Renault gave us the opportunity to test both ‘sport’ and ‘cup’ suspension configurations on the Mégane RS 280’s launch, as well as both manual and EDC gearboxes – although our impressions on the manual ‘cup’ were confined to the limits of a track, so we’ll have to wait to discuss how the stiffer-suspended car rides on the road. We should make it plain up front, however, that the Mégane RS ‘sport’ has an amazingly supple and deft suspension set-up that works quite spectacularly well over bumps and bad surfaces. But more of that shortly.
The current Mégane’s cockpit makes for a decent departure point for a performance treatment, albeit one with some minor frustrations. The Mégane RS 280’s Alcantara sports seats are good and supportive, and the driving position they grant is also good by class standards: you don’t sit uncomfortably high and the controls are well-located in front of you. Renault Sport’s attempts at enriching the interior materials are mixed, though; the RS’s red-striped seatbelts and red trim accenting is bright and effective, but its part-Alcantara sport steering wheel has fairly ordinary-feeling leather where your hands rest on the grips (at quarter to three) and soft suede at six and 12 o’clock, where you seem to touch it less.
Equally odd are the car’s part-analogue, part-digital instruments, which consist of a square digital screen made up mainly of differently themed combinations of analogue rev counter and digital speedo. The system’s available screen space, however, is drastically curtailed by oversized analogue fuel level and water temperature gauges on either side of it. One bigger screen, with temperature and fuel information you could call up when needed (or at least scale to your preference), would have been a much more intelligent layout.
Details, perhaps. Still, they matter – especially since details also initially prevent you from enjoying the driving experience of the paddle shift-equipped car. The positioning and action of the shift paddles for the Mégane RS 280’s EDC gearbox are – by my reckoning, at least – plainly at fault here. Oh dear, I know: same record. But having been criticised so strongly for the Clio RS 200’s cheap and flimsy-feeling paddles, it’s amazing that Renault Sport should have repeated almost exactly the same offence with that car’s new bigger brother.
The Mégane’s shift paddles have better haptic feel than that in the Clio; the ‘crushed cornflake’ action is notable by its absence. But they remain awkwardly placed on the car’s steering column (displaced upwards by Renault’s trusty old column-mounted audio remote control) so they’re a slight stretch for your fingertips every time you need to grab a gear. They also lack that solid, defined action that’d tell you beyond question when you’ve successfully selected the next gear. They feel light and woolly, so it’s easy to half-pull one, then tug it again just to be sure, only to find you’ve accidentally upshifted twice. Annoying.
The EDC gearbox itself does a respectable job of managing the car’s gear ratios and gives you something more like that close, instinctive control over the driving forces going into the car’s front wheels than the Clio RS 200’s 'box ever managed. It’s much quicker on the upshift than on its way down the box, though, and nothing like as smooth or judicious with its shift timing in D as the better 'flappy paddle' hot hatches you might compare it with.
The Mégane RS 280’s six-speed manual gearbox is a much simpler, more intuitive and more satisfying thing to interact with, thankfully. Shift quality is well-defined and the car’s pedals are sufficiently well placed that most drivers who want to will easily be able to heel-and-toe their way down the ratios. There’s no ‘synchro rev-match’ function that’ll do it for you – but I don’t mind. Can’t heel-and-toe? Then learn to drive properly, numpty.
And what about that critical new mechanical oily bit that gearbox is connected to: the new Mégane RS engine? On this evidence, I’d say it’s strong enough; competitive with the prevailing standard for the average full-sized hot hatchback, certainly. But as a replacement for the old Mégane 275’s blown 2.0-litre engine, I’m not sure ‘better than average’ makes it worthy, actually. Because while the Mégane RS 280 has abundant real-world on-the-road performance, it’s not thanks to its engine. The motor’s torquey and free-ish-revving, but also sounds a bit ordinary, suffers a bit with iffy throttle response throughout the accelerator pedal travel and doesn’t breathe in and keep hauling with anything like the high-range urgency of a Civic Type R’s 2.0-litre engine. As hot hatchback engines go, it’s just alright.
Now, guess what’s better than alright? The chassis. Yup, better than alright. Balls to understatement – it’s sensational. The car steers faithfully, with useful weight and plenty of feel. But the deftness, suppleness and fluency of the ‘sport’-suspended car’s ride is outstanding on bumpy roads and is somehow set off against first-rate, progressive body control in a combination that no other hot hatchback in the class could match, I’d wager.
And better still are the Mégane RS 280’s true showstoppers: totally absorbing handling agility, brilliant cornering balance and a flair for playfulness that might even make a Civic Type R seem straight-laced. These were apparent in both versions of the car we tested, so it’s certainly not as if you have to buy the stiffer ‘cup’ version with the mechanical slippy diff to end up with a brilliant-handling car – although the slightly quicker responses and marginally better traction it grants are probably worth having.
But it’s the Mégane RS 280’s four-wheel steering system that seems to contribute most tellingly to its handling appeal and to greatest effect when you use Renault Sport’s ‘race’ driving mode, which raises the threshold speed at which it switches over from steering against the front wheels to steering in the same direction as them. In most four-wheel-steered passenger cars, this happens at around 30mph; in the Mégane RS 280 – and in ‘race’ mode, remember – you get a counter-steered rear axle all the way up to 62mph. And so the car turns in with amazing alacrity and carries big mid-corner speed effortlessly on a balanced throttle.
On a trailing throttle, meanwhile, you’ll be amazed how easily you can just flick it into delicious little neutral-steered drifts, with the rear wheels effectively guiding the back of the car ever so delicately into the slide. That’s an incredibly enlivening influence on the driving experience of a front-driven performance car at fairly low speeds, when the bends you’re tackling are tight, clear and well-sighted. And when they’re fast, open and bordered by kerbs, the system makes the car’s handling super-planted and stable right when you want it to be.