Return Serve

Talk is cheap. Itís time to see if the hyped Megane RS can beat its own benchmark

by MATT SAUNDERS

FEW PERFORMANCE cars have been lavished with a more consistent tide of praise by hot hatchback aficionados than the Renault Megane RS. This car has been the go-to fast front-driver for most of its life, having appeared with that memorable Ďbustle-backí styling in 2004 and promptly set new class benchmarks for driver involvement and handling poise.

However, itíll take brilliance to reclaim that mantle with the likes of the PCOTY-winning Honda Civic Type R and the all-wheel drive Ford Focus RS as rivals. For that reason and others, you could call the launch of this new Megane RS something of a watershed moment. Can the firm that brought us the flawed Clio RS 200 rediscover its sparkling form? Whatever it was that made so many of its hot hatchbacks so good for so long Ė has Dieppe still got it, or is it lost forever? Meanwhile, has Group Renaultís Alpine A110 sports car, brilliant as it may be, swallowed up so much valuable engineering attention and resource that what could be considered Renault Sportís most important model has been left undernourished? Itíd be understandable. But forgiveable? Iím not so sure.

Some good news would definitely be welcome Ė and maybe weíre about to get some. Although it retains front-wheel drive, the fast Megane has been through an overhaul that would seem every bit as thorough and attentive, on paper, as that of any of its rivals. It has a new 1.8-litre turbocharged engine thatís smaller and lighter than the old carís 2.0-litre, yet delivers more power and torque than what the Megane 275 bowed out with Ė and it can be partnered with a choice of six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic gearboxes. Unlike in the Clio RS 220 Trophy, then, you neednít be stuck with two pedals and two paddles if you donít want them. See, told you there was good news.

For suspension, the Megane RS sticks with struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, but its front configuration has new geometry and retains Renault Sportís PerfoHub, which reduces kingpin angle offset and therefore better resists torque steer and bump steer. The RS rides 5mm lower than a Megane GT and has axle tracks widened by 45mm and 30mm front-to-rear.

The chassis features two key technical departures: a four-wheel steering system and a set of rally-style hydraulic suspension bump stops. In more familiar vein, you can have the Megane with a slightly softer Sport suspension tuning (partnered with an electronic brake-actuated torque vectoring system) or firmer Cup settings. With Cup, you also get a Torsen mechanical slippy diff configured for greater lock-up under power and less drag effect on a trailing throttle than the outgoing Megane 275ís GKN slippy diff was configured for. Enlarged, 19-inch wheels fitted with Bridgestone tyres and uprated lightweight brakes with aluminium hubs are options on Cup-spec cars.

Can the firm that brought us the flawed Clio RS200 rediscover its form?

While a the central exhaust might be traditional Megane RS fare, EDC and five doors isnít. Luckily the handling retains a distinct joie de vivre

We probably wouldnít have chosen a two-pedal Megane RS with Renaultís EDC transmission for our first taste of the car but, as it transpired, we hadnít had access to one with a manual gearbox as these words were written, or one with Cup suspension, so impressions of those configurations will have to wait until later. At least itís probably fair to suggest that if the Sport-level dualclutch car hits the right notes on driver appeal, we can have plenty of reason for optimism about the stature of the other versions.

The current Meganeís cockpit makes for a decent departure point for a performance treatment, albeit one with some minor frustrations. The RS 280ís Alcantara sports seats are good and supportive, and the driving position they grant is also good by class standards. Thankfully you donít sit uncomfortably high and the controls are well located in front of you.

Renault Sportís attempts at enriching the cabin materials are mixed, though. The RSís red-striped seatbelts and red trim accents are bright and effective, but its part-Alcantara sport steering wheel has fairly ordinary-feeling leather where your hands rest on the grips (at quarter to three) and soft suede at six and 12 oíclock where you seem to touch it less. Equally odd are the part-analogue, part-digital instruments, which consist of a square digital screen made up mainly of differently themed analogue rev counters and a digital speedo, but whose available screen space is drastically curtailed by oversized analogue fuel level and water temperature gauges to either side of it.

Ride Control

Why the RS 280 spurns adaptive dampers

RENAULT SPORT has been playing with hydraulic suspension bump stops since the 2005 Clio RS 182 Trophy. Having also looked at adaptive dampers, the Dieppe firm concluded it could achieve better dynamic performance by combining a well-tuned passive damper with a hydraulic bump stop Ė than by spending the equivalent on an adaptive damper.

Described by Renault as ďa damper within a damperĒ, theyíre independent fluid-filled shock absorbers that sit on the lower end of the front and rear suspension struts. And while theyíre commonly fitted to rally cars Ė and the new Megane uses them at all four corners Ė the Clio RS uses them on its front axle only.

Credible? Only because of Renault Sportís chassis tuning pedigree.

