The Renault Mégane is a car apparently trapped in a permanent identity crisis.
While rivals appear capable of regenerating every six or seven years without ever needing a wholesale character reinvention, the Mégane seems to come back drastically altered with a different agenda and fresh selling points every time there’s an all-new model.
As its dynasty has developed, we’ve gone from The Beaky One to The Whacky One to The Oft-FaceliftedBlink-And-There’s-A-New-One One. And now to this: Mégane Mk4, The Pretty One. Sort of. Over the years, we’ve been led to expect outstanding safety from the car, then innovative technology and unconventional style followed by value and efficiency. Now we’re offered a certain refined European maturity, it seems. But above all, never the same thing twice.
Keen drivers have therefore clung to the one strand that the Mégane has offered consistently since the second-generation model: that, sooner or later, there’ll be a version developed by Renault’s motorsport and performance car division, Renault Sport, that’ll be absolutely mustard to drive.
And the good news is that, this time around, that special version may have come already. The Mégane Mk4 has been launched with a pseudo-RS version installed in the line-up from the get-go: the range-topping GT model. This car comes with not just sportier suspension settings but also uprated spring, damper, steering and anti-roll bar componentry – all tuned by you-know-who. It comes with something no other car in the Mégane’s class has ever offered, too: four-wheel steering.
So has the hot Mégane that we’ve all been hoping for since Renault dampened our collective enthusiasm with the current Clio RS now come along under the radar, a little earlier than expected? Can we stop worrying about the direction in which Renault Sport is heading and instead take heart that the future of one of the greatest purveyors of the modern hot hatchback is safe?
Let battle commence
Mégane versus Focus versus Golf, represented in go-faster guise in every case, feels like a story that has been told countless times on these pages over the past decade. Now, as ever, I bet you think you can guess how it might go. GTI falters first, being classy and desirable but not brilliantly fast or exciting. ST gives RS tougher opposition, the Ford being punchy, usable, well priced and very entertaining. But the Renault wins the day, with a blend of pace, grip, poise and tactile feedback that neither of the others can equal.
Well, think again. It’s a Mégane GT flying the flag for France here, remember, not a full-house Renault Sport derivative. (An all-new Mégane RS isn’t expected until 2018.) And if you’re wondering how much that fact may open the door for either the Golf or the Focus to seize the performance high ground, you needn’t look very far for the first sign of confirmation.
The Renault goes into this test armed with a lightly modified version of the Clio RS 200’s 1.6-litre turbocharged engine and paddleshift gearbox, giving it 202bhp and 207lb ft, whereas both of its rivals displace 2.0 litres and produce at least 10% more power and 25% more torque. The Renault’s 0-62mph claimed time starts with a seven whereas its competitors both have claims starting with a six. We’ll get to how much difference that makes to the relative performance of our trio in due course, but even in a two-tier hot hatchback market, it’s far from the greatest start for our newcomer.
Worse still for Renault, in opposition to the Mégane come two cars that have been made faster, firmer and more purposeful in their latest forms than ever they used to be. Ford’s 2014 update for the Focus ST added stiffer front suspension springs, uprated dampers and firmer suspension and steering bushings. VW’s seventh-generation Golf GTI, meanwhile, was launched a year earlier with something that would have been unthinkable from a hot hatchback so straight-laced not so long ago: the option of an active limited-slip differential. It comes as part of VW’s Performance Pack that also upgrades engine and braking power and that our test car had fitted.
All of which begins to explain how three hot hatchbacks that you might have taken for known quantities end up surprising you when you come to drive them. One is much firmer and more fun than you’d ever have expected, another firmer still and even more eager to please and the third one atypically blasé about its sporting ambitions.
The inside story
If you read our recent road test on the Mégane diesel (Autocar, 17 August), you’ll know that the new car’s cabin ambience is markedly more rich and expensive-feeling than that of the old car. In GT specification, the step change is plainer still.
Between the cabin’s two-tone suede sports seats, vivid blue stitching and detailing, shiny chrome accents and sport pedals and new portrait-orientated multimedia system and digital instruments, the Mégane now works very hard to convince you that it’s sporty, stylish and sophisticated on the inside – and it achieves that aim effectively enough in places.
But on a more fundamental level, the Renault is also quite seriously flawed. Shallow footwells and closely set pedals force drivers of even average height to sit either more bentlegged or farther from the steering wheel than they might prefer. Rearseat passenger space isn’t great in any case and it takes a secondary hit as a result of the poor front-row packaging. And a back-to-back drive in either the Focus ST or Golf GTI will instantly demonstrate that such an ergonomic faux pas really needn’t be tolerated in 2016. The Focus’s driving position is a bit high but its control layout is good, and the Golf’s are both comfortably beyond reproach.
There is likewise evidence of questionable attention to detail in the usability and appearance of the Mégane’s infotainment system, the clarity of its digital instruments (there’s no option to see speedo and rev counter at the same time) and, most annoying of all, the positioning of the shift paddles on the steering column. They sprout from attachment points a couple of inches higher than the horizontal centre line of the steering wheel. They’re also cut off from extending far enough downwards to be in easy reach of where your hands naturally come to rest on the wheel at quarter to three. As a result, they manage to make every gearchange that little bit more laborious than it should be. In the Golf, the paddles for its DSG dualclutch automatic gearbox are on the back of the wheel, not the column – and the merits of each philosophy can be debated. But leaving that debate to one side, the VW’s gearbox is by a long way the easier to get along with.
