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Car reviews - Renault - Megane - convertible

Our Opinion

We like
Chic style, easy to drive, well equipped and well priced
Room for improvement
Sticky manual gearshift, plastic rear window

Renault logo30 Nov 2001

By TIM BRITTEN

RENAULT should have no problems finding friends in the niche market with its new Megane cabriolet.

The cute little convertible has the benefits of European credibility as well as high equipment levels that almost seem at odds with the price. About $40,000 for a well-equipped, four-seat soft-top is a sure indicator that Renault wants to make a serious assault on the Australian market this time around. Local distributor and Renault partner Nissan will have no excuse if the Megane fails to take off.

To be sure, the market in Australia for relatively cheap four-seat convertibles in relatively limited and not contested by that many players - only the soon to be replaced Peugeot 306 and the VW Golf are the other real entrants in this category - but it is possible that, given the right pricing and the right image, such a vehicle can pull some sales out of the "personal" coupe market as well.

For example the Megane could feasibly target Hyundai, with its (admittedly a bit cheaper) FX and SX coupes, or Toyota's Celica, or Honda's Integra. And if you doubt the effect an appealing convertible can have on a particular manufacturer's market impact, Saab's performances with its 9-3 soft-top should serve as an indicator that well-considered image and careful pricing can go a long way. On average, the Saab convertible accounts for one third of the company's total sales in Australia.

The Megane is roughly the same size as a VW Golf or Peugeot 306 cabrio and pretty similar in equipment levels, but it does lag a bit in engine size, down 0.4 of a litre on both - although the 79kW, 1.6-litre, 16-valve, twin camshaft powerplant is decidedly more high-tech than the Golf's pedestrian 85kW single cam eight-valver.

This means that first appearances might tend to deceive, for the Renault is slightly lighter than either VW or Peugeot, which allows it to gain back some of the ground lost.

This is more noticeable when it is compared with the Golf, where it is only in arrears by three kilowatts on a power-weight basis (68kW/tonne compared with 71kW/tonne). The Peugeot's more efficient engine compensates for the extra weight and puts it on a superior footing to both Renault and Golf.

But that is not really a big issue in this segment where the special adaptability of a convertible is more important than accelerative ability.

Here, the Megane cabrio is able to score strongly. The attention-getting capabilities of a power-operated convertible roof cannot be under-rated - especially when they are further underlined by the Karmann badges that adorn Megane's curvy flanks.

If making a style statement is important to you, the Megane has a lot going for it.

It is a pretty looking car, roof up or down, and is pleasant to live with. The 1.6-litre engine errs on the generous side as far as response is concerned, rarely leaving the driver with feelings of deprivation, and there is the choice of a five-speed manual or an intelligent four-speed auto.

The Megane's suspension is tuned less as a sports car than a comfortable, responsive runabout, so it combines reasonable suppleness with predictable, accurate handling. It is not pin-sharp but the feeling is that a set of wider tyres on larger wheels would add zip to the way the car steers. The steering is nicely weighted, too, and winds from lock to lock in 3.5 turns to give a fair-enough turning circle of 10.5 metres.

The Megane gets four-wheel disc brakes, ventilated at the front, working through standard anti-lock and electronically controlled rear brake proportioning to comfortably deal with anything the engine can dish out. It feels secure and capable.

Although the engine is willing, it is marred slightly by a less than precise manual gearshift that feels "sticky" as it slots from ratio to ratio. The gears are nicely spaced to help extract the best from the engine, but it is one of those boxes that requires attention before the gear-changing process becomes swift and efficient. Interestingly, the 7000rpm tachometer has no red line, which presumably means it's safe to explore the indicated limits.

Actually the Megane can be made to hustle along quite swiftly when the occasion arises and, as mentioned, would probably be even more rewarding given a set of larger wheels and tyres. The ride quality is less absorbent than, say, the 306 Peugeot but at the same time it absorbs most road imperfections with relative silence. Also comforting is that the dreaded scuttle-shake - almost impossible to avoid in a four-seat convertible - is minimal.

The driving position is just fine with no gripes concerning relationship between feet and floor pedals, or a steering wheel that fouls the knees. There's seat height adjustment for the driver and even though the wheel moves up and down on a vertical plane only, most drivers will find it easy to set up a comfortable position.

It is more Japanese than European in that there are no quirky traits - in terms of driver controls or seating position - to deal with. As for the back seat, well, there is space for two very friendly people who might need to get used to the idea of a short-term relationship.

Safety issues have not been ignored either with dual front and side airbags part of the deal, as well as the usual tough body structure along with specially reinforced A-pillars to resist deformation in a rollover situation.

Operation of the power roof is generally smooth and uncomplicated with a single twist-grip in the centre of the upper windscreen surround releasing the retaining catch. The systems needs a little manual help to get going - as do many power soft-tops - but otherwise goes through its contortions quickly.

And there are no compromises in the attention to detail either: the roof disappears behind a moulded plastic cover dressed up with little "blisters" behind each rear passenger. The optional "Roadbox" that replaces the rear seat extends the twin blisters and makes the car into a two-seater with massive luggage space.

In standard trim, luggage space is deeply encroached on by the metal bin that contains the folded roof, although the loading height is quite low and there is reasonable depth and width. There is no load-through from inside the car, something that a few other convertibles actually do mange to achieve. On the other hand, the decision to use a solid metal compartment for the folded roof probably contributes to the Renault's quite-solid feeling body.

Probably the only real deficit as far as the roof is concerned is that the Megane uses a plastic rear window - a short-term prospect at the best of times and not particularly easy to see through either, especially in winter. A vent behind the rear seat directs heated, fan-forced air to help clear the rear window on cold days, but it is not as effective as the heated glass used in most other convertibles.

On the other hand, the internal lining of the roof is smooth and sedan-like, using light-coloured vinyl to help give impressions of space. It is quite a cosy convertible with the roof up.

Buyers are unlikely to feel short-changed with this appealing little soft-top. Chic in style, wearing the right sort of badging, well equipped and rewarding to drive, the Megane cabriolet must rate as a top buy in the entry level four-seat convertible market.

Mind you, the equally competitively priced Peugeot 206cc convertible has just landed and will be something of temptation with its Mercedes-style foldaway hardtop, even if it is a little smaller than the Renault.

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