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Car reviews - Renault - Megane - diesel 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Classy looks, refined drivetrain, fuel economy, standard features, dual-clutch gearbox, five-year warranty
Room for improvement
Switchgear, steering feel, chassis dynamics, modest engine performance, lacks French flair

29 Sep 2011

WHEN Renault released its new five-door Megane hatch range here in November 2010, the lack of a diesel powertrain option seemed to be something of a glaring omission.

After all, the French car-maker has long been regarded as one of the best in the business when it comes to producing fast, refined and frugal oil-burning powerplants.

Several such engines were available to us in the previous iteration of the Megane, most notably the 127kW/360Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder common-rail unit in the RS175 dCi, which combined hot-hatch levels of performance with light-car levels of fuel consumption.

Nevertheless, the latest-generation of the five-door Megane range arrived in Australia exclusively with a 103kW 2.0-litre petrol unit which, while being admirably smooth and quiet, lacked the sparkle of some of its competitors.

Furthermore, the optional continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) reduced refinement levels and hurt fuel efficiency. Our test drive earlier this year returned urban fuel consumption of 11.5 litres per 100km.

Despite this, though, we found the Megane to be a pleasant and likeable contender in Australia’s biggest vehicle segment, providing classy Euro-styled looks with a tonne of standard features, excellent interior fit and finish, decent space and highly competitive pricing.

Indeed, it has always seemed strange to at least this writer that the little French hatchback hasn’t sold in greater numbers. While it is the brand’s biggest-seller here, it is a relative small-fry in the enormous small car segment dominated by the likes of the Mazda3, Holden Cruze, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30.

Its sales tally of 485 to the end of August gives it just 0.3 per cent segment share for the year so far.

Renault is projecting a sales upswing for the remainder of the year, aiming for around 1000 units delivered by the end of December, with the new diesel variant accounting for 30 per cent of that total.

This new variant is a promising proposition because, not only does it bring trademark efficiency and torque to the table, it is also the first Renault in this market to feature the brand’s new six-speed Efficient Dual-Clutch (EDC) automatic transmission.

Our other big area of concern in the petrol model was the rear suspension, which crashed over all manner of bumps and lacked the quietness and sophistication of the segment-leading Golf and Focus models. Well, Renault has also tweaked this for the diesel, adding heavier springs to suit the engine’s extra weight and retuning the dampers to improve handling and bodyroll levels.

So, here we have a Megane variant that looks to have addressed many of its petrol-powered sibling’s more obvious weaknesses while retaining those things we liked about the car in the first place. So far, so good.

The launch program for the Megane diesel took in around 300km of twisting, hilly roads through country Victoria mixed with a smattering of stop-start city commuting and tedious highway cruising. Initial impressions were pretty good.

While the 82kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbo-diesel is no firebrand, it is a willing little unit that provides acceptable levels of tractability from the low end of the rev range, along with excellent fuel efficiency.

It’s also a quiet unit, with the tell-tale diesel rattle kept on a tight leash from outside the car and almost entirely absent from within the solid cabin.

It was largely this factor that accounted for the car’s deceptively effortless feel during highway cruising, with 110km/h on the huge digital speedometer feeling more like 80km/h.

However, this effect was somewhat spoiled by a relatively high level of road noise from the tyres.

While the Megane exhibited a hint of lag from take-off during some of the more arduous elements of our country drive, we found it to be refined, quiet and pleasingly smooth during the sort of city commute in which a typical small hatch driver is bound to spend a fair chunk of time.

Both of these aspects owe a lot to the dual-clutch transmission, which in most circumstances seemed a pretty solid match for the engine.

While it didn’t have the quickest shift time (a claimed 290 milliseconds) among the ever-growing crop of similar transmissions, it did the job perfectly well in what is not designed to be a performance-oriented car.

The unit’s ‘creep control’ system seemed to keep at bay some of the low-end jerkiness that has plagued dual-clutch transmissions in the past, with low-speed take-off generally negotiated in a smooth and refined manner.

Prudence dictated, however, that some of the more steep and swooping terrain be tackled with the shifter in manual mode, since the trannie did display hints of indecisiveness in these situations.

