the Hyundai into first in a su­per­mar­ket car park. There’s no friv­o­lous crack­ling from the Honda’s ex­haust, ei­ther, mak­ing it unique in this group.

Then there’s the way it rides. Its sus­pen­sion is ut­terly be­witch­ing, with a Com­fort mode that re­ally does do com­fort, al­low­ing the wildest-look­ing car here to fit eas­i­est into ev­ery­day life, frus­trat­ing touch­screen and lu­di­crous lack of a fifth seat­belt aside. The Type R’s driv­ing modes are fixed – if you want the sharper en­gine and firmer sus­pen­sion, you must have the heavy steer­ing – which seems short-sighted in this com­pany, but also makes get­ting in and just driv­ing a damn sight eas­ier. On the wind­ing, bumpy roads we’re on, its pace is ut­terly crush­ing, even the tough­est, R+ mode al­low­ing it to soak ev­ery­thing up. The down­side is lit­tle of the i30N or Me­gane’s ad­justa­bil­ity or in­ter­ac­tion, but the gob-smack­ing pace re­ally does make up for it. It’s mes­meris­ingly ca­pa­ble.

Mind you, the Leon Cupra R man­ages to feel ev­ery bit as ex­cit­ing. There’s al­ways been a sense of hi­er­ar­chy among VW Group hot hatches, with Seats and Sko­das pegged back. Not here, though; this is ev­ery­thing turned up to its most ex­treme, and far be­yond any cur­rent Golf, which is why we’ve not brought one. A po­ten­tial first in the world of hot hatch group tests…

Its fa­mil­iar 2.0-litre turbo en­gine has breached the 300bhp mark, while there are more heav­ily cam­bered wheels wear­ing ex­treme cup tyres. The taste lev­els have ar­guably nose­dived, though, with the lim­ited-run Cupra R only com­ing in grey or black, al­lied to oo­dles of cop­per and car­bon de­tail­ing. As the owner of a gold-wheeled Clio Wil­liams, this may seem a hyp­o­crit­i­cal thing for me to take is­sue with, but see­ing the

Leon fi­nally freed in such a di­vi­sive spec is hard to swal­low.

A run through third gear makes up for it. Flip­ping heck, this car is quick. None of the en­gines in this test are duf­fers, but it’s the Seat’s that’s most scin­til­lat­ing. Drive an old turbo car and the feel­ing of its boost ar­riv­ing is like the big drop on your favourite roller­coaster, the barely-un­der-con­trol feel­ing of be­ing blasted through your sur­round­ings. The Leon de­liv­ers just that, only without the ar­chaic lag be­fore­hand.

While it doesn’t have a me­chan­i­cal diff, its elec­tron­ics do a good enough job of mim­ick­ing one, and it’s im­plau­si­bly good at col­lect­ing all that power to­gether and en­sur­ing you don’t exit cor­ners with hand­fuls of scrab­bling wheel­spin. Those tyres even man­age OK on damp roads. It’s an in­tox­i­cat­ing car to get stuck into, with a play­ful rear axle when you re­ally go for it.

It ul­ti­mately hob­bles it­self by be­ing sold out, a mere 24 having come to the UK. The R is a proper thriller, but it’s hard not to feel frus­trated by the VW Group only let­ting the Cupra engi­neers off the leash for a se­verely lim­ited run. Imag­ine if the Leon had been this good its whole life. Let’s hope the fi­nal car to wear Cupra as a suf­fix (rather than a harder-to­fathom pre­fix) is a tan­ta­lis­ing taste of things to come and not a hard­core fi­nale.

The Me­gane, mean­while, re­mains an enigma, even af­ter 800km of mixed – of­ten hard – driv­ing in Wales. It’ll un­doubt­edly be much sim­pler to live with than be­fore, and on tricky roads it still ex­hibits the world-class body con­trol we know and love from Re­naultS­port. It’s a sim­i­lar story to the luke­warm Clio it fol­lows: its pre­de­ces­sor’s pu­rity has been re­placed by ex­tra com­plex­ity, mak­ing it less fun to work hard than it should be. If his­tory teaches us any­thing, though, it’s that the Me­gane RS in­cre­men­tally im­proves through­out its life, and a near-300bhp Me­gane Tro­phy isn’t far away.

But for now, Hyundai beats Re­nault. Per­haps even Honda, depend­ing on what you want from a hot hatch. The i30N gets that some of us just want to have a laugh, freed from wor­ry­ing about be­ing as quick as pos­si­ble. The car is still im­mensely ca­pa­ble, but in this group it has lower, eas­ier to ex­ploit lim­its, and no mat­ter your mood, there’s not a sin­gle drive that couldn’t be livened up with a dou­ble press of its che­quered flag but­ton to trig­ger your favourite set-up. All along­side the best value price tag and most ex­haus­tive war­ranty here.

Yet it must con­cede vic­tory to the Type R, sim­ply one of the most ac­com­plished hot hatches of all time. It’s in dan­ger of seem­ing a bit too se­ri­ous; glance down at the speedo on an en­joy­able stretch of road and you’ll be go­ing at least 15kph quicker than in the i30N. Yet while the Hyundai has a breadth of driv­ing modes to tit­il­late your cur­rent level of tal­ent, the Honda en­cour­ages you to up your own game so you can re­ally do it jus­tice, and it’d take years to tire of it. There’s a depth that’s ab­sent in its ri­vals here, but fa­mil­iar from – you guessed it – the old Me­gane. From its peerless gearchange to its ex­em­plary damp­ing, mo­ments of magic in the Civic are never far away.

“The Hyundai tit­il­lates your cur­rent lev­els of tal­ent; the Honda en­cour­ages you to up your game”

Look at it! Look at that four-wheel steer­ing do­ing... what­ever it is it does!

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