Car reviews - Renault - Megane - RS250 Cup Trophee
Sensational performance, handling, grip, body control and braking striking coupe styling, hatchback versatility, engine tractability, relative scarcity compared to ubiquitous Golf GTI
Room for improvement
Bad rear vision, useless analogue speedo, claustrophobic rear seat, 98 RON premium unleaded thirst
29 Oct 2010
By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS
IS RENAULT in danger of becoming ‘just’ the Renaultsport brand in Australia?
Since its 2001 relaunch, none of the mainstream offerings have fared well enough to give the centurial French marque the sort of sales traction required for sustained growth. Clio, Scenic, Laguna … all have fallen by the wayside, leaving only the Koleos, Megane, Fluence, and – soon – the Latitude to fly the volume flag.
All of the latter, by the way, are Nissan-technology based (engines, transmissions and other engineering bits) to keep prices low and sales high. If they fail to fire in the marketplace Renault may have no choice but to abandon Australia again.
But that’s only half the Renault Oz story because the French firm has performed better than expected with its specialised Renaultsport (RS) vehicles – the Clio RS and Megane RS.
In fact the former has been a brand mainstay over the last decade, winning awards and thrilling buyers by virtue of its true hot hatch DNA.
Now the X95 Megane RS 250 is here – replacement for the previous X84 Cup versions that so brightened our lives from the outset in September 2005.
Indeed, we reckon the only thing that stopped the old model from scaling up the sales charts was divisive styling – that bustle back posterior certainly polarised many potential purchasers.
Today’s RS is far and away the best-looking new-model Renault, with an aggressive silhouette and eye-catching detailing that blur the border between coupe and hatchback.
When first unveiled at the 2008 Paris Auto Salon as a concept car, we dubbed it a sensation. Nothing’s changed. On the streets, heads turn like Linda Blair’s. In a wallpaper of Golf GTIs – the Renault’s fiercest foe by far – such fab design is a distinct advantage.
In contrast, the cabin is more subdued – and not a bad place to be either.
Initial impressions are positive, reinforced by the quality thud of the heavy doors closing, elegant symmetry of the horizontally themed dashboard, rubberised upper fascia, pleasant white lighting at night and a super little steering wheel that is great to grip on to.
But Renault’s dash designers are lazier than Audi’s exterior stylists (try telling an A4, A6 and A8 apart from 50 metres!), due to its similarity to the latest Laguna’s … lovely to behold? Sure. Original? Nope. Character is no bad thing.
Never mind. The driving position is AOK for your 178cm tester, and is aided by a tilt/telescopic column, brilliant front seats and a surprisingly effective and utterly simple to operate climate control system. Though French in design, there is nothing (short of the left-hand indicator stalk) that feels especially oddball in here.
Similarly there are plus points for the peeps stuck out in the rear as well.
Access is easy via a pair of long doors, front seats that slide forward and then return to their previous position, and a wide aperture on either side, while once in place the agreeably low bench and reclined backrest mean that heads won’t rub against the Renault’s ceiling. Knee and leg space is sufficient unless you’re Gandalf.
Beware if you suffer from claustrophobia, however, since there are no rear vent outlets. Those tiny side port holes, err, windows are fixed and set too high for kids and/or dogs to get a good look out there are no map pockets in the Recaro seats, centre armrest or overhead grab handles (very sorely missed) either. If you are feeling too hemmed in, at least a fast exit is no chore.
Whatever you do make of the coupe-like shape, Renault’s done a marvellous job in providing hatchback-style practicality, thanks to a long, deep and wide cargo area.
At 377 litres, the boot is not massive, but fold the rear seats and you can throw a bicycle back there, no problem. Only the tapering hatch opening betrays the style-over-substance priority that afflicts/blesses all current-shape (X95) three-door Meganes.
Happily, the child-seat harness restraints are placed so the straps will not foul luggage capacity, while a space-saver spare wheel is also fitted. You could happily have the Megane RS as your sole (small) family car.
But there are a few caveats to consider here. In descending severity of annoyances are the illegible speedo (with no supplementary digital back-up even though the cruise control readout gets one), achy left footrest that all but ruined long-distance touring for your tester, apocalyptic rear vision (parking sensors are vital – a camera ought to be also included), no illumination for the steering wheel controls (why?), and Mensa levels of brain matter required to adjust the radio station settings.
And where is the sense of occasion so prevalent outside? Even in our Cup Trophee car the hot-hatch cues are constrained: pithy yellow stitching for the wheel, gear lever, seats and armrests (but not the handbrake, strangely), to match the controversial yellow seatbelts and tacho, aren’t really going to get the blood stirring.
