Great Expectations

EXPOSED New Renault Sport Megane

by JAMES TAYLOR pics WILSON HENNESSY

The last Renault Megane RS was sublime, and in many ways, became the 911 GT3 of hot hatches. Can the third RS do the same?

‘We considered allwheel drive but our system is not ready for sports cars yet’

UNDER pressure? Oh yes.

There’s the unenviable task of replacing the flagship hot hatch in your range, and then there’s the pressure of replacing what is nothing less than the class benchmark. Rival machines might be faster (Ford Focus RS, BMW M140i) or more wellrounded (VW Golf GTI and R), but for excitement and pure driving pleasure, the outgoing Megane RS is still the king – even now, after nearly seven years in production. It’s one of the besthandling, most exciting front-wheel drive cars of all time. And now Renault Sport must deliver a worthy successor. Which it will, of course. Won’t it?

Worryingly, there are a few on-paper reasons why the new Megane RS could turn out to be something of a dud. Renault Sport’s last all-new hot hatch, 2013’s Clio RS 200, is a good car, but not quite a great one. We couldn’t bond with its exotic but out-of-place paddleshift gearbox, and an overall driving experience that felt formidable at ten-tenths, but entirely forgettable below it. And on-paper the source material for the new RS Megane isn’t as U promising as it could be. The regular Megane is merely good, with compromised interior packaging, fiddly ergonomics and fine, but not particularly enamouring, driving dynamics, while the warmed-up (and Renault Sport-developed) Megane GT variant’s rear-wheel steering system has divided opinion: Renault is chuffed with it; we’re not sold.

So the heat under the magnifying glass has been a little more intense than usual for the engineering virtuosos at Renault Sport headquarters on the outskirts of Paris – which is where we’ve been for an in-depth and first-hand preview of the new Megane RS from the minds that created it; the engineers who’ll shortly be celebrated or quietly shunned...

So, here are the headlines. The new RS Megane is powered by the same 1.8-litre turbo engine as the upcoming Alpine sports car and will be front-wheel drive only. Unlike the Clio RS, the Megane will be available with the choice of a manual or a dualclutch auto gearbox. Just like before, two versions will be offered: the regular Megane RS with 203kW on tap, and a faster, more focused Trophy with 218kW, available later in 2018. Customers get a choice of suspension set-ups – standard Sport or optional, 10 per cent stiffer Cup chassis (with the latter fitted by default to the Trophy). The difference in price between the regular RS and the Trophy will be similar to that of the previous RS Megane – expect $9000 or so. All cars, intriguingly, and potentially divisively, will feature rear-wheel steering.

Unlike the fully independent, adaptively damped Civic Type R, the Megane uses torsion-beam rear suspension and passive dampers, but its dual-axis front suspension has been completely redesigned over with the previous-gen RS Megane’s front end.

“We still have six months of development remaining, so we don’t yet have final acceleration and top-speed figures,” says project manager Grégoire Ginet, but he acknowledges 0-100km/h will be ‘less than 6sec’ and a top speed of ‘more than 250km/h’.

That’s quick, of course, but the performance bar has been raised of late. Honda’s latest Civic Type R, for example, churns out 228kW and tops out at 278km/h, while Ford’s all-wheel drive, 257kW Focus RS blasts to 100km/h in 4.5sec and hits 265km/h. You get the impression, though, that Renault Sport isn’t interested in this kilowatt arms race, but has instead focused on what the RS Megane has always been about – corners.

“We had three performance objectives,” continues Ginet. “Driving pleasure, agility and efficiency. We want to stay first-in-class for chassis performance.”

That meant widening the basic Megane’s track widths, already the broadest in its class. Design director Éric Diemert was happy to oblige. “We worked with the engineers, and quickly came to the conclusion we had to widen the front track, and work with large wheels,” he says, beaming. “This is great for us because every time designers draw, they draw very large wheels and wide proportions!”

So the front arches stick their elbows out for a 60mm wider front track, while the rear track is 45mm wider. Ford’s Focus RS has identical track widths to the regular model (and can therefore get away with using the same bodyshell, saving a whole heap of money) because of the torque-vectoring and traction advantages of all-wheel drive. Was Renault Sport tempted to take the same route?

“We have four-wheel drive systems in the group

[at partner company Nissan], and at one point we considered it could be interesting, but the technology isn’t ready for sports cars yet,” chassis engineer Antoine Frey tells me.

Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, 19s an option, 48 december 2017 motormag.com.au in black or grey, while the Trophy will get its own specific set of 19s. And yet, despite the outrigger axle widths, the new RS Megane looks... understated, don’t you think? When Diemert first pulls the covers from the hot hatch, a car that has such weight of expectation loaded on its shoulders it could use the stuff for downforce, it looks mature – demure almost.

Even in Berocca vitamin-tablet orange, its unadorned surfaces are the antithesis of the Civic Type R.

