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.
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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.
Sounds tantalising, doesn’t it? And on the European press launch a few months ago, it felt that way to drive. Back then, I assumed that Renault had restricted us to track driving only in the Mégane Cup, and road driving in the sport-suspended version, for practical reasons. But it hasn’t taken many UK miles in the Mégane to reveal there might have been an ulterior motive.
Over anything other than Tarmac as smooth as Mary Berry’s kitchen worktops, this Cup suspension is seriously firm. It hardly engages at all with urban lumps and bumps taken at town speeds, the car’s body fidgeting in bad-tempered fashion, and retaining plenty of angry recalcitrant bustling even at A-road speeds.
Like a slightly uncomfortable pair of running shoes, this is a chassis into which you feel you have to put lots of energy and speed to make it work properly. It eggs you on – which can be a very compelling character for a hot hatchback to have. And, sure enough, as your speed increases, so the brusqueness of that suspension begins to fade. It develops a readiness to yield a little over smaller ripples and edges, though retaining a remarkable refusal to give what feels like more than a couple of inches of wheel travel over bigger intrusions, before clamping the car’s mass as if in a vice.