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The Renault Megane looks bland, and it's not that good to drive either

New car development budgets may sound huge, but they typically require some compromises - what's spent on styling can't be spent on dynamics, and so on. The challenge of making the numbers stack up is especially hard on mass market products like the Renault Megane, where profit margins are tight and, therefore, what can be spent in making the product stand out even tighter.

So the first thought to cross the mind when looking at this bland new Megane is that maybe it will be brilliant to drive. The hope is that all the money saved by not inventing or evolving a distinctive design language over the previous generation car could instead be pumped into bridging the somewhat yawning chasm between it and the best drivers’ cars in the class.

The Megane looks bland, and it's not that good to drive either

Renault certainly has plenty of opportunity to get it right; the Megane is sold in a wide variety of flavours, as a hatchback, a coupé, a coupé/cabriolet, a Renault Megane Sport Tourer (estate) and, of course in legendary Megane Renaultsport guise, where the marque has traditionally excelled.

Engines are many and varied, and not all available on every body style.

They include 1.2, 1.6 and 2.0 petrols and 1.5, 1.6,1.9 and 2.0-litre diesels, all in a variety of states of set-up and tune.

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DESIGN & STYLING

17in Renault Megane alloy wheels

Renault callings this car the Renault Megane 3, although in fact it could perhaps be more fairly thought of as the Megane 2.5, as it sits on an evolved version of its predecessor’s platform. But this is no mere facelift, because it shares not a single significant dimension with the previous Megane range.

And significantly, every important dimension has increased. Length, width, height, track… you name it, it’s bigger than before. Renault has clearly been stung by criticism of the old car’s lack of interior space and has expanded the car to be more accommodating not just for its passengers, but their luggage too.

Even though Renault calls the three-door Mégane a coupé, in our book it’s a hatch

But what the self-imposed constraint of adapting the old underpinnings has prevented is the development of a multi-link rear suspension system, as found not only on the likes of the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf but also on new and able Korean offerings such as the Hyundai i30 and Kia Cee’d.

Even though Renault calls the three-door Mégane a coupé in our book it’s a hatch. Like the five-door, it has little visually to make it stand out from the crowd.

The Megane Sport Tourer is a smart-looking wagon, but the Renault Megane Coupé/Cabriolet is less convincing, saddled with a sizeable rump into which its folding glass roof (a neat touch) has to fold into.

The Renaultsport Mergane coupé is more of a triumph, its look immediately enhanced by the grafting on of wider wheel arches. The front bumper has a larger air intake, complete with a Formula One-inspired aerodynamic blade and optional LED running lights. At the sides there are more pronounced sills, and at the rear an elongated spoiler and central exhaust are incorporated into a small diffuser.

Mechanically, the latest hot Mégane follows the template set by its predecessor. A turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine produces 247bhp, which is channelled through a six-speed manual gearbox to the front wheels. 

INTERIOR

Renault Megane dashboard

Renault’s relentless drive for quality continues in the Mégane, which now appears to rival the standards of more premium players. But know where to look and you can find scratchy, hard plastic. The wooden fillet running across the dash of top-spec cars looks somewhat contrived, but the general direction in which Renault is heading with this car is welcome.

We also quibble with a number of individual choices Renault has made for the Megane’s cabin. The instrument pack, with its vast LCD speed readout sitting next to a conventional revcounter, is incongruous. And some of the switchgear in general, and that which operates the (optional) sat-nav in particular, could be easier to understand and operate.

The Mégane appears to rival the standards of more premium players

However, forgive the slight pedal offset and you’ll find a decent driving position easily enough, although over-the-shoulder visibility would be improved by slimmer C-pillars. Life isn’t so good in the rear with knee room not generous, even by the modest expectations of the class.

But the hatch's boot is one of the biggest and best shaped in the class – as long as you keep the rear seats in place. Folding them is a fairly horrid process.