Yet, ensconced in the Trophee’s body-hugging Recaro front seats, you are reminded that this Megane has a higher purpose, and soon everything is forgotten as you sit there tightly, locked and loaded and ready to roll with what comes next.
Push the silly credit card key and push the start button, and the four-pot roars into life.
A development of the previous RS unit, the 2.0-litre turbo tearaway touts 184kW of power at 5500rpm and 340Nm of torque at 3000rpm.
But this engine is no peaky ‘all or nothing’ proposition.
Right from the get-go acceleration is strong due to a deep well of torque in the low rev ranges, and keeps going strong right up past 5500rpm. From just below 4000rpm the twin-scroll turbo is already spinning hard, seamlessly providing extra oomph that comes on like a second wind, to keep the Megane flying right up to the rev limiter. And, trust us, you’re bouncing off that warning buzzer all too frequently, for the RS sings as easily as it soars.
For its sheer flexibility and unburstability, this engine must be one of the best around, no question about it. While the claimed acceleration from 0-100km/h is 6.1 seconds (versus 6.9 for the Golf GTI, and aided by ‘Power Start’ – which uses the fettled ESP system to maximise set-off performance in minimal time), the numbers tell only half the story here.
Part of the Renaultsport magic is a completely redesigned front end, as part of a 15 per cent stiffer overall Cup chassis (compared with the regular Sport system unavailable in Australia).
Featuring a trick mechanical limited slip differential as well as an independent steering axis layout (where steering and suspension duties have been separated for optimal handling and traction), it means the (electric – incredibly) steering does not tug like a disobedient pug despite the torrent of torque being transmitted to the nose of the car, instead feeling responsive, natural and utterly controllable.
We had a chance to rocket an RS 250 up a closed, sealed track in the wet at speeds exceeding 160km/h at times, and here the Renault roared – rising above its small-car specs to sprint along like a cut-price supercar, flying through tight bends with confidence and ease, cresting over dips with utter controllability, and then coming to a dead stop again with no fuss or hesitation – the upshot of a big set of four-calliper Brembo brakes.
Believe us, on the track the hottest Megane performs with unadulterated sports car bravado, leaving a Ford Focus RS (also on our test) in its wake, and giving the likes of the Subaru Impreza STi and Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X (that produce even more power and cost upwards of 20K more) a very hard time indeed.
In the real world if inner-urban traffic, uneven roads and speed humps, the RS is equally impressive, with a firm but supple ride quality that somehow belies its relatively simple (but significantly altered for its RS application) torsion beam rear-end design. We found the French car more comfy than the standard Golf GTI set-up. Here, the steering continues to feel uncorrupted, linear and extremely faithful to input, to ensure that the driver stays connected to the road.
We’re big fans of the six-speed manual gearbox’s shift quality that – like the steering – is weighted in accordance to the level of performance on offer. The clutch, too, is nicely measured – and that’s despite being quite worn out in our used and abused test car.
The quintessential long-way-home hot hatch – thy name is Renaultsport.
Of course the RS isn’t perfect.
Driving everywhere like you’re delivering an expecting mother means fuel consumption suffers – to the tune of 12 litres per 100km in the urban run that’s a far cry from the 8.7L/100km average Renault claims.
And although the ride is AOK it shook a few hidden things loose in the cabin to create a small but vocal – and annoying – cacophony of squeaks and rattles (although it is worth bearing in mind our car’s torturous 5000km mileage is probably equivalent to an 80,000km used car).
There’s also a fair degree of road noise coming through on some of our bitumen surfaces, but again it isn’t the sort that distracts you from enjoying the car.
And if you choose to drive the RS gently for most of the time then your ears won’t bleed, your fillings won’t shake loose, and your osteo won’t get even wealthier, because there’s a depth and breadth to this Renault’s abilities that transcends the manic hot hatch personality of some rivals with this level of capability.
You can even order heated and leather seats and save yourself a few thousand dollars – but a Golf GTI with the optional adaptive dampers and DSG dual-clutch manual automated gearbox will feel more like a luxury GT than the RS.
But that’s not the point of the Megane RS 250, is it?
Here, folks, is the greatest hot hatch money can buy right now. Snarling, sensationally swift, and yet secure, safe and sensible all the same, it redefines the genre in the way that spiritual predecessors such as the first Golf GTI, Peugeot 205 GTi, Peugeot 306 GTi-6 and X84 Megane Cup R26 did. Yes, the Renault can cosset, but really, its focus is all about fast, affordable fun.
So people wanting a $45K performance thriller have a new hero. Renaultsport ought to be congratulated.
Whether the other, regular, humdrum Renaults will be able to move out of the RS 250’s formidable shadow is another story. Whatever the outcome, long live Renaultsport!
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