IFEíS TOUGH at the top Ė or so Iím told. Apparently itís much more stressful being the hunted than the hunter, the pressure building with every new challenger that aspires to the throne. Sustaining excellence is difficult, but the third-generation Megane RS managed just that. The limited edition (and much more expensive) Ford Focus RS stopped it vaulting straight to the head of the class on its introduction, but from the initial Sport 250 to the final RS275 Trophy R it consistently ranked as our favourite front-driver.
Now thereís a new top dog. The Honda Civic Type R has swept all before it, winning Performance Car of the Year and Bang For Your Bucks in the same year, an unprecedented achievement. Itís re-written the rulebook on whatís possible with driven front wheels, but has done so without the presence of a rival from Renault Sport. No longer, though this fight is a little premature. Renaultís true Type R Competitor, the Megane RS Trophy, is still almost 12 months away from Australian shores, but if the standard RS280 can give Hondaís hot hatch a run for its money, it bodes well for a return to Renault supremacy.
But this isnít just a head-to-head. The Honda is present as the current benchmark, but at $51,990 itís easily the most expensive car on test. And with 228kW/400Nm, itís also the most powerful. Mere fractions separate the other three contestants, on the spec sheet at least. Like the Civic, they all use turbocharged four-cylinder engines, send power to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip differential and have five doors. That in itself represents a major shift for the Megane, as the Gen III RS was available only as a three-door quasi-coupe. In an effort to broaden the appeal of its sporty best-seller, Renault has added a pair of doors and the option of a dual-clutch gearbox, the only car here to do so.
As youíd expect, we have a manual, fitted with the Cup chassis, which stiffens the suspension, adds a limited-slip diff and $1490 to the base Meganeís $44,990 price. Despite losing 200cc, outputs swell to 205kW/390Nm from the 1.8-litre turbo four, shared with the upcoming Alpine A110 sports car. When it comes to doing more with less, however, its fellow Frenchie, the $45,990 Peugeot 308 GTi 270, leads the way by extracting 200kW/330Nm from just 1598cc. Last, but also least, from a dollars perspective, anyway, is the $39,990 Hyundai i30 N, a fresh young fish wading into shark-infested waters, albeit with a 202kW/353Nm (378Nm on overboost) bite of its own.
The key to a successful hot hatch is a dual personality, commuting comfort as important as potent performance. Itís why fast Golfs are so successful. Speaking of which, why no GTI? Simple, MY19 models have not yet arrived and thereís no longer a manual available. Weíll tackle that one in a future test. Our hot-hatch quartet is split evenly on the appropriate solution to the Ďbest of both worldsí conundrum: Peugeot and Renault subscribe to simplicity, offering only the option to alter engine response, whereas Honda and Hyundai believe multiple modes are a better bet.
On the evidence presented here, the latter method is the pick. Being able to soften the dampers endows the Honda in particular with a brilliant ride, cushioning impacts and absorbing blows with a grace that many manufacturers could learn from. The Hyundai isnít as comfy, but its Normal mode offers crucial compliance that rounds the edges off the nastiest bumps. Both French cars react to the road more frequently, the Renault in particular constantly fidgeting on a poor surface. Whether itís too firm will likely be down to personal opinion, but if youíre planning on daily driving your Megane RS, be sure to test drive the Cup chassis before ticking the box.
Of course, the Cup raison díetre is handling precision. A Renault Sport product that doesnít handle brilliantly is a pub with no beer, a gig with no music. Thankfully, the new RS delivers. As well as the introduction of the Torsen mechanical LSD, the Cup option brings 10 per cent stiffer dampers and bi-material brake rotors that shave 1.8kg per corner of unsprung weight and improve cooling. In addition, hydraulic bump stops and all-wheel steering are standard, the rear wheels working in contrast to the fronts up to 60km/h and in concert above this speed to aid agility and stability respectively. In Race mode, the threshold increases to 100km/h.
It works Ė this Renault relishes being driven as hard as possible. Outright grip levels are enormous, but thereís ample adjustability if youíre willing to push hard enough to find it. With the ESC set to Sport the Megane will happily dance around at the limit, oversteering a little on a lifted throttle and a lot with a trailed brake. Thereís genius in the damping, the way the chassis soaks up big compressions at speed with total control. The RS feels to almost glide across the surface, the light, accurate steering providing just enough feedback and rear-wheel steering aiding turn-in. All this with the supposed handicap of a torsion-beam rear-end.
