Mégane Trophy is a winner

I’d forgotten how fine the Mégane 225’s engine and gearbox were until last week. Or maybe the underwhelming nature of the rest of the car was enough to take the sheen off what must rank as one of the most effective and brutally strong engines ever used in a hot hatch. Certainly it took a while to adjust to an engine that feels as urgent from 50mph in fifth as a Honda Civic Type-R does in third.

No surprises then that Renault has decided against fiddling with its 1998cc turbo four for this limited-edition Mégane Trophy. And yet somehow the thing feels more urgent and even faster than it does in the slightly disappointing 225. As is so often the case, tweaking the platform through which it sends 222bhp and 221lb ft has improved the overall package to the extent that it adds that necessary extra gloss.

Even as it launched the Mégane 225 a little under a year ago, Renault admitted that something a little snortier would better suit the Renaultsport heritage. The 225 is a comfortable, rapid hatchback, but the non-switchable ESP, poor steering and overall lack of vigour count against it. This limited-edition Trophy aims to right those wrongs and will sell for £20,000 alongside the £19,500 standard car. Just 500 will be built, with 200 making their way to the UK, and later in the year the chassis modifications developed for this model will become available as a ‘Cup’ suspension pack for the standard car.

Under the skin

Those changes are enough to dramatically alter the way the car drives, and certainly make it more appealing to the intended market. Spring rates are up 25 per cent at the front and a colossal 77 per cent at the rear. Revised dampers take advantage of the added stiffness, and all the rubber suspension bushes are replaced by firmer polyurethane items, plus the front roll bar has been reduced by 1mm. The electric power steering has been completely reprogrammed and a rubber coupling that served as a steering damper, but actually contributed greatly to the uncommunicative rack, has been replaced by an all-metal union. This is a modification that will feature on all Méganes produced after summer 2005.

It doesn’t stop there. A new tyre, the Dunlop Sport Maxx, has been developed especially for the Trophy. It has a high silicon content and is claimed to offer superb wet-weather grip. The brakes are the same diameter as before but now cross-drilled for better cooling and the diameter of the master cylinder has been increased by 2mm. Unsprung mass has been reduced by 1.5kg per corner by lightweight wheels. And, best of all, those pesky electronics can now be switched off, safe in the knowledge that they will remain off. Most of the time.

Renault isn’t willing to hand all the decision-making back to the driver just yet. If the car senses a large slide and simultaneous triggering of the anti-lock brakes it will intervene. Sounds like giving six back and then casually removing a half-dozen, but it works, and on the track I couldn’t get the ESP to chime in once.

Driving the Trophy

Hatches don’t come any faster than this. On a twisty little provincial circuit just south of Barcelona, the Trophy laps as fast as anything sub-Porsche Boxster S. Traction is good but still not enough to cope with a torque curve that peaks at 2000rpm and remains as flat as week-old glass of Coke all the way to 6000rpm.

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But what you want to know is whether Renault has managed to sprinkle some of that inspirational gene-enhancing stardust over this car and transformed it into a legend like the Clio 182. Well, they’ve had a valiant stab, but ultimately the Mégane doesn’t harangue you to behave badly in quite the same way.

At the track it still understeers too much: where a VW Golf GTi will just allow a loaded rear wheel to arc wider under a trailing throttle, the Mégane prefers to plough on with its nose. The steering’s a real improvement though; free from kickback and well judged for speed and weight.

Luckily, we also spent some time on the road, because it’s here that the Trophy earns Brownie points. On some terrific second- and third-gear snakers up in the hills it’s a hoot: firmer-riding, but so much more controlled that anyone in the market for this type of car will surely be happy with the compromise. It’s just a shame that the car is hampered by a torsion beam rear end, because it’s now so rapid from here to there that you do notice the lack of sophistication from the rear axle. Whatever the front end does, the back can only replicate by 95 per cent.

The uprated brakes are something of a marvel. I tried to cook them, but they wouldn’t have any of it, and even though the pedal softened quite quickly it was always consistent.

Trophy spec brings a limited-edition plaque, blue seats, a different wheel design and some carbonfibre trim that’s unique in being the real thing but somehow managing to appear fake. It’s a good cabin, though, with excellent seats (although they’re set too high) and some of the nicest instrument faces of any car on sale. Curiously, it loses the carpet mats and six-CD changer from the standard car, but gains climate control and there are only two options: xenon lights and an uprated hi-fi.

The Trophy isn’t about to alter the way we think about hot hatches, but it is a huge improvement over the standard car. It finally has a chassis that can showcase the superb engine and gearbox, and at just £500 more than the standard car, it’s a bargain. And to my eyes, it’s the best-looking car in the class. That it isn’t an inspirational drive is a touch disappointing, but with Renaultsport cranking out new variants so quickly, I reckon this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the Mégane.

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Chris Harris

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