“The front and rear arches are designed to look as if this car has been designed from the first breath,” Diemert says, by which he means they’re smoothly integrated with the surrounding bodywork, rather than blistered add-ons. An extractor vent on the trailing edge of the front arches reduces heat and pressure build-up, and gives away just how much wider the RS Megane is than the standard car. And there’s no giant rear wing, or aero-critical roof spikes.

“Roof spikes? We call them vortex generators, and we don’t have these kinds of elements,” says performance engineer Fabien Berthomieu. That doesn’t mean the Megane’s shape isn’t driven by aerodynamics. “Stability at high speed was one of our main objectives,” says Berthomieu. “But this doesn’t mean that we want huge downforce on the back – it’s not advantageous to have the maximum.”

The diffuser starts around the rear axle, and it’s definitely not for show. Nor are the false vents bookending the rear bumper. Their grilles are false, but their shape helps guide the airflow around the side of the bumper. “Everything we do in design is not just for aesthetics, it also has a role to play in performance,” insists Renault Sport boss Patrice Ratti.

That applies, too, to what looks the most gimmicky aspect of the car’s styling, the chequered flag ‘RS Vision’ light clusters in the corners of the front bumper, which comprise the daytime running lights, fog lights and cornering lights. They’re claimed to offer phenomenal performance on high beam, combining the foglamps and cornering lights with the main beam to hurl pools of light further down the road.

The Megane RS’s most dramatic angle is the rear, with its central exhausts exiting from a cavern in the middle of the diffuser. “We decided to come back to the central exhaust,” Diemert says. “The RS is different from the [twin-exhaust] Megane GT, with its own identity. This was important to us.” An engineer jumps in to reposition the car for photos, and it sounds suitably throbby and purposeful as it moves.

That’s the result of two paths within the exhaust and no valves, explains transmission engineer Sébastien Norie. “It’s all natural depending on the load on the throttle,” says Norie. “You can expect backfire booms during shifts and lift-off in Sport and Race driving modes. We’re often asked if we’ll use an artificial sound – the answer is that we do use the speakers a bit, to counteract vibration from the windscreen, and also to add an aggressive note – but you can always switch it off if you want.”

Plenty of manufacturers with an F1 arm are keen to talk up the link between its grand prix engineering and its road cars, but we doubt many had the F1 engine squad design the cylinder head for its new hot hatch. “At the start, we only planned to modify the engine slightly,” Norie explains. “Then we decided on a significant modification for the cooling, and other advantages. We only had a short time – six-to-eight months – so we approached our colleagues at Renault F1. They’re used to doing stuff quickly. This part had to go down a normal production line – it was a challenge to explain to our F1 colleagues this part isn’t going to be built by specialist prototype guys!”

Said cylinder head crowns a new 1.8-litre inline four from the Renault Nissan alliance, called the TCe280, with a full aluminium block saving 5kg and a large, twin-scroll turbocharger. As well as a berth amidships in the new Alpine A110, it’ll also be put to more prosaic work within the Renault Espace, detuned to

RS Replay app lets you check the state of the car – brake temps, tyre condition as well as component life – and lets you overlay video footage with telemetry data

‘You can expect backfire booms during shifts and liftoff in Sport and Race modes’

Megane’s hardcore history

THE MODEL that put the Megane RS on the hot-hatch map is the stripped out and caged R26.R. Endowed with ‘only’ 169kW, the big-bummed original sizzled at the ’Ring in ’08 with a time of 8:16.9sec. Next up, the 250 Cup, received a stiffened chassis over the Sport and more track-focused suspension. Finally, the 275 Trophy-R is often heralded as the best bum-dragger – with an addictive induction noise. It lapped the Nurburgring in 7:54.36sec in 2014.

The Specs No RS-ing about

RENAULT MEGANE RS BODY DRIVE ENGINE POWER TORQUE TRANSMISSION SUSPENSION (F) SUSPENSION (R) 0-100KM/H PRICE 5 doors, 5 seats, hatch front-drive 1798cc inline 4, DOHC, 16v, turbo 203kW @ 6000rpm 390Nm @ 2400rpm 6-speed manual (or 7-speed DCT) Dual-axis MacPherson struts Torsion beam 5.9sec (estimated) $45,000-$55,000 (estimated)

around 162kW. In the RS Megane its fancy cylinder head helps it to an impressive specific output of more than 150bhp per litre, and it revs to 7000rpm. “This is important for track driving, as is flexibility. The engine is always full of torque,” says Norie.

Today, talk of track driving is never far away. Take the gearboxes, for instance. The manual is back by customer demand, and if it ain’t broke... “It’s the same gearbox as previously, the same gearset. We had good feedback from customers that the ratios were well suited to track days and also for the road,” Norie says. “It’s a simple gearbox, reliable, so we decided to keep it. And for the twin-clutch option we have a new gearset that can go up to 400Nm, more in the future.”

