Re­nault Mé­gane RS

With four-wheel steer and a clever sus­pen­sion set-up, the lat­est Mé­gane RS is a wel­come re­turn to form for Re­nault Sport. Look out, Civic Type R…

Evo - - CONTENTS - by JAMES DIS­DALE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY by DAVE SMITH

Fol­low­ing the dis­ap­point­ment of the Clio 200, we dis­cover if Re­nault Sport has re­turned to form with its new Mé­gane RS

MOV­ING AMONGST THE SMALL GATH­ER­ING OF jour­nal­ists and pho­tog­ra­phers, Re­nault Sport boss Pa­trice Ratti gives off the im­pres­sion of be­ing con­fi­dent and re­laxed, but there’s a pal­pa­ble sense of ten­sion in the room. It’s July 2017 and we’re at Re­nault Sport’s HQ in a non­de­script col­lec­tion of build­ings on the out­skirts of Paris. We’re here for an au­di­ence with the new Mé­gane RS – months be­fore its of­fi­cial de­but at that year’s Frank­furt mo­tor show – and also the peo­ple be­hind it, all of whom ap­pear to be at great pains to ex­plain that this car will be a good ’un.

This isn’t a sim­ple un­veil­ing fol­lowed by a quick Q& A and some canapés, this is a proper deep-dive, nuts-and-bolts, four-hour-long foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion of every as­pect of the hotly an­tic­i­pated hot Mé­gane. Read­ing be­tween the lines it’s not hard to imag­ine what’s re­ally be­ing said is: ‘ Yes, we messed up the Clio RS, but don’t worry, we won’t make the same mis­take twice.’

The other rea­son for be­ing ush­ered across the Chan­nel way be­fore the car’s pub­lic de­but is re­vealed by the ‘4Con­trol’ badges on each C-pil­lar. That’s right, this Mé­gane fea­tures four-wheel steer­ing. Of course, there’s also lots of talk about the new 1.8-litre en­gine, the avail­abil­ity of a twin-clutch trans­mis­sion for the first time, the hy­draulic bump-stops and even the LED head­lamps, but it’s clear that 4Con­trol is the main sub­ject of ‘ed­u­ca­tion’.

The hard­ware is largely the same as that used on the Mé­gane GT, but the tun­ing is pure Re­nault Sport. Es­sen­tially, the elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled set-up fea­tures ac­tu­a­tors that can turn the rear wheels up to 2.7 de­grees in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to the fronts, then as speeds rise this switches to up to 1 de­gree in the same di­rec­tion as the front wheels. This changeover hap­pens at 37mph in all modes other than Race, where the switch oc­curs at 62mph. Ac­cord­ing to Re­nault, steer­ing re­sponse is 20 per cent faster than on the old car, while high-speed sta­bil­ity is in a dif­fer­ent league.

Yet af­ter all the graphs, sta­tis­tics and tech­ni­cal ex­pla­na­tions, it’s the part­ing shot of chas­sis en­gi­neer An­toine Frey that is most in­trigu­ing. ‘Ul­ti­mately with this new sys­tem,’ he says, ‘ you shouldn’t be able to tell that the car has four-wheel steer­ing.’ We’d have to wait over six months to find out if he was right.

Fast for­ward to the present day, and pho­tog­ra­pher Dave Smith and I are in Jerez, Spain, where we’re con­fronted with a long line of Vol­canic Or­ange Mé­ganes glint­ing in the sun. Putting the car’s

novel un­der­pin­nings to one side for a mo­ment al­lows me to take in the styling, which treads a beau­ti­fully judged line be­tween sub­tlety and ag­gres­sion. The first thing you no­tice are the bulging whee­larches that cover tracks stretched by 60mm at the front and 45mm at the rear, while an ag­gres­sive dif­fuser is claimed to gen­er­ate enough down­force to negate the need for a Civic Type R-style spoiler on stilts. Sit­ting on stan­dard 18-inch al­loys the RS looks hun­kered, pur­pose­ful and burst­ing with mus­cu­lar in­tent.

