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

Our Opinion

We like
Value, smooth, well-equipped, stylish, modern, quality interior, safety features, easy to drive, practical
Room for improvement
Loud and busy ride on larger alloys, CVT drone, tight-