Currently reading: From R26R to Trophy-R: driving the ultimate Renaultsport Meganes
The R26R went down in hot hatch history, but has it been surpassed by its successors? We gather the best to find out
Matt Prior
News
9 mins read
8 March 2020

I had always imagined the 275 Trophy-R was the high point of the really hot Renault Mégane model series. I’m not sure why but I remembered it as the high watermark. With its coupé-ish appearance and rock-rigid body, it seemed as modern as today’s Mégane does, but with less than 300bhp, it retained the delicacy of old hot hatchbacks.

It’s also the only one I drove at the Nürburgring, the track that has made this series of special Renault Sport Méganes famous, because each of the trio set a new lap record for a front-driven production car. That’s not any guarantee of greatness, of course, but it helped here, and I always felt that the 275 Trophy-R was the standout among a series of standout cars. Today, though, will tell. We have the three cars in the series together in the same place at the same time. It’s a sequence that started in 2008 with a car called the R26R, or R26.R in Renault-speak of the sort that led to the Kia cee’d becoming the Ceed by the time it had passed via sensible sub-editors.

There had been hot Renaults before the R26R. The most bonkers Clio ever had a V6 installed in its middle; there’s an amusing ‘three-litre Clio’ story involving a confused Volkswagen chief, Ferdinand Piëch, attached to that. And even before that, there were Group B rallying-homologated, mid-engined Renault 5 specials. But the R26R had a different kind of competition in mind and went about succeeding at it in a different way. Renault wanted the Mégane to become the fastest front-wheel-drive production car around the Nordschleife – a feat that, remember, doesn’t necessarily make for a great driver’s car – so set about throwing 123kg from an already light hatchback, including ditching the rear seats and swapping rear window and tailgate glass for plastic. Thus equipped and riding on optional Toyo track tyres, Renault’s tame test driver Vincent Bayle took the R26R around the ’Ring in just 8min 17sec.

There were quite a few production examples of this car built at the old (and new) Alpine factory in Dieppe: 450, of which Renault UK was quite bullish about the prospects of selling in Britain, opting to take 230 of them.

It didn’t quite pan out like that. As with the earlier, if anything more special, Ford Racing Puma, the market baulked at the £23,815 (plus another £3000 for the track tyres, roll-cage and titanium exhaust that no R26R should be without) asked for a two-seat Renault, so some of the allocation made its way onto Renault’s internal car scheme on favourable rates and other examples were sold back in France.

Used values, at one point, dropped to the low teens. Sigh. Yes, we probably should have. Now they will cost what they did when they were new, but even at that price, as when new, I think they’re worth every penny. To drive one today is to still find a hugely enjoyable hot hatch. Or perhaps ‘small coupé’ would do it more justice.

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With the R26R, Renault set out (and this is a theme it continues) to do more with less. So the 227bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual gearbox came in unchanged from the standard Renault Sport Mégane, which was called the R26.

Acceleration increased marginally (0-62mph fell by half a second to 6.0sec) as a result of the weight loss, but the lap time came from extra poise, grip and braking.

Some old cars, even future classics, start to feel a bit tired as their bodies fatigue and their suspension bushes soften, but this evidently well-looked-after R26R feels impeccably tight. So although the steering wheel is thin-rimmed and slow-geared by today’s standards, it’s still exceptionally precise and controls a chassis that generates brilliant grip and poise.

At a test track, it hangs on gamely and resists understeer, including under power, feeding back plenty of splendid road feel while it’s at it. Partly that keen line is possible because it makes less power and torque (at 228lb ft) than a truly modern hot hatch. But it also has an ability to damp road lumps, owing to 10% softer springs than the standard R26 (lightness keeps on giving, as Renault recently demonstrated once again so deftly with the Alpine A110), while there’s a lovely throttle adjustability that subtly and predictably brings the rear wheels into play in faster cornering. It’s three generations old, this car, but it feels every inch as rigid and competent now as I remember it was at the time.

That time, though, wasn’t quite so long ago, really. Renault used to launch its super-special version just as time was running out for the model that spawned it, so the R26R set its fast lap and failed to find buyers as recently as 2008 – the same year the Mk3 Mégane was launched.

It took until 2014 for the German Ring Road Special edition of that variant to find its way onto the street in the form of the 275 Trophy-R. More than 80kg was removed fromthe standard 275’s kerb weight, but the measures weren’t quite so extreme as the first time (maybe throughfear that market forces would again shun it), so while there were no back seats, there were still glass windows and a strut-brace rather than a half roll-cage. And that meant you could tell your other half you were buying a small van.

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The price went up to £36,430, but the UK was allocated just 30 cars. The lap time, set by Laurent Hurgon, dropped to 7min 54.3sec, beating the Seat Leon Cupra 280 by four seconds.

I remember loving it dearly at the time, and while it’s no less impressive today, trying it and the R26R back to back reveals that they’re not night-and-day different in class in the way I had remembered. I thought I remembered the steering of the R26R being vaguer, but while it’s true that the 275 Trophy-R has a weightier, much quicker and more responsive rack, it’s actually no more accurate than its predecessor’s.

