If it was more widely known that B-roads this good could be found this empty in the generally bustling south of England, perhaps cars like ours would be a more common sight for the handful of locals who’ll see them zip by today.
For the time being at least, I’m quite pleased that fact isn’t more widely known. Very pleased indeed, actually.
Because right now, somewhere on the borders of Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Nowhere-in-particularshire, gloriously inviting and blissfully quiet cross-country Tarmac is extending ahead of the front wheels of the new Renault Mégane RS 280 like the yellow brick road ahead of Dorothy and gang. Through the windscreen the road rises and falls, arcing gently one way before being thrust the other to disappear behind a verge or hedge – only to reappear a quarter mile or so nearer the crystal blue horizon. And just over that horizon? Membury Services and the teeming M4 motorway. Not exactly the Emerald City, I know – although they have got ANPR cameras these days. And a Waitrose.
This is the Mégane’s opportunity. Never mind that I’ve been driving it for a few hundred miles already and that it has failed so far to enliven my frontal lobes in quite the way that you’d hope a great hot hatchback would; that won’t matter if what it does here and now lives long in the memory. And if it doesn’t? There should be a Honda Civic Type R parked up in a gravel car park not far from here, ready to supply any fireworks that we may decide are missing.
This is the third-generation Mégane RS, its lineage stretching back some 15 years – and its reputation for outright handling eminence among fast front-drivers being the envy of the hot hatchback class. It’s still front drive, and still uses strut-type front suspension and a beam axle at the back. But this one adopts the 1.8-litre turbo petrol engine you’ll also find in the Alpine A110, wound up to 276bhp and on offer driving through a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed paddle-shift ‘auto’ gearboxes. The manual’s much better, though, and that’s the one we’ve got here.
The car comes with the familiar binary choice of standard Sport and optional Cup chassis configurations, the latter getting bigger wheels; stiffer springs, dampers and stabiliser bars; and a new slippy diff (the Cup being the one that most UK owners will have, and the one we’re testing). In both suspension configurations it gets new hydraulic bump-stops, which allow for improved body and wheel control at the extremes of suspension travel (and which technology Renault Sport prefers to adaptive dampers, interestingly). And those rally-spec struts aren’t the only ‘first’ the Mégane is bringing to the hot hatch arena: it’s also got four-wheel steering.