The Trophy will feature a mechanical limited-slip diff, this time from Torsen rather than GKN. “We’re now able to transfer 45 per cent of the torque to the wheel with the most potential,” says Norie, while the regular RS will use the brakes to slow the inside wheel.

Four driving modes will feature: Comfort (focusing on efficiency), Natural, Sport and Race. There’ll also be a custom-everything mode available to mix and match. “With the twin-clutch gearbox you can have fully automatic shifts in Race mode, or a manual setting where you can keep the 7000rpm limiter if you want to hold the same gear into a corner.”

“We have two goodies: Multiple shift allows you to hold the downshift paddle and it will downshift, downshift, downshift, to give you just the right gear for the corner, and there’s also launch control. You can activate it in Sport, where it keeps the ESP on, and in Race – where there are no aids at all.”

And how’s this for proof Renault Sport listens to its customers? The new RS Megane will be available with a manual handbrake. “It’s much more fun. The drivers of our RS cars like to tweak a manual handbrake into corners,” Norie smiles, miming a handbrake turn. Similarly, manual RSs won’t feature rev-matching on downshifts. “We know this technology from the Nissan 370Z, but we studied it and decided for the Megane we don’t need it. Clients say they don’t want it. They want a simpler car and to do the heel-and-toe themselves.”

You get the impression Renault Sport is doing this car the right way, building on what the RS Megane does best. But there’s one worry – rear-wheel steering.

This technology could prove to be the Megane’s secret weapon or its downfall. It’s not a new technology, of course, but modern computer control is making it more precise and controllable than ever.

Plenty of high-end performance cars now feature rear-wheel steer, but the GT and RS Meganes are the only C-segment hatches that steer from the rear.

On-paper appeal is undeniable, effectively lengthening the wheelbase at high speeds to increase stability while helping to tuck the nose into slower corners (and make three-point turns a cinch). But at high speeds – in the tdf and AMG GT R especially – it can feel odd, and rob the driver of confidence. Some find the Megane GT’s rear-steer a little binary in its actions, and that it hinders rather than helps.

Renault Sport boss Ratti is bullish about the RS system’s potential: “We have adapted the Megane GT’s system completely for sport driving. Not only that, we have used it to adapt the suspension, the steering – we are re-imagining the whole car and vehicle dynamics around the four-wheel control set-up.”

Chassis engineer Antoine Frey has played a key role in implementing the system. “To start with, we were nervous,” he admits. “But with the former Megane we were at the limit for high-speed stability. We have to add technology to make an improvement. If you want to do this without four-wheel steer, you have to put very large tyres on the back, as we see with SUVs now.”

The system is in operation at all times. Below 60km/h the rear wheels turn the opposite way to the fronts – or at higher speeds in Race mode, for razorsharp turn-in response. “But it’s in a natural way,” says Frey. “What we want is that you get out of the car and say ‘I don’t feel it’. At the start we were not expecting such a gain. The response is really sharp, and the body control, I think we have one of the flattest cars on the market. We decreased the roll by 10 per cent compared with the old car. If we tried to do that with anti-roll bars, the front end would be completely overloaded and comfort would suffer.”

In fact, Frey promises the new car will ride more comfortably, helped by new hydraulic bump stops, which absorb energy at the end of the suspension’s stroke: “They’re easy to tune, with lots of parameters.”

Frey shows us a graph of yaw rate versus road speed, plotted against the old RS Megane and the current Megane GT. The new car has a lot more low-speed agility, and a bit more at high speeds – but a load more at medium speeds. “We can’t show you the curves from other manufacturers’ cars – but we are pretty well placed, I think.”

Development driver Laurent Hurgon (the man who broke the Nurburgring frontwheel drive lap record in previous Meganes) says that apart from increasing the car’s agility, all-wheel steer reduces the amount of steering wheel angle required.

“At the beginning we were worried the rear-wheel steer might lose some of the fun,” says Hurgon. “But you lift your foot from the throttle, you feel it rotating.

Of course it adds some weight, but we feel it is compensated for by the extra agility. And we managed to keep the fun.”

Today, talk of Nurburgring laptimes is conspicuous by its absence. Committing to a record ’Ring time can be a millstone for a project – Renault Sport’s just trying to make the new Megane the best it can be. But if the graphs aren’t lying, there could be a few furrowed brows at current front-drive record holder Honda when the Megane Trophy launches.

You’d like the people at Renault Sport – they love cars the same way you and I love cars, and they’ve poured as much passion into the new Megane as its predecessors – if not more. They’re confident that, when it comes to meeting the sky-high standards set by the Megane RS’s legacy of indisputable brilliance, they’ve succeeded. And just as well, there’ll be hell to pay if they’ve failed. M