(Pocket-lint) - In the land of the hot hatch RenaultSport would be king. Back in the Eighties, when this type of car truly took off, Peugeot and VW – with the 205 GTi and the Golf GTi – were the kings of transforming euro shopping trollies into cheap ways to get your automotive kicks.
But since the end of the Nineties, first with the Clio Williams and then the 172, RenaultSports has ranked high on the desirability lists for anyone with petrol in their veins, because they were typically more fun to drive. It’s meant the company’s products have built up quite a following - you’ll see some of its past masters we gathered as part of our photo-shoot.
What’s interesting is the evolutionary process the company takes. The first iteration of a given model tends not to demolish the existing class leaders immediately. Instead, year-on-year - and through “Cup” and “Trophy” models, which tend to add suspension sophistication rather than just more power – the cars improve to a point where, halfway through their model life, RenaultSport has a tendency to make new competitor models look dimwitted.
So it proves with this Megane. Having launched the Megane 250 (the number denoting its horsepower output) a couple of years back, Renault brought out a special 265 Trophy model last spring. A limited model run, once the cars were sold it put the improvements – including that uprated power output – into the regular RenaultSport Megane model, 250 becoming 265. Given that, we thought it high time we put one through a full Pocket-lint review.
If you’re looking for new-school design sophistication, the Megane’s probably not going to be up your street. Granted, the colour scheme of our test car didn’t help, but even if you forgo the glacier white, your 265 Cup’s going to come with those red pin-stripes on the grille, sill and wheel edges. How very Eighties.
And whereas previous generation RenaultSports have benefited from bespoke body panels – notably wheel arch extensions which bulged over their wider tracks - seeming to flaunt the car’s "muscles", this Megane features rather obviously tacked-on wheel arch extensions, which over our week with the car had a rather nasty habit of collecting road muck in their panel gaps.
But at least you’re not going to mistake the 265 for a bog-standard, shopping Megane. That full width, piano black front grille graphic and extended lower spoiler apron sees to that. Meanwhile, the roof spoiler features little aero foils and those huge, 19-inch gloss black wheels have a proper bling – not to mention "keep me away from the kerb" quality.
The three-door Megane’s body shape lacks the refinement of an Astra GTCs, or the stand-alone bodyshell appeal of a Scirocco. That tight rear window and sharply rising window line also mean it’s a pig to reverse. But at least it’s available as a sporty three-door, something you can’t get in the Focus ST, nor it should be noted, will you be able to in the forthcoming RenaultSport version of the fourth-generation Clio.
But if you’re looking for uber-sophisticated design in your car, then we suggest you’re probably not looking for a hot-hatch in the first place. And assuming you can get on with the looks, the Megane’s got a lot to offer.
For a start, it benefits from Renault’s always having pushed the Megane as a technology leader, packed full of equipment. So there’s a sextet of airbags, ESP, brake-force distribution, anti-submarining seat, cruise control, speed-limiter, Bluetooth and Renault’s "hands-free card" (keyless access) just for starters.
Add to that the ubiquitous USB port - which worked with an iPhone 5, hooray! - on the radio fascia itself, Renault’s brilliant behind the steering wheel audio/telephone control dial and reversing sensors and the ability to play Bluetooth music from Spotify and Pandora, and given this is a car that’s really been built to just be driven, you might be happy enough. It feels like you’ve everything you do need and nothing you don’t.
But where it really scores is its (£350 option) RenaultSport monitor, which has clearly been designed with the fast-driving tech-geek in mind. Through this interface, you can adjust a number of the car’s important driving settings: primarily it allows access to the full 265 hp - normally the car runs in 250 hp mode. It allows you to tailor a series of modes, we preferred extreme – the most hardcore - which raises the threshold at which the change-up beep activates and loosens the ESP’s grip on things. All of which turns the 265 into even more of an animal on the road than it already is.
But perhaps more amusingly for your inner-geek, or the teenage boys some of us are at heart, it allows you to record 0-60 times and shows you what G forces you’ve pulled in corners/under breaking. Childish? Yes. Fun? Certainly. Just be aware that, if you have the RS monitor, you can’t have the optional TomTom sat nav. It’s one or the other.
Lastly, given all the ferociousness this can mean out on the road, in this cup model you’re pinned in place by a pair of probably the best Recaro bucket seats fitted in a car costing less than 50 grand. Mrs Pocket-lint insists we point out here that, for women in shorter skirts, and for every day popping-to the shops practicality they are – and we quote – “a royal pain in the arse”. But you’ll love them the first time you give the Megane some stick on a B-road.
