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.