Traction on dry roads is strong once the 245/35 Bridgestone Potenza S001s are up to temperature, but in the wet keeping the nose pointing straight can be a struggle in the first three gears. Sadly, the vaunted bi-material brakes feel awful. Their outright performance is fine Ė the Meganeís 34.63m 100-0km/h stop is second-best on test Ė but pedal response is such itís like marshmallow pads are fitted. Jump on them hard and thereís a disconcerting hesitation as the system struggles to cope with the sudden change in pressure. Even in lighter use the soft pedal saps confidence and lengthens braking distances. It may just be this car, so some judgement will be reserved.
The Peugeotís brakes offer greater response, though itís not without its own issues. The slow steering Ė three turns lockto-lock, though the turning circle is very good Ė is slightly compensated for by the tiny steering wheel, but the lack of feedback robs the driver of that crucial connection with the front tyres. Combine this with the too-high driving position and you constantly feel half a step behind whatís actually happening, preventing the ultimate exploitation of what is an excellent chassis.
Like the Megane, the 308 GTi eschews the multi-link rear-end of the Honda and Hyundai, instead using a deformable torsion-beam setup to no real detriment other than a sideways shimmy when hitting mid-corner bumps under heavy load. The steering could be quicker, but the passive suspension setup is a good compromise, understeer is strongly resisted and a well-timed dab of brake will step the rear out slightly in true French hot-hatch style. Steering aside, its biggest downfall is an unruly amount of torque steer in the wet.
The i30 N is much more composed. Itís easier to keep the Hyundaiís front end in line on slippery surfaces and in the dry traction is rarely an issue, the clever electronically controlled LSD continually shuffling power to where itís needed most. In contrast, itís the rear end that needs taming in the wet, the i30 N keen to wag its tail under brakes. In the dry this translates to a chassis thatís stable when you need it to be, but playful when you want it to be. In contrast to the Peugeot, the steering offers plenty of feedback, while the Hyundaiís responsive brakes are superior to both French cars. In Normal mode the adaptive dampers breathe with the road nicely, a switch to Sport only necessary when severe mid-corner compressions test the bump stops, compressions which tax the Peugeot but are shrugged off by the Renault, it must be said.
Giving all three a lesson is the Honda. Itís not as playful as the Megane Ė in fact, itís the least likely of the quartet to move around Ė but thatís primarily because itís going so much quicker than anything else. Its biggest drawback is the inability to alter the suspension, steering and engine modes individually Ė ideally youíd match Comfort steering to Sport damping and Sport Plus engine and ESP Nonetheless, the default Sport mode is enough to establish superiority. The Type R soaks up road irregularities with uncanny compliance, can be placed with millimetre accuracy, stops with unparalleled power and feel, hauls out of tight corners with virtually no wheelspin and offers grip Ė wet or dry Ė that only the Megane has a hope of matching.
Sadly for its rivals, the dominance continues in a straight line. Times of 5.7sec 0-100km/h and 13.73sec at 173.98km/h are a fraction slower than our bests, but still enough to put relative daylight between it and the other contenders. Its buzzy engine note isnít particularly appealing, but combine 228kW/400Nm with short gearing and a light, laser-accurate gearshift and you have roll-on acceleration thatíll give theoretically much quicker machinery a real headache.
The Peugeot comes closest. It may only have 1.6 litres to work with, but according to Peugeot the 308 has around a 200kg weight advantage, its 166kW/tonne power-to-weight ratio edging the Civic (164kW/tonne) and smashing the Megane (145kW/tonne) and i30 (141kW/tonne). The numbers suggest its superiority isnít so pronounced, but it definitely punches above its capacity, hitting 100km/h in 5.99sec and crossing the quarter in 14.04sec at 167.22km/h. The Pugís drivetrain is fantastic. Thereís power everywhere, excellent response, a keenness to rev to almost 7000rpm and a pleasing, if obviously artificial, engine note in Sport. Not everyone is keen on the Peugeotís long-throw gearshift, but I like the theatre it adds to each change and the action is refreshingly slick.
Mere fractions separate the French duo. Recording a 14.07sec quarter mile at 166.08km/h, the Renault trails the Pug by just 0.03sec and 1.14km/h. However, while its downsized turbo 1.8 is every bit as effective, it doesnít feel as polished. Power is plentiful and a 7000rpm cutout gives impressive reach, but everything from the throttle response to the engine note to the slightly apologetic pops on the over-run feels slightly contrived. Itís almost like distinguishing between the different modes was a higher priority than just providing the best possible connection with the driver.
The Meganeís quickest 0-100km/h effort of 5.94sec actually slightly bests the 308, but every other speed increment is slower than the run weíve included in the data. Second gear runs to 102km/h, so nailing the best possible time requires wringing out every rev without hitting the limiter. Performance testing quirks aside, the gearing complements the engine nicely and works very well on the road, while the shift itself is fine, shorter of throw than the Peugeotís, but a little grittier.
