What is it?
Few performance cars have been lavished with a more consistent flow of praise by hot hatchback aficionados than the Renault Mégane RS. This car has bossed the fast front-drive niche for most of its life, having appeared with that memorable ‘bustle-back’ styling in 2004 and promptly set new class benchmarks for driver involvement and handling poise.
But it’ll take something to reclaim that familiar old perch now, with the Honda Civic Type R having become a brilliant driver’s car in its own right and the Volkswagen Golf GTI, incoming Seat Leon Cupra R and four-wheel-drive Ford Focus RS suddenly making competition in the segment seem little less fierce than what Renault’s been coming up against in Formula 1 of late.
For that reason and others, you could call the launch of this third-generation Mégane RS (it’s also the performance version of the fourth-gen Mégane, confusingly) something of a watershed moment. Can the firm that brought us the flawed Clio RS 200 rediscover its sparkling form of old? Does Dieppe still have whatever it was that made so many of its hot hatchbacks so good for so long, or is it lost forever? Has Renault’s Alpine A110 sports car, brilliant as it may be, swallowed up so much engineering talent that what could be considered Renault Sport’s most important product has been left undernourished? It’d be understandable. But forgivable? I’m not so sure.
Some good news would definitely be welcome - and maybe we’re about to get some. Although it retains front-wheel drive, the fast Mégane has been through an overhaul that would seem every bit as thorough and attentive, on paper, as that of any of its rivals. This third-generation version has a new 1.8-litre turbocharged engine that's smaller and lighter than the old car’s 2.0-litre unit, delivering more power and torque than the Mégane 275 bowed out with – and which can be paired with a choice of six-speed manual or twin-clutch automatic gearboxes. Unlike in the Clio RS 220 Trophy, then, you needn’t be stuck with two pedals and two paddles if you don’t want them. Told you there was good news.
For suspension, the Mégane RS sticks with struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, but its front configuration has new geometry and retains Renault Sport’s PerfoHub technology, which reduces kingpin angle offset and therefore better resists torque and bump steer. The RS version rides 5mm lower than a Mégane GT and has axle tracks widened by 45mm up front and 30mm at the rear.
The car’s chassis features two key technical departures: a four-wheel steering system and a set of hydraulic suspension bump stops. This isn’t the first Renault Sport product to use the latter. Described by the company as "a damper within a damper", the hydraulic suspension bump stops are independent fluid-filled shock absorbers that sit on the lower end of the front and rear suspension struts. And while they’re commonly fitted to rally cars and the new Mégane uses them at all four corners, the current Clio RS uses them too (on the front axle only); Dieppe’s history with them stretches all the way back to the legendary Clio 182 Trophy of 2005.
Having experimented with adaptive dampers too, Renault’s conclusion was that it could achieve better dynamic performance by combining a good, well-tuned passive damper with a hydraulic bump stop than by spending the equivalent on an adaptive damper. Interesting. And it’s a claim that seems all the more credible coming from a firm with Renault Sport’s pedigree in chassis tuning than it might be if you heard it anywhere else.
In more familiar vein, you can have the Mégane RS with a slightly softer ‘sport’ suspension tuning (partnered with an electronic brake-actuated torque vectoring system) or firmer ‘cup’ settings. With the latter, you also get a Torsen mechanical slippy diff configured for greater lock-up under power and less drag effect on a trailing throttle than the outgoing Mégane 275’s GKN slippy diff had. Enlarged 19in wheels fitted with Bridgestone tyres, and uprated lightweight brakes with aluminium hubs saving 1.8kg a corner, are options on ‘cup’ cars.
Prices are still unofficial, but are tipped to start at £29,000, with the order books open in April and first deliveries in June. A ‘trophy’ version, meanwhile – with 296bhp, 295lb ft, a standard cup chassis and all the must-have options included – is an open secret to join the range before the end of the year.