Whereas they might never have been the last word in design sophistication, where RenaultSport’s cars have always shone is on the road.
As you’ll see from our pictures, over the years, creating such driver-focused cars means they’ve built up quite a following. The theory goes that, if you’re serious about your driving, and want a hot hatch, look no further than a product from these guys.
And that’s largely how it proves with the Megane 265. Put crudely, this is an utter road weapon, in which it is possible to cover ground absurdly fast.
There are a number of stand-out elements. The engine is the first. It’s on the gruff side – but otherwise perfectly splits the difference between the characterful but slightly down on power Focus ST, and the peaky, gruffer, more powerful Astra VXR. There will be few times you’ll crave more power and the exhaust adds a note of sporty parping, without getting tiring on the motorway. Most importantly, it’s turbo-charge delivery is what might be described as muscular. The sort of hit of power where, you go to overtake one thing and then find yourself just nutting past the entire line of four cars, because you’ve the Megane gives you the time and space to do so.
It gets better though. The ride, while hard, is not uncomfortable and is damped extremely well for the average British road. Most importantly, it keeps the car in constant contact with the road – it doesn’t float over the surface making you feel disconnected, but nor does it try to smash the surface into submission, like some big-wheeled cars can – meaning you’re very aware of what’s going on, but not getting tired out by the level of feedback. Considering the 19-inch wheels of our test car, we were more than happy. But the ride undoubtedly be better still on the standard 18-inch wheels, and if it were our money, that’s what we’d do.
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We’ve saved the best until last though, which is the way this car handles. We could prattle on all day about the technicalities of why and how the Megane drives so well, but it mostly comes down to this: the mechanical limited slip differential just makes it feel other-worldly in corners. In normal cars, on damp, greasy roads, you turn into a corner, let’s say a roundabout, too fast, and what typically happens is the wheels will try to plough straight on as you try to turn – the car doing what’s known as understeering. That’s the point you back off the gas, to try and get everything back in check.
In the Megane, understeer is hard to find in the first place, but when you do sense it’s about to happen, instead of backing off as you turn into the bend, if you actually feed in more power from the accelerator, the diff "locks up", sending drive to the wheel with most grip (usually the inside one), and literally dragging the car into, and round the corner. Behind the wheel, it feels other-worldy, the sort of thing your brain just cannot understand.
Combine this with a chassis setup which when put into that extreme mode – with the ESP in sport – allows the rear end to help out by adopting various angles of slip (tipping the car into oversteer) and you’ve a car that, down an average British B-road, has the measure, and the pace, of just about any other car you care to mention this side of a Nissan GT-R. It goes without saying, that all of this is a huge amount of fun.
And while it’s not a hugely special place to sit when you’re not in a hurry, it is comfortable and perfectly up to a multi-hour motorway slog without wearing you out. All told and pound-for-pound, it’s probably the best drive of any car we’ve reviewed in 2012.
If you like your hot hatches fast and furious, but with a blend of delicacy, the ability to flow down a road and really be on your side when you’re driving like your pants are on fire, look no further. Some of the drives we had during our week with the Megane will stick in the memory for a long time – it feels like it has been designed specifically for the typical damp, badly surfaces British A and B road.
Is it as good an all-rounder as a Ford Focus ST? Probably not. Will it’s image suit everyone? No. Is it as impressive a piece of design or as good looking as the Astra VXR? We’d say not. But give us the choice of any of the three and an hour of British B-road in front of us, and we’ll take the Megane, thanks.
Whether you would, or should, depends on what your priorities are. Each of the Renault, Ford, Vauxhall trio that are the key picks in this class, have a slightly different skill set and centre of gravity. The Ford’s the best all rounder and the cheapest, the Astra’s the most powerful and is the best designed, the Renault ultimately the best to drive and most focused – it’d be the one we’d pick if we were going to do any track days, too. That’s why they each get 4.5 stars.
One final note though. We’ve noticed prices creeping up and up in this market. This car, with the right options on, ends up at around 27 grand. That Astra, with the body kit and wheels you’ll want, is 30. Which makes BMW’s recently launched M135i, at a fiver under 30 grand, look like a real bargain. With a turbocharged straight-six, it’s faster than any of the three we mention above, not to mention rear-wheel drive. That BMW badge and 1-series body bring with it a very different image too, one that has a different appeal to that of a Renault, Ford or Vauxhall. We can’t say whether the BMW’s better right now (we’ll be testing it next year), but if you’re in the market for something in this category, make sure you drive all four – because right now, if you’re after a hot-hatch, you really are spoilt for choice.