It feels right on the inside, too. You sit just low enough in a high-backed and heav­ily bol­stered seat that’s squishy and soft in the finest French tra­di­tion, while ahead of you is a three-spoke wheel com­plete with de rigueur 12 o’clock marker. There are also alu­minium ped­als, a con­fig­urable TFT screen for the dial pack and – what’s this? – a pair of gearshift pad­dles. Yes, all the cars here are fit­ted with the six-speed EDC (Ef­fi­cient Dual Clutch) trans­mis­sion, be­cause that’s what Europe gets first. ( We’ll have to wait un­til later in the year for UK cars, but we’ll get a six-speed man­ual, too.) In all other re­spects it’s stan­dard Mé­gane, which means the sort of tight build and soft-touch plas­tics that are a huge im­prove­ment over the slightly cheap and cheer­ful am­bi­ence of the old car.

Thumb the starter but­ton and the en­gine fires quickly be­fore set­tling to a bassy, bur­bling idle. The tur­bocharged 1.8-litre has been seen in the Alpine A110, but for the Mé­gane it’s been treated to a few choice up­grades. The cylin­der head’s been breathed on by Re­nault’s For­mula 1 boffins, while there’s also a new, faster-act­ing twin-scroll turbo, a higher ca­pac­ity, dual-in­take air fil­ter and the same mir­ror coat­ing of the cylin­der bores as the Nissan GT-R’S V6. Se­ri­ous stuff, but the re­sult­ing power and torque fig­ures of 276bhp and 288lb ft are class com­pet­i­tive rather than class lead­ing.

Se­lect­ing Drive and mov­ing away, the sense of trep­i­da­tion is al­most over­whelm­ing. Porsche has proved that when four-wheel steer­ing is done well it en­hances per­for­mance with­out de­tract­ing from the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but can Re­nault pull off the same trick? Guid­ing the Mé­gane over the first round­about my heart sinks in uni­son with the oddly lazy sashay from the rear axle as it swings left-right-left a frac­tion of a se­cond be­hind the front wheels. A lit­tle fur­ther up the road are a se­ries of quicker bends where I find my­self hav­ing to open the meatily weighted steer­ing a lit­tle af­ter turn-in as the rear wheels’ ea­ger­ness to get in on the ac­tion has the nose point­ing at the apex sooner than I an­tic­i­pate.

How­ever, there’s lit­tle time to dwell, as our moun­tain road des­ti­na­tion has switched from breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful to barely vis­i­ble. Low clouds ob­scure the views, while rain com­bines with the dusty tar­mac to cre­ate ice-like con­di­tions. Any at­tempt to push the Mé­gane now would be fool­hardy and risk a red-faced call to Re­nault ex­plain­ing that its pride and joy is parked in a gran­ite rock face. With the light fad­ing we call it quits for the day.

While I’m dis­ap­pointed not to get the mea­sure of the RS or its trick steer­ing, the re­turn trip re­veals plenty of rea­sons to be cheer­ful. The en­gine is bet­ter than ex­pected, feel­ing much stronger than its small ca­pac­ity and av­er­age power and torque fig­ures would sug­gest. It pulls hard from low revs and spins en­thu­si­as­ti­cally and rortily all the way to the 7000rpm cut-out. The ex­pe­ri­ence is en­hanced by the clever design of the ex­haust back box. As en­gine speeds rise, the change in pres­sure causes gases to by­pass a longer si­lencer tube and head for a shorter exit pipe, which re­sults in a

sat­is­fy­ing rasp when the en­gine’s ex­tended and a muffled fusil­lade of pops and bangs on the over­run. It’s sporty with­out get­ting ir­ri­tat­ing and ostentatious: I’m talk­ing about you, Ford Fo­cus RS.

Yet it’s the damp­ing that re­ally steals the show, be­cause as the road sur­face de­te­ri­o­rates it’s clear there’s real magic be­ing weaved un­der your bum. Our car is on the stan­dard sus­pen­sion (a ten per cent stiffer Cup set-up will be an op­tion) but on these poorly sur­faced Span­ish roads it strikes just the right bal­ance be­tween con­trol and com­fort. There’s some firm­ness at low speed, but also an in­cred­i­ble plush­ness to the way the RS rides bro­ken tar­mac. Over re­ally bad dips and crests I ex­pect a sick­en­ing crash and shud­der as the springs hit the limit of their travel, but in­stead the Mé­gane sim­ply shrugs off the com­pres­sion and con­tin­ues at un­abated speed. This in­cred­i­ble com­po­sure is largely down to the hy­draulic bump-stops. With the abil­ity to be tuned for a wider ar­ray of stroke and load, this neat ad­di­tion has al­lowed Re­nault Sport to avoid the need for costly and com­pli­cated adap­tive dampers.