For this reason, we’d like to see the option of a manual gearbox, which would likely make it easier to keep the little engine on the boil.

Overall, though, the EDC provided a likeable and fuss-free driving experience, squeezing more performance out of the car than its on-paper figures might have indicated.

The manufacturer’s claimed combined fuel consumption of 4.5 litres per 100km seems a bit optimistic, however. The return leg of our journey, which was comprised of hilly back roads, a small amount of highway driving and next to no stop-start city driving, returned 5.1L/100km.

The car’s ride over a wide variety of road surfaces was also more befitting of its French lineage than its petrol sibling, with the car handling bumps and corrugations with consummate ease.

Large potholes and rain-damaged back roads never unnerved the car, nor did these somewhat trying conditions translate to any shake and rattle of note through the steering column.

The steering itself was overly light at low speed, but it became much more well-weighted once the car picked up speed. It must be said, though, that the directness exhibited by the system over the sweeping roads was tempered somewhat by a lack of feel and communication between the rubber-shod wheels at the front and the leather-wrapped one in the cabin.

Furthermore, while Renault has targeted pitch and bodyroll with the diesel, we still found traces of both as we edged toward the limit, and the car’s overall chassis dynamics are not quite on the level of segment-leaders like the VW Golf and new Ford Focus.

The Megane’s large brakes (280mm ventilated discs at the front and 260mm solid discs at the rear) are excellent, with reassuring bite and good road feel. One particularly heavy stop, initiated when we almost missed a turn-off at high speed, was dispatched with a pleasing lack of fuss.

Another facet of the car that we found almost beyond reproach is the level of standard features, which puts the Megane right in the thick of it with price-leading Korean and Japanese contenders like the Hyundai i30, Holden Cruze and Mazda3 in terms of specification.

Even the base model Dynamique ($27,490) gets cruise control with speed-limiter, automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning with rear vents, Bluetooth functionality with audio streaming, an MP3-compatible sound system with auxiliary and USB support, follow-me-home headlights, keyless entry and start, heated and foldable door mirrors, chrome door handles, 16-inch alloy wheels and a full-size (but steel) spare wheel.

The Privilege ($32,490) receives additional features such as rear parking sensors, a slightly fussy integrated satellite-navigation system, an electric sunroof that impinges on headroom, leather seats, a slightly more powerful sound system and bigger 17-inch alloy wheels.

The cabin has a lovely premium feel, with soft-feel dashboard surfaces, classy chrome highlights that are neither gaudy nor overdone, and revealed no squeaks or rattles. The doors close with a nice, almost Teutonic thud as well.

Some of the controls inside the cabin fall short of Teutonic efficiency, though, with several rather annoying idiosyncrasies cropping up, such as fiddly audio controls fitted to a stalk behind the wheel and cruise control mounted next the centre console.

Of course, you would get used to these with familiarity and, in a perverse way, such hints of ‘French-ness’ could perhaps even be slightly endearing.

Legroom in the front and rear is adequate but not class-leading, but front headroom in the sunroof-equipped Privilege was an issue for your (admittedly very tall) correspondent.

At 360 litres, cargo space is about on par with the hatch competition, while the front seats are comfortable and supportive, even if they are on the narrow side.

Both diesel variants are $2500 more expensive than their similarly specified petrol siblings, which is about typical of modern diesel-engined cars, but we think the improvements to drive and efficiency, as well as likely higher resale levels, make the diesel models the better buy.

After driving both the Dynamique and Privilege, we’d probably recommend buying the cheaper variant, fitting a portable sat-nav and pocketing the sizeable difference.

We came away pretty impressed by the Megane diesel. Sure, its turbocharged engine lacks the punch of the Focus, Cruze or Golf 103TDI, but it is more than adequate for most conditions, and it’s quiet and refined to boot.

Add to this equation the slick and chic styling (though not as unique and personable as its predecessor), excellent interior, raft of standard features, good road manners and smooth EDC gearbox and you have a car that deserves to sell in greater numbers than it probably will.

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