(Pocket-lint) - This is the fourth-generation Renault Megane - the French company's mid-sized family hatchback, which has been with us since 1995. In that time, Renault has sold over a half a million of the things in the UK.
Whereas its Volkswagen Golf competitor evolves subtly with each iteration, Renault's hatchbacks have tended to change significantly each time they're updated. And so it goes with the 2016 Megane - a sharp-suited, yet softly surfaced car, replacing the slightly blobby and bland previous offering.
Whereas once Renault offered a multitude of Megane types - 3-door coupe, folding hard top, MPV - the new car will come as 5-door hatch, sport tourer estate and saloon only. So if you're looking for sporty, the 5-door is about as good as it gets.
However, this particular class is uber-competitive. The Megane not only has to compete with the ubiquity of seemingly "classless" VW Golf and great-driving Ford Focus, it's also got the new, super-value Vauxhall Astra and a host of Korean and Japanese cars burgeoning with kit to deal with too. And as you go up the range, looking at this type of car on a company scheme, or lease or PCP deals, you'll likely become tempted by a raft of small BMWs, Audis and Mercedes too. So can Renault's latest Megane cut it?
Renault Megane 2016 review: Part of the family
We think the new Megane's design is a winner. This 5-door hatch continues the design vision that Renault design chief Laurens van den Acker set out on back in 2012. In some ways it completes the "circle of life" theme that the strategy was given.
Surfacing is voluminous, so there's a differentiation in approach from German cars that's clear straight away. The details look hi-tech, too, particularly the lights with their edge-LED technology - which fit into a very bold front and rear graphic.
The Renault diamond logo is now massive, too, but it's hiding the car's radar sensors behind it, thus avoiding the clumsy array of blanking plates cameras poking out of the grille that many cars wear today.
And if you go for the GT or GT Line version, you get a completely different front and rear lower bumper, bigger wheels and a body kit that makes the car look distinctly more pumped up, without ruining its looks.
The company is hoping that the focus on design will continue to breathe life back into Renault sales. It's worked with the Clio and Captur - respectively the best selling cars in their sectors across Europe over the past couple of years. The Renault family resemblance is clear in the Megane, but if we have one criticism it's that the car looks a little too much like a Clio on steroids.
Renault Megane review: Engine options
On the road, the Megane's front really seems to catch people's attention. The car can clear a motorway fast lane effectively - though you might want to spec a bigger engine than this 1.5-litre diesel review car if you're really planning on this type of driving behaviour.
The Megane is available from launch with two petrol and two diesel engine options. Petrols comes as 1.2-litre Tce with 130bhp and a manual or auto box, and the 1.6-litre with 205bhp, which is auto only. Diesels are the 1.5-litre dCi with 110bhp that we're testing here. Or there's a 1.6-litre dCi with 130bhp.
On the way is a more powerful diesel with 165bhp, and a version with some hybrid assist systems that should present a very interesting economy/performance/low CO2 mix. And although Renault hasn't officially confirmed it, a RenaultSport version is likely coming, too, which you'd expect to have more horsepower than today's 275bhp hot Megane.
We drove the 1.6-litre 205bhp petrol with the auto box, briefly, and confess to not really loving it. The gearbox is not the sharpest, despite being a dual-clutch unit, while the engine never felt 205bhp strong - though it was a very new low mile car, so that might improve with mileage.
The GT 205 petrol also comes with 4-wheel steering, which makes the turning circle smaller at lower speeds and the car feel longer and more stable at high speeds. We didn't love the way it felt from behind a very dead-feeling steering wheel though. The spec in this model is strong - you get one-piece backrest bucket seats for instance - but the interior trim with the blue faux carbon fibre is all a bit chintzy. If you want performance, wait for the real deal Renault Sport version.
Renault Megane 2016 review: Short drive, long drive
Only the lower-powered 1.5 diesel in manual format was available for us to test on a short-term loan. And while it never felt quick - that might have something to do with us stepping out of a Golf R before hand - it is good in numerous ways.
Primarily - and this is a general new Megane forte - it's hugely refined in all regards. The cabin is a very relaxing, quiet place to be, while the engine (even when thrashed) remains relatively muted. Wind noise is commendably low, and the cabin noise bests any of the MQB-based products from VW, Skoda or Seat when travelling at speed. Which came as something of a surprise.
That diesel engine is also very linear in its delivery. It's not boosty, it just pulls gently right through the range with no holes in its delivery. Although the 0-62 time of 11ish-seconds is no great shakes, it's plenty enough for most. Plus you'll be rewarded with 50mpg in town, and upwards of 60mpg out of it, in exchange for the its lack of spritely performance.
However, the gearbox action is typically French. Which is to say, sadly, not as good as most. It has a long throw and an indirect, vague feeling.
