New Renault Megane RS is faster and more practical
THE rivalry between France and Germany has spilled from the football field to the car park.
There is debate about who invented the hot hatch - a small car with a powerful engine - but both countries have excelled in the genre over the years.
Germany currently has the upper hand with the all-rounder VW Golf GTI and its derivatives.
France's riposte is the new generation Renault Megane RS, the badge returning after a two-year hiatus.
French hot hatches are typically brilliant to drive on a race track but the German equivalent is usually better to live with day-to-day.
When France has reacted to criticisms - by softening the next model - it has often ended up with a blancmange.
Is the new Megane RS the first French hot hatch to break the mould? It's off to a good start with the adoption of a five-door body in place of the previous three-door.
Purists are up in arms but the new Megane RS wouldn't exist if it weren't a five-door, due to the drop in demand for three-doors globally.
Another move towards the mainstream is the option of an automatic for the first time.
A six-speed manual is still available but the six-speed twin-clutch auto opens the Megane RS to buyers who may not have considered it before and takes the grind out of the daily commute.
Key ingredients remain: bigger brakes, broader footprint, sports suspension, snug seats and more mumbo under the bonnet.
The 2.0-litre turbo - long a staple of the hot-hatch class - has been replaced by a 1.8-litre turbo, which Renault claims is the most powerful of its type in the world.
A bigger car than its predecessor, the Megane RS has put on 48kg (to 1427kg) for the manual and added 71kg (1450kg) for the auto - largely negating the power gain.
However, thanks to the wonders of gear ratios Renault has still managed to extract brisk performance.
Hot hatches aren't only about straight-line speed but in the industry-standard 0-100km/h test we stopped the clock at 6.0 seconds in the manual and 6.2 seconds in the auto, which has a different spread of ratios. The official claim is 5.8 seconds.
The manual gearshift is OK but a bit notchier than rivals. The auto is one of the better twin-clutches around although it displays a subtle shudder at car park speeds.
Cars like this, however, are about carving corners. The Megane RS excels in this regard thanks to sticky tyres, well sorted suspension and trick rear-wheel steering, a first for the class.
It pivots the back tyres up to 1 degree in the same direction as the front wheels at high speeds, and up to 2.7 degrees in the opposite direction in tight turns at low speeds.
Five driving modes make the suspension softer or stiffer, automatic gear shifts gentle or abrupt, and switch the exhaust from boring to boy racer.
The muffler's snap, crackle and pop are more pronounced in the auto thanks to the build-up in pressure in the split-second between gear changes. The manual is oddly quiet.
There is greater personalisation. The Megane RS starts from $44,990 plus on-roads for the manual and $47,490 for the auto.
The manual's "Cup" option pack, for $1490, adds a mechanical limited-slip differential - previously standard - bundled with black 19-inch alloys, 10mm lower suspension and two-piece front discs with four-piston Brembo brake calipers painted red.
On both versions, the bigger front discs - 355mm - better handle repeated punishment.
Other options include Bose audio ($500), sports Alcantara leather seats ($1190) and panoramic sunroof ($1990).
The standard sports suspension is brilliantly agile when you want it to be and surprisingly comfortable the rest of the time.
The optional lower suspension is a touch too busy for normal road use, even for hardcore hot hatch fans.
Tyres are 19-inch Bridgestone rubber. There's ample grip but they're noisy on coarse surfaces and can hum on smooth tarmac. Renault says this is the trade-off for grip but other tyres grip with less groan.
A highlight of the car is the steering, which is remarkably accurate and gives precise feedback. The effect of the rear-wheel steering is difficult to detect - perhaps because it is doing its job well.
In the manual there is a delay in power delivery below 2500rpm but beyond this point the surge is so strong the front wheels want to follow the contour of the road and the steering wheel wants to wriggle out of your hand. You quickly learn to anticipate and adapt.
The bulging sports seats are snug and surprisingly luxurious. Rear passengers aren't afforded the same comfort - with tight foot and kneeroom - but they get rear air vents.
The large vertical dash display can be personalised and there's a large digital speedo to keep your right foot in check. One blot: the rear-view camera view is grainy at night. Front, rear and side sensors help take the guesswork out of parking.
Mood lights in the doors and dash give the cabin a lift and audio buffs will appreciate the premium Bose fitment.
Other observations: the LED low and high-beams are remarkable, especially on back roads in the dead of night.
Footnote for fans: a hardcore Trophy edition arrives next year with 220kW/400Nm in manual or auto and with the limited-slip diff standard.
VERDICT: 4 stars out of 5
The new Renault Megane RS gets closest yet to Germany's benchmark VW GTI hot hatch, combining two cars in one: daily driver meets weekend track-day warrior.
PRICE The previous generation started at $41,990 in 2010 and crept up to $43,990 by the end of 2016. The range starts at $44,990 plus on-roads for manual. Twin-clutch auto is available for the first time, from $47,490.
TECH A large tablet-style touchscreen and fancy digital instrument display give the cabin a lift. Super-bright LED headlights make it easy to spot corners at night. Front, rear and side sensors and rear-view camera mean you're less likely to scratch the rims.
PERFORMANCE Despite the smaller 1.8-litre turbo (previously 2.0) - and a heavier body - Renault says the new Megane is slightly quicker. Claimed 0-100km/h time for the auto is 5.8 seconds, quick for a front-drive car. We clocked 6.2 seconds in the auto and 6.0 in the manual.
DRIVING There is rear-wheel steering (up to 2.7 degrees) in certain modes. Trick new suspension is described as "a shock absorber within a shock absorber" to iron out the worst bumps. Auto gets launch control and paddle-shifters. Mechanical limited-slip differential was previously standard, now it's part of a $1490 option pack.
DESIGN It's longer, wider and lower than the previous model - and the Megane hatch on which it's based. Purists will lament the loss of the three-door body but the five-door will broaden appeal. Front and rear fenders are wider than the donor hatch, hence the muscular stance and bigger footprint.
FAST FACTS: RENAULT MEGANE RS280
PRICE From $44,990 plus on-roads (expensive)
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 years/unlimited km, $1197 for 3 years (below average)
ENGINE 1.8-litre 4-cyl, 201kW/390Nm (plenty)
SAFETY 6 airbags, AEB, radar cruise control, front, rear and side sensors, rear camera, blind zone warning, tyre pressure monitors (excellent)
THIRST 7.4L/7.5L/100km (fair)
SPARE Inflation kit (not ideal)
BOOT 434L/1247L (good)