Space in the rear of the coupé/cabrio is tight, but the Sport Tourer provides a decent amount of practicality behind that stylish rear end. Boot space is on a par with the Vauxhall Astra Sports Tourer, but the rear seats are fiddly to fold and the floor isn’t completely flat.

Rather than lowering the tone, the amendments for the Renaultsport version actually add to the desirability. The steering wheel is covered in leather, and the contrasting yellow stitching (mirrored on the gearlever) adds a sense of occasion. Likewise, the conventional analogue speedometer feels like a simpler, more attractive solution than the digital system in the regular Mégane. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Renault Megane rear quarter

Although this Renault Megane is more luxurious than the old one, it’s also lighter. It might only be a meagre saving, but given that the new model is considerably larger, this is a welcome step in the right direction.

On the road the result is clear: most Méganes feel perky, especially those powered by the excellent 1.2 and 1.4-litre turbocharged TCe petrol engines. These units feature both direct injection and turbocharging. The turbo is integrated into the manifold and there’s variable valve timing to extract the most from this small four-pot.

The 1.4-litre turbocharged TCe petrol engine is excellent

The 1.2 TCe, available on the hatch and coupé, is most impressive: very sweet running, refined and extremely quiet. The stop-start system is also super-rapid and extremely refined.

The 1.4 TCe engine, available only on the CC, may be small, but that’s not how it feels. A 0-60mph time of 10.5sec is not remotely special – blame the car's corpulence – but the smooth, torquey eagerness with which the engine propels the car across a broad rev range makes it a pleasure to use.

The 1.6 petrol is available across the range, and is a reasonable engine in terms of performance, efficiency and refinement, without being in any way class leading.

All of the diesels, with the exception of the entry-level 88bhp 1.5, feel brisk and pleasantly refined. The mid-ranking 109bhp is the common sense option, although some buyers - especially of the Sports Tourer - may decide they would like more power and torque.

In 2012, a revised 1.6-litre dCi replaced the 1.9-litre option in the five-door hatch and Sports Tourer. Renault claims it's the most powerful and frugal engine of its size; it produces 128bhp and 236lb ft of torque, while delivering a claimed 70.6mpg and emitting 104g/km. It's an excellent diesel engine, delivering flexible and refined performance alongside strong economy.

Braking is solid, reliable and fade-free in all but the most violent use. We’d prefer less servo assistance and a slightly more progressive pedal, but this is a minor quibble.

With just 20bhp more than its predecessor, the Renaultsport Mégane’s 247bhp looks a little unremarkable. Especially when the last Ford Focus RS rolled into town with 300bhp. Certainly the first impression is of a car that is fast, but not savage like the Focus RS.

If anything, in dry conditions the delivery is surprisingly uneventful, the limited-slip differential channelling the power to the road extremely effectively. However, the longer you spend with it, the more you appreciate just how quickly the Renaultsport Mégane can cover ground. It simply requires a different approach from the more powerful Ford Focus RS with which it draws comparisons, and more revs. 

While our measured 0-60mph time is 6.0sec (in line with Renault’s claims), this somewhat understates the performance. A 0-100mph time of 13.7sec is 2.7sec quicker than 225 and actually faster than the Focus RS.

However, the gearshift is less successful, being merely good rather than great and we also wish the Renaultsport Mégane sounded more special. 

There is the occasional tug from the steering, mostly when the road surface is bumpy, but generally the Renaultsport Mégane is impressively free from torque steer.

RIDE & HANDLING

Renault Megane cornering

The Megane does without independent rear suspension, as fitted to its best rivals. But Renault’s chassis engineers have done an impressive job, given the unprepossessing raw material they were given to work with. The spring settings are well judged and grip levels are a notch or two above what you’d expect. This is a car that will tackle a sweeping A-road with composure.

Just don’t expect to enjoy it. Renault has fitted an overly light electric steering system with little proper feel. The steering is accurate and sensibly geared, but anyone hoping for decent level of interaction between car and driver will be disappointed.