If there’s a weak­ness it’s the EDC trans­mis­sion. The colum­n­mounted pad­dles are too small and set too high, mean­ing man­ual shifts are an un­com­fort­able fin­ger stretch away. The ’box also shifts up au­to­mat­i­cally even when man­ual changes are se­lected in Sport mode. Race mode gives full con­trol, but here the changes are de­liv­ered with a jolt clearly de­signed to hint at race-bred sporti­ness but which ac­tu­ally prove a lit­tle ir­ri­tat­ing. At least EDC is smooth and un­ob­tru­sive enough when left to its own de­vices, mak­ing the mo­tor­ways and a crawl through sub­urbs sat­is­fy­ingly ef­fort­less.

It’s still dark when we set off the fol­low­ing morn­ing, but the starfilled sky and dry roads sug­gest the weather will be on our side.

‘On 18-inch al­loys it looks hun­kered, pur­pose­ful and burst­ing with mus­cu­lar in­tent’

‘The RS can pick apart roads with phe­nom­e­nal dex­ter­ity and pace’

Be­fore long the sun is up and we’re bear­ing down on our des­ti­na­tion road, the A-374 that wrig­gles its way through the Sierra de Graza­lema Nat­u­ral Park. A mix of tight hair­pins and fast sweep­ers, it’s hemmed in by ver­tigoin­duc­ing cliff faces and per­ilous drops. It’s here that the Mé­gane and I click.

The dry tar­mac al­lows me to ex­ploit the prodi­gious grip and lean harder on a chas­sis that’s up there with the very best. The trick is to be more mea­sured and eco­nom­i­cal with your in­puts and al­low the four-wheel steer to do its thing. Worked like this the Mé­gane comes alive, slic­ing through quick cor­ners with in­cred­i­ble poise and sta­bil­ity, while slower stuff is dis­patched with un­canny agility.

The 4Con­trol makes most sense in Sport or Race, where the sys­tem re­acts faster and, in the case of the lat­ter, con­tin­ues to turn the rear wheels in the op­po­site direc­tions as the fronts at much higher speeds to de­liver the sort of an­gle of at­tack that usu­ally hap­pens when the rear has come un­stuck and is gen­tly ro­tat­ing just a de­gree or so. It’s eerie at first, but trust it and the Mé­gane can pick apart roads with phe­nom­e­nal dex­ter­ity and pace.

Yet there’s also gen­uine in­ter­ac­tion and throt­tle ad­justa­bil­ity, giv­ing you op­tions on en­try, mid-cor­ner and on exit. Re­nault Sport’s Frey is right about it not feel­ing like a four-wheel-steer car, but it doesn’t feel like it’s two-wheel steer ei­ther; in­stead, it de­liv­ers unique sen­sa­tions and abil­i­ties that mark it out from the crowd. The only cause for con­cern is the slight squirm and wrig­gle of torques­teer on some bumpy and heav­ily crowned sur­faces, but hope­fully this will be cured by the Torsen dif­fer­en­tial on the Cup cars.

Speak­ing of which, be­fore we board the plane home there’s a chance to have three laps of Jerez in a pre-pro­duc­tion Cup-chas­sis car with a man­ual gear­box. The glassy smooth sur­face means it’s im­pos­si­ble to tell what ef­fect the stiffer springs and dampers have on the ride, but there’s enough time to dis­cover that pushed hard the Mé­gane RS is pointy, ex­pres­sive and en­dowed with just enough feed­back to make things in­ter­est­ing. This short stint also high­lights that the Brembo brakes are as ef­fec­tive and strong as you’d hope, and con­firms that the six-speed man­ual’s pre­cise and short throw will make it the trans­mis­sion of choice.

So, has Re­nault Sport re­dis­cov­ered its mojo? It’s clear the Mé­gane RS is shot through with real magic, and in terms of its chas­sis dy­nam­ics it’s up with the best. Fac­tor in the im­pend­ing ar­rival of a hard­core 296bhp Tro­phy model and it’s clear there’s plenty to be ex­cited about. Of course, we’ll have to wait to get the RS in the UK and put it chin spoiler to chin spoiler with the Civic Type R be­fore we can grant it champ sta­tus, but all the signs sug­gest it’ll be one of the clos­est and most thrilling bat­tles of 2018.

Top right: Mé­gane RS is in­cred­i­bly poised through both fast and slower bends. Top left: in­te­rior a step up in qual­ity. Left: 18-inch al­loys are stan­dard

R E N AU LT M ÉGA N E RS

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