Straight lines arenít a happy hunting ground for the i30 N. It doesnít help its own cause against the clock with non-killable traction control cutting power in first gear to control axle tramp. To be honest, its best times of 6.24sec 0-100km/h and 14.26sec 0-400m are a fluke, with times more commonly in the 6.5sec and 14.4sec regions respectively thanks to incessant electronic intervention. Once rolling, itís further handicapped against the clock by unusual gearing. Second gear is short, running out at 98km/h and necessitating another time-sapping shift to 100km/h, yet every other gear is relatively tall Ė trickery to optimise the 0-60mph (97km/h) time? With no traction control issues and a slightly longer second gear, the i30 N would probably dip below 6.0sec 0-100km/h, for traction is strong and the gearbox, while notchy, allows for quick, accurate shifts.
The Hyundai is a fast enough car in its own right, but is the slowest car here and lacks the potency its outputs suggest. It's still in the game at 100km/h, but by 170km/h itís 0.58sec behind the Renault, 0.76sec behind the Peugeot and whopping 2.21sec behind the Honda. Mid-range torque is strong but power drops off dramatically beyond 6000rpm as the turbo runs out of puff Ė it feels a bit like theyíve installed the World Rally Carís inlet restrictor. That said, itís like they installed the anti-lag system, too, with each upshift accompanied by percussive cracks of unburnt fuel escaping the exhaust. Childish, yes, but addictive.
The i30ís trump card is its configurability, allowing drivers to save their favourite combination of settings Ė and there are a lot of choose from Ė to the ĎN Customí mode. For reference, my preference is engine, diff and exhaust set to their sportiest settings (with rev-matching most definitely off) but the steering in Normal, ESC in Sport and dampers in Normal with occasional forays into Sport.
As youíd expect from a hot hatch based on a best-seller, the i30 N nails the ergonomics. The driving position is a little high, but large, well-marked buttons and a responsive touchscreen make completing day-to-day tasks a breeze. The Peugeot takes a different approach, moving virtually every control to the touchscreen to create a minimalist look. Itíll probably split opinion, but for me it works, the 308 GTi having the classiest interior on test. Unlike many, I can read the dials just fine with the steering wheel in its highest position, but you can keep the backwards tachometer.
Renault adopts a similar method, moving all controls bar HVAC to the portrait touchscreen. It looks cool, but doesnít work as well as the Peugeot. The screen isnít as responsive and is harder to navigate. Helpfully, the R.S. Drive button in the centre of the dash allows the selection of a sportier drive mode with one touch. The Megane looks great, however, the wider tracks giving it a proper bulldog stance, with menacing black 19s and neat touches like the giant rear diffuser and Aventadorlike single exhaust outlet. Itís the looker of this quartet.
The Honda is not. Weíre growing more accustomed to the Civicís styling but itís still far too busy. Its weakest link, though, is definitely its interior. The seats, wheel and gearshift are great, but the plastics are cheap and scratchy, the USB port a pain to access and the touchscreen infotainment plain irritating. Despite this, itís the clear winner of this test. Simply put, itís the quickest with the most power and grip, has the best gearshift, the most comfortable ride, the most accurate steering and the most responsive and powerful brakes. Itís also the most expensive, so it should be the best, but the margin of victory is significant.
Hyundai secures second place on value, but that sells its impressive abilities short. It does exactly what a hot hatch should Ė it does everything. It doesnít have the ultimate handling ability of the Renault or the engine character of the Peugeot, but is very close in both regards while being more comfortable and asking for less money. Itís a great car. Splitting the French duo is very difficult: the order in which they finish will depend on your priorities. The Peugeot makes a strong case, for you will enjoy its drivetrain superiority far more often than the Renaultís on-limit handling advantage.
But the Renaultís peaks are higher and it comes alive on a difficult road just at the point the Peugeot begins to frustrate Ė if only the brakes were better. What is clear is that itís no longer the benchmark. Itís good, even great in very specific circumstances, and Renault has broadened the Meganeís appeal without sacrificing its core competencies more successfully than it did with the Clio RS. But the end result is similar: remarkable on-limit handling that comes at the expense of ride quality and an engine thatís effective rather than inspirational. Perhaps the more compliant Sport chassis is the pick for road use, but it's a shame the softer setup deletes the limited-slip diff.
This is the very beginning of the fourth-gen Megane RS story and thereís certainly the potential to be great. Nonetheless, the Trophy is going to have to be a solid improvement if itís to become the hunted, not the hunter.