If you can’t beat them, join them.
Now, what was it my journalism lecturers used to say about opening with cliches?
But that’s just it — the new third-generation Renault Sport Mégane is an admission of defeat. Over the years the French couldn’t get a whiff of Volkswagen’s Golf GTI in terms of sales, so they’ve given up chasing the cobwebbed pockets of enthusiasts. The latest hot Mégane isn’t the hard-core frenzied experience of old. It’s got some yuppies behind the wheel in the promo video. Nobody was wearing yellow fireproof racing boots. There wasn’t a Nürburgring outline sticker on nary a tailgate.
Yuppies I tell you, with product in their beards.
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The new RS Mégane is rather just a refined medium-sized car that also happens to be quite fast. In effect, a complete about-turn from Renault’s sporting department when it comes to their time-honoured hot-hatch philosophy. If they couldn’t beat the GTI by actually making cars that are more fun to drive than a GTI, then what was the point?
In defeat, however, Renault may have just struck upon a win. Although the new RS Mégane is completely different from the frantic cars that came in the previous two generations, this might be the ticket to Renault attracting loads of new buyers in a market that’s more than doubled since Renault first started heating up Méganes.
But first, some anxiety.
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The old hot Clios are widely regarded as some of the best hatchbacks to ever rule a roundabout anywhere, and if you mention the numbers 172 or 182 to a car enthusiast their eyes immediately light up in a wistful vision of some inside rear wheels cocking.
Then Renault launched the latest Clio and we all went to bed with a synthetic ringing in our ears, of some fake engine sounds. What was Renault thinking. An automatic in a Clio? And why is it so soft? And why is it so… rubbish?
The new Clio Sport was our first clue suggesting the French have lost their magic front-wheel drive touch. First and only clue, mind you. Now that they’ve had another go with the bigger Mégane, it’s pretty clear they’re back in form.
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Should we just get to the best part? This car’s got vents that vent! Moving on from the functional outlets on the front wings, there’s also a vent that actually vents out back behind the rear wheels, and more legitimately good stuff all over the place. The diffuser for example, looks pretty wild and apparently adds downforce, and even the faux side intakes up front that look like solid plastic have tiny holes to form what can technically be deemed proper grille intakes. The wheels are nice too (no faux-centrelock nonsense), the wing is subdued, and the bonnet satisfyingly free of any wishful non-vents either. It looks like the real deal.
When Renault first started cooking up Méganes in 2003 the company benchmarked three rivals. Now with the third-generation RS model there are seven other competitors in the segment to worry about in a crowded marketplace. Even the Koreans with the new Hyundai i30 N are impressing. It’s a different time far from the two-way battle between GTI and RS. But really it’s still a two-way battle because in essence it’s always been the Golf versus everyone else.
Renault is unashamedly going after volume, softening up the latest RS Mégane and broadening its usefulness. Count ‘em — there are five doors, and Renault isn’t planning on sticking to RS tradition with a three-door model in the future. This is it, because the numbers say people buy five-doors.
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Then there’s the interior. No roll cage getting in the way of the baby seat, and the windows aren’t made of transparent plastic either. The seatbelt too is plain black instead of yellow and Renault hasn’t even bothered to deck the whole thing out in grey racing stripes — they’d just clash with the polished pointy shoes.
Where you get hints of what’s coming is with the aluminium pedals, the squared-off steering wheel with the red trimmings, the semi-bucket seats with a good balance of support and comfort (manual adjustment, ditto with the steering wheel for reach and rake), and a use for your left leg.
Yes, the best RS Mégane comes with a six-speed transmission motivating the 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine.
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You can have a twin-cutch automatic version of course, which you will, but it’ll be heavier and it won’t come with a limited-slip diff. Despite the instantaneous upshifts from the auto, you won’t even get from zero to 100kph any quicker because the manual car’s weight advantage helps it match the twin-clutch car in the sprint if not so much around a lap of a racing circuit.
Speaking of which, we happen to have just such a thing handy. Jerez is a great track in Spain with an agreeable climate almost all year round, and the many tight corners are good for testing out a hot hatchback’s corner entry, while the fast sweeps bring about a nervous chuckle every time you lift off and the tail swings out wide.
It’s fun to drive the new RS Mégane out here because you get to muck about with all six gears through a lap, and let the red upshift reminder lights flicker for a split second sadistically before punching in another gear. It seems to be able to handle abuse quite well, like a good hot hatch should. Yes, take it…
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The brakes too, up 15mm in diameter from the previous generation, do the job and although the familiar smell of brake is in the air at Jerez the car keeps on stopping during the second track stint as well.
Four-wheel steering makes its first appearance in the segment with the third-gen RS Mégane and allows the car to turn on a fil. The electric steering itself is fine, direct, and requiring very little input to make the front wheels respond. Around hairpins you are not even close to crossing your arms. That’s the benefit of a short wheelbase and rear-steering, an instant reaction that pivots the car into the turns. You’ll need a moment to get used to it.
On the way out of turns the RS Mégane is less impressive, with the tyres just about coping and then giving in to understeer. Throttle management is the name of the game, and in an era of lead-footed journalists nannied by electronics this contradicts modern driving styles.
The suspension is a big highlight, the RS Mégane riding acceptably most of the time but when the roads turn really bumpy the dampers cope surprisingly well, suggesting the substance behind them of something like a 911. The car just affords more and more confidence on the move and lets you drive mighty fast in real life terms.
Sadly the twin-clutch automatic is disappointing, with useless paddles (fixed) that are too short to take full advantage of. I left the car in auto most of the time because it’s not worth doing it yourself. As for the manual, the shifts are reasonably short and swift, though not a patch on, say, the Mazda MX-5.
There’s nothing intimidating about this car, and even in Race mode (ESC off) the Renault feeds back intuitively and nearly corrects itself through slides by its sheer balance alone.
On road or track, the brake pedal comes off a bit soft and with the bite at the top of the pedal somewhat too sensitive, which doesn’t fit in so well with a performance car. The initial bit of brake pressure should set the tone for the pedal feel and give you confidence in the braking power that follows. No complaints about the stopping power however.
With the third-generation RS Mégane, the French have capitulated and gone after volume not only with a more useable five-door design, but also with a softened up hot hatch overall that won’t scare you away with ultra-stiff suspension and cabin noise. There’s nothing intimidating about this car, and even in Race mode (ESC off) the Renault feeds back intuitively and nearly corrects itself through slides by its sheer balance alone. It’ll take some effort to bin it.
Is the French take on a GTI better than a GTI? We’ll have to wait and see how they price the car in our region to make that verdict, because the RS Mégane costs well over Dh150,000 in Europe and that’s not going to cut it for a Renault badge in the Middle East. Provided they get the money bit right, the third-gen car is not only a secondary player in the segment but a serious contender that shouldn’t be ignored by anyone looking for a fast, daily driver.