The Golf’s gearbox also works so much better than the Mégane’s, as if to deliberately shine an even less flattering light on Renault’s relative lack of experience with dual-clutch transmissions. Shift speed in manual mode is comparable in both cars, but the GTI’s abilities to swap cogs smoothly, always select the right gear in automatic mode and kick down at the right time are vastly superior.
That the Renault is operating at a significant shortfall on torque and related drivability compared with the VW doesn’t help its case. Neither do those oddly chosen gear ratios, so familiar from the Clio RS 200, through which second gear feels more like first ought to feel, third uncannily like second, fourth like third and first as good as redundant.
A conventional six-speed manual gearbox is, by contrast, something a hot hatchback is far less likely to go wrong with, and so it proves in the Focus. Short levered and heavy but positive through the gate, the Focus’s gearbox gets better the more roughly you treat it. Its engine, meanwhile, trumps the Golf’s and Mégane’s for ferocity, delivering a bigger hit of mid-range torque than either and sounding more tuneful.
The Ford’s powertrain feels like a traditional hot hatchback’s, but it’s nonetheless very well executed and no less exciting for being a bit old tech. It has what every car of its ilk needs above all else: more grunt than feels strictly necessary. But the Golf would likely be almost as fast as the Focus from point to point, VW’s Performance Pack upgrade liberating a useful bit of extra high-revving freedom from its turbocharged engine than a standard GTI has.
All three have wheels that signal hot hatch potential, but the Mégane fails to deliver it fully on a B-road and leaves its driver wanting And, sure enough, on a performance level, the Renault again fails to land a glove on its rivals. Although the Mégane’s power and pace feel moderately keen in isolation, it’s much the weakest-feeling car of the three in back-to-back testing. Lacking the mid-range wallop of either the Focus or the Golf, the Mégane’s engine is also the least willing engine to rev of all three, becoming a bit strained beyond 4500rpm. Those funny intermediate ratios disguise the deficiency at times, but you can’t miss it when you sample something else that your hot hatchback money might have bought instead. The bottom line is that because this engine wasn’t and isn’t really good enough even for a hot Clio, it was never going to cut it in a hot Mégane.
So what pride can the Mégane recover on the part of the driving experience over which Renault Sport exerts the most influence? A not insignificant amount, as it turns out. And hallelujah for that.
The Mégane GT rides with a supple, progressive kind of body control that reeks of careful and skilful tuning. It feels cleverly damped initially, gently reined in at everyday speeds but controlled nonetheless. And up to a point, it handles well. As a car purely in which to drive your every daily miles without necessarily going looking for excitement, the Mégane GT wouldn’t be last in this test’s ranking order. But regrettably, the quicker you drive the Mégane and the more testing the road surface under its wheels, the less dynamically impressive it gets.
Quite the reverse is true of the Golf GTI, whose ride is initially firmer than the Mégane GT’s but whose excellent body control, traction and handling stability seem perfectly judged for fast cross-country miles. The Golf is unperturbed by bumps. Its adaptive dampers only seem to work better when you ask them to do more. The Mégane’s, by contrast, are at their best when taking the sting out of long compressions on the motorway and smaller, sharper ones at A-road speeds, but they allow the body to roll and deflect too much when push really comes to shove.
For grip, the Focus and Golf are evenly matched but the Mégane is a shade off the pace. On handling response, balance and driver engagement, the Focus tops the order, the Mégane’s rear-axle steering chiming in to the handling repertoire only occasionally and at low speeds and being outshone by the Golf’s slippy diff for contribution to your amusement level.
But the Ford makes you pay for its direct, incisive handling in a way that the Focus ST never used to – which, for this tester, takes the edge off an all-round dynamic showing that might otherwise have been strong enough to win this test.
Ford’s latest round of chassis tweaks have created a firm, busy, unsettled ride and steering that’s a little too adversely affected by bump steer, torque steer and drive forces generally. The ST has always been a relatively naughty, vivacious kind of drive whose handling bite and control feedback made its wilder habits worth tolerating, but now it seems that the car’s Mr Hyde side is starting to get the better of it.
Which is why the Golf GTI comes to the fore at the end of a long day in these cars and justifies its high price with the most fully realised performance driving experience here. The Focus ST comes a creditable second, with its handling dynamism and bang for the buck as outstanding as ever but its overall appeal lessened by chassis updates.
Of the Mégane GT, there is some encouragement to take, but at least as much frustration, too. Renault Sport’s development team deserves better raw material and a more singular brief than this with which to show what it can do – and with the full-blown Mégane RS (which will retain a manual gearbox and the outgoing car’s 2.0-litre engine in updated form), it’ll get both.
But for the next couple of years and until that new Mégane RS makes it off the development trail and into showrooms, the void left by the demise of the previous Clio RS and the outgoing Mégane 275 may loom large for the hot hatchback faithful – and this Mégane GT will do little to fill it.
Volkswagen Golf GTI 5dr DSG Performance Pack
Price £30.925; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 227bhp 4700-6200rpm; Torque 258lb ft 1500-4600rpm; Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch auto; Kerb weight 1370kg; 0-62mph 6.4sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 44.1mpg; CO2 149g/km, 26%;
Ford Focus ST-3 - 4/5 stars
Price £26,550; Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, turbo, petrol; Power 247bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 266lb ft at 2000-4500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1437kg; Top speed 154mph; 0-62mph 6.5sec; Economy 41.5mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 159g/km, 28%
Renault Mégane GT Nav 205 EDC - 3/5 stars
Price £25,500; Engine 4 cyls, 1616cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 202bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 207lb ft at 2400rpm; Kerb weight 1463kg; Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic; 0-62mph 7.1sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 47.1mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 134g/km, 23%