What it does simultaneously do is feel wider, heavier, taller of scuttle and firmer. A lot firmer. Quicker, too, in a straight line – unsurprisingly, given the 44bhp power increase that came with it. But more noteworthy still is the on-or-off nature of the handling; you turn at a corner and the 275 Trophy-R really dives to the apex. Do the same with the throttle off or, if chance allows, with the brakes trailed and the rear wheels are exceptionally but predictably and controllably mobile. While the R26R is relatively delicate and mild-mannered, the 275 Trophy-R is much more brutish and physical.

To that end, it’s not unlike three cars we ran in another test featuring a decade-old car: a Porsche 911 GT3 RS from 2010, which lined up alongside a recent 911 GT2 RS. There, as here, the newer car felt all of more rigid, heavier and larger and yet simultaneously more responsive, grippy and accelerative – if not necessarily any more enjoyable.

The 275 Trophy-R isn’t the same as a GT2 RS, obviously; there’s the small matter of 425bhp between them. But there are similarities between the ultimate Renault Sport line and GT Porsches. And there’s no denying that, in the same way that the most powerful new car, the GT2 RS, is the most extreme model, the latest Mégane 300 Trophy-R is similarly the most ballistic and hardcore of all the Renaults.

For the 300 Trophy-R’s concept, the same path as with the other two cars here is followed: there are no rear seats, so weight is reduced, and power hasn’t been increased. This time, the big weight loss comes from ditching the active rear steering mechanism that makes the standard 300 Trophy such an unpredictable drive, leaving you wondering just how much it’ll turn on each steering input and coursing bends like it’s outlining a 20p piece.

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You’ll need a lot of those coins to get one. I wonder if Renault, buoyed by the relative commercial success of the 275 Trophy-R, has overstepped here. I love the 300 Trophy-R dearly – more than most of my colleagues – and, given the depth of engineering changes, I’m happy to explain away its asking price of £51,140.

Add carbonfibre wheels, carbon-ceramic brake discs and a straight-feed air intake to that, though, and you’re looking at a price of £72,140, for a car with the Nürburgring Record Pack. Worth it? It depends. I like this car very much even without them, but nothing other than a back-to-back test on the same road will truly reveal what difference the wheels and brakes make to driver feel. But the fact is that it won’t go as fast without them. Only 32 examples of the 300 Trophy-R will make their way to the UK, and only two of those will be fitted with the Record Pack.

Either way, by gum it’s fast. The lap time has fallen to 7min 45sec but, in a straight line, the gulf between the 275 and 300 feels a strong as between the R26R and the 275. It zaps to the redline with such ferocity that it feels like the clutch is slipping, and there’s a real breathiness to it, making more intake noise and less exhaust sound than the 275 – over which it also feels bigger and heavier again. And, in rather sophisticated style, the 300 is exceptionally agile: if you turn in with no power on, it moves around predictably, quickly and controllably (who needs rear-steer?), with a steering system that, at 2.3 turns between locks, is pretty fast, but somewhat distilled like the rest of the car. It’s a sports car with more front-end bite than the others, and that lets you lean on it much harder.

The 300 feels softer than the 275, but neither matches the delicacy of the R26R. In this company, that car almost feels an entire class smaller.

So, while each of the three cars in this series is today still in the category of ‘thoroughly enjoyable and a bit too quick for the road’, there is a fairly natural progression: each is bigger, faster, grippier and yet more responsive to its steering, in the same kind of way that a modern Range Rover leaves a 40-year-old one feeling like a creaky compact car.

Only the R26R isn’t that old – and coming as it does with fixed-back seats, harnesses and half a roll-cage, it’s just as rigid as it was when it was new, which is still pretty rigid by today’s standards. So yes, there are faster Méganes and more expensive Méganes, but I don’t think there are such immersive, charming and fun Méganes as the original R26R.

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Five more special hot Renaults

8 Gordini: The Gordini version of the 8 taught Renault a few things about selling hot models: it shifted 9000 examples of the rear-engined ‘La Gorde’ between 1964 and 1970. In rallying, it won three consecutive Tours de Corse.

5 Turbo: A Group 4 special that allowed Renault to go rallying with a mid-engined car, the 5 Turbo had a 1.4-litre motor to drive its rear wheels. A marginally less special version, the Turbo 2, followed once the homologation run was done.

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Clio Williams: Renault needed to build 2500 Clios with a 2.0-litre engine, the maximum displacement for its rally class. It was brilliant, and Renault could’ve sold lots more. So it did, adding second and third build phases to the irritation of many Mk1 buyers.

Sport Spider: The first-ever road car to bear Renault Sport badging was the Sport Spider of 1996, a two-seat roadster for which a windscreen was optional. It was fun, but it weighed 930kg and arrived at the same time as the Lotus Elise.

Clio V6 RS: The original Clio V6 Trophy models were made by TWR, but the second-phase version, introduced in 2001 and much better to drive, was a full-on Renault Sport production from the Dieppe factory in which Alpine is based today.

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jason_recliner 10 March 2020

The R26.R is Still Amazing

Plastic windows!  You just KNOW Renault was serious about this one.

405line 9 March 2020

About b***dy time.

About time someone gave Renault the respect they deserve for some of the best performance cars ever made. The 19/16 valve was a humdinger too. They may not have looked like it but they were usually more than up to the performance task they were made for. Brakes, steeering and gearchange all weighted for press on driving in the performance variants not all controls turning to "mush" as soon as you gave it the beans.

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