The ride on 17-inch wheels is smooth, although occasionally the shudder and dynamic behaviour from the rear gives away that this is a car which has a torsion beam, rather than more expensive independent rear suspension set up of some rivals. The steering is light, but totally lifeless.
We came to rather like the Megane's relaxed, refined approach to life. It takes a different tack to the dynamic German brands and Ford. And for many people, it will be the better companion for it.
Renault Megane 2016 review: Uptown funk
Like all brands occupying the mainstream market, Renault makes no secret of its desire to be seen as more premium. The new Megane tries to do this in a couple of ways: by shifting the proportions on from the last car; by offering a lot of technology features and the ability to personalise that tech.
Beyond the rear lighting arrangement - seriously, look at the sweeping lights, they're great - the Megane's "techieness" isn't obvious until you approach the car. Then, if you've got Renault's slightly over-sized keycard in your pocket, the car will "wake", unlocking as you approach, the mirrors unfolding and the interior lighting washing round the cabin. When you're done, get out, walk away and the reverse happens - it locks automatically. There's no fiddling with sensors on handles as with some keyless systems, and while it sounds small beer, it's actually brilliant. Renault has been trying to get its hands-free system right for some time and has finally nailed it. Not only does it make the car feel semi-human, but once you've got used to it, ever other car's entry/key/keyless system seems clunky.
Beyond this, the new Megane can be festooned with so-called ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) and technology that's tended to be reserved for bigger cars. "D-sector in the C-segment," Renault calls it. Try autonomous braking, adaptive cruise control, safe distance warning, blindspot and lane departure warnings, LED headlamps with automatic low/high beam function, self-parking, and not just front and rear - but 360-degree parking sensors that, incidentally, have a small temper tantrum every time you approach a car park ticket barrier.
Our upper-mid level Dynamique S spec car's key options were the £500 parking pack (self-parking, 360 degree sensors and blind spot warning), the £400 safety pack (adaptive cruise control, safe distance and autonomous braking), full LED headlamps at £500, and a £500 Bose sound system. This all took the price to £22,925, from a standard £20,400 (for the Dynamique spec, the standard Megan starts at £16,600) - but most pack prices are cheap compared to rivals. Keep in mind that you get things like the 8.7-inch touchscreen and TomTom Live Sat Nav as standard, regardless of optional choices, and it's a good base setup.
Renault Megane 2016 review: Screen masquerade
It's that 8.7-inch portrait-aligned screen which ultimately masquerades as the big differentiating factor in the Renault's interior. Here Renault wants to really sell its big "wow" moment.
Thing is, the screen isn't quite up to the design standard of the rest of the car. Sure, the graphics are clear and easy to read and the definition in the cluster is decent. But the level of adjustability - the home screen of the centre display can be configured like your smartphone to contain various menu tiles - didn't feel right for us. Some setups eluded us: you can't seem to put the phone menu in the homescreen, for instance; nor have a dominant map/nav mode in the instrument cluster. Dare we suggest Renault go look at what Audi lets you do within a digital dashboard?
There are elements that works nicely, such as the TomTom-based Sat Nav, and the pinch-and-zoom ability of the screen. But overall, the customisation aspect feels gimmicky and made us feel like the tech wasn't truly optimised. Coloured lights, we can see the appeal of. A sports mode that remaps the engine we get. But the on-screen display could be better thought-out.
Otherwise "personalisation" was obviously a buzz word in the Megane's development. To the point that there's a starfish-adorned centre tunnel button, as one of the few remaining physical interfaces in the cabin. This button's sole purpose is to adjust between modes. Confusingly, of the five modes - eco, neutral, comfort, sport and perso - this button only switches between comfort and sport settings. A separate physical "eco" button sits below the touchscreen to activate that mode.
Although Renault talks about these modes' significance in altering the feel of the drive, in this low-powered diesel, without anything as fancy as adaptive dampers or locking differentials to change the settings, the change in the way the Megane feels to drive is pretty limited. Eco mode makes it feel like the engine's broken. Sport makes everything red and you just have to press the accelerator slightly less far to the floor to get a strong response.
Maybe we're being harsh. Ultimately it's not hard to use the Megane's tech, but there's so much opportunity with a tech suite like this that we don't think Renault has taken full advantage.
Calm, refined and well-equipped, the new Renault Megane is a car that's easy to like. It offers an alternative approach to a very German-car centric way of doing things in this class - and we think that'll make it a hit with some buyers.
If you're looking for a dynamic drive, however, you might want to take a look elsewhere. And we're really not convinced about the in-car interface design - worrying, especially considering this suite of tech is going to do service across several other Renault cars beyond the Megane.
This segment of the car market is choc full of high quality products. The Megane does have a design that'll make you look, but having lived with one for a week we just don't think it has true standout quality in a number of areas.