Renault’s chassis engineers have done an impressive job

The rear torsion beam creates problems for the ride, too. On most roads most of the time, the Megane actually rides with reasonable fluency. But venture onto B-roads and potholed city streets and the Megane is unable to soak up large inputs and there’s a restlessness that infects the cabin. That reflects less badly on the Sports Tourer, because of its likely intended use, but only marginally.

The coupé/cabrio does a good job of isolating body shimmer, but the car feels heavy, dulling the sensations, while the heavy roof affects the car’s balance when it’s stowed at the back of the car.

Two chassis configurations are offered with the Renaultsport Mégane: the softer, more comfort-oriented and more expensive (by virtue of more standard equipment) Sport model and the Cup. While the Sport is already 12.5 percent stiffer than the regular Mégane Coupé, the Cup goes further with thicker anti-roll bars, stiffer springs and the addition of a GKN mechanical limited-slip differential. Overall the Cup chassis is 15 percent stiffer than the Sport.

This is where Renaultsport has made its name and where its products differ most from those of mainstream Renault. And it takes only the shortest introduction to realise that once again Renaultsport has effected a complete transformation in the way the Mégane drives. In steering accuracy and the general absence of slack the Renaultsport Mégane feels like an altogether more purposeful car.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Renault Megane

There is a general theme to the whole Renault Megane line-up: prices are on the low side, while discounts are on the high side: you can expect around 10 percent off all but the very cheapest Mégane and the Renaultsport models.

Running costs are reasonable, too. Fuel economy is good across the range with most models (apart from the warm and hot models) getting close to or exceeding 40mpg as an official average, while all the diesels bar one comfortably exceed 50mpg. Our pick in terms of the economy vs performance balance would be the 109bhp 1.5 dCi engine, which is available on all but the CC model. The recent introduction of stop-start has allowed that engine to produce just 90g/km in Expression trim. The excellent 1.6-litre diesel is only available in Dynamique and GT Line trim, making it fairly expensive.

Prices are on the low side, while discounts are on the high side

Equipment levels are strong, too, with Renault’s tie-up with navigation specialists Tom Tom paying dividends with some competitively priced models with sat-nav as standard. On the downside, resale values are among the lowest in the class. Service intervals are impressively wide-spaced at 18,000 miles, though.

Like the rest of the range, the Renaultsport Méganes look conspicuously good value next to heavy-hitting rivals that cost nearer 30 grand. It even undercuts the less powerful (and slower) Volkswagen Golf GTI. The standard specification includes rear parking sensors, air-con and a CD/radio with MP3 connectivity.

VERDICT

3 star Renault Megane

There is surprisingly little that this new Renault Megane actually does wrong. There are the usual gripes and niggles, but no howling errors or omissions. Indeed, the only thing it cries out for is a means of distinguishing itself from the pack.

Quality is a real strong point, and the value it offers (from the discounted purchase price, through the level of equipment on offer, to the running costs) are all tempting. Just make sure the up-front discounts go some way to making up for the hefty depreciation.

Nothing less than real flair and talent almost across the board will do the job

In the modern era, and particularly if you’re unfortunate enough to have to attempt to share shelf space with the Ford Focus or Hyundai i30 simply being an inoffensive, moderately able but entirely undistinguished class player is nowhere near good enough.

Expectations in this class have rocketed to such an extent than nothing less than real flair and talent almost across the board will do the job. It’s a standard Ford and Volkswagen have embraced for some time, while even Hyundai has recently recognised and reached it. For Renault, however, more work than this Megane represents will need to be done before it can join them – it’s short of space and dynamic flair.

The Renault Mégane Renaultsport is a different kettle of fish, though. Even in Cup form this is a more mature, less brutish hot hatch than ever. And on initial inspection it is easy to confuse this maturity for a lack of soul. But that would be a mistake. Because get it on the right road (or better still a track) and the maturity melts away to reveal a hot hatch that is intimate, confidence-inspiring and exceptionally talented.

Renault Megane (2008-2016) First drives