The RSís handling is totally absorbing

While straight-line figures are not the usual domain of a hot hatch, the EDC-equipped Megane is claimed to reach 100km/h in 5.8sec and it will go on to cover the quarter in 14.0sec and reach the 1000m mark in 25sec

One bigger screen, with temperature and fuel information you could call up when needed (or at least scale to your preference), would have been a much more intelligent layout. Details, perhaps. Still, they matter, especially since details also initially prevent you from enjoying this carís driving experience as much as you might, at least until you become familiar with the task of driving around them.

Chief among those are the positioning and action of the shift paddles for the Megane RS 280ís EDC gearbox. Oh dear, I know Ė same record. But having been criticised so strongly for the Clio RS 200ís flimsy-feeling paddles, itís amazing that Renault Sport should have repeated almost exactly the same offence with that carís new bigger brother. The Meganeís shift paddles have better haptic feel than the Clioís, to be fair, and the Ďcrushed cornflakeí action is notable by its absence. But they remain awkwardly placed on the steering column (displaced upwards by Renaultís trusty old column-mounted audio remote control) so theyíre a slight stretch for your fingertips every time you need to grab a gear.

They also lack that solid, defined action thatíd tell you beyond question when youíve successfully selected the next gear. As they are, they feel light and woolly and itís easy to half-pull one, then tug it again just to be sure, only to find youíve accidentally upshifted twice.

Renaultís EDC gearbox itself does a respectable job of managing the carís gear ratios and gives you something more like that close control you want over the driving forces going into the front wheels than the Clio RS 200ís gearbox ever managed. Itís quicker on the upshift than on its way down, though, and nothing like as smooth or judicious with its shift timing in ĎDí as the better Ďflappypaddleí hot hatches with which you might compare it.

What about that critical new mechanical oily bit that gearbox is connected to Ė the engine? On this evidence, Iíd say itís strong enough; competitive with the prevailing standard for the average full-sized hot hatchback, certainly. But as a replacement for the old Megane 275ís blown 2.0-litre engine, Iím not sure Ďbetter than averageí makes it worthy. Because although the Megane RS 280 has abundant real-world on-the-road performance, itís not thanks to its engine. The motor is torquey and freeish revving, but also sounds a bit ordinary, suffers a little with iffy throttle response throughout the accelerator pedal travel and doesnít breathe in and keep hauling with anything like the high-range urgency of a Civic Type Rís 2.0-litre. As hot-hatch engines go, itís just all right.

Iím not convinced this car has the engine it really deserves

Wider tracks, pumped guards, 19-inch alloys and subtle aerodynamic bits help to give the RS some mongrel over the regular Megane range

Now guess whatís better than all right? The Meganeís chassis. Actually, thatís an understatement Ė itís sensational. The car steers faithfully, with useful weight and plenty of feel. But the deftness, suppleness and fluency of its ride is outstanding on bumpy roads, and is somehow set off against first-rate, progressive body control in a combination that no rival hot hatchback could match, Iíd wager. Better still are the Megane RS 280ís true showstoppers: totally absorbing handling agility, brilliant cornering balance and a flair for playfulness that might even make a Type R seem straight-laced.

The Megane RS 280ís four-wheel steering system contributes tellingly to all three, and to greatest effect when you use Renault Sportís Race driving mode, which raises the threshold speed at which it switches from steering against the front wheels to steering in the same direction as them. In most four-wheel-steered cars, this happens at around 50km/h. In the Megane RS 280 Ė and in Race mode, remember Ė you get a counter-steered rear axle all the way up to 100km/h. And so the car turns in with amazing alacrity and carries big mid-corner speed so effortlessly on a balanced throttle.

On a trailing throttle, meanwhile, youíll be amazed by how easily you can just flick it into delicious little neutral-steered drifts, the rear wheels effectively guiding the back of the car ever so delicately into the slide. Itís uncannily progressive. Thatís an incredibly enlivening influence on the driving experience of a front-driven performance car at fairly low speeds, when the bends youíre tackling are tight, clear and well sighted.

Where does that leave the Megane RS 280? Pretty plainly, itís staggeringly good in some ways, Ďall rightí in others Ė and not without the odd frustration, either. In this form, it wouldnít cut it for me next to better, slicker and more complete dual-clutch options from the VW Group stable. But thatís not the end of the story. Because Iím not convinced this car has the engine it really deserves and the paddle-shift gearbox is an option you need not have.

However, the handling could yet prove itself capable of hitting even greater heights in Cup specification than it has already in Sport trim. If it does, how much will a slightly ordinary engine and some curious fixtures and fittings really matter to a devoted petrolhead? Could this be yet another landmark new affordable performance car, set to cut short the Civic Type Rís reign as our hot hatchback champion? Iíd suggest the possibility is very real indeed.

Perhaps Renault Sport didnít let all of its best engineers don those new-season Alpine polo shirts, after all.

The Stats

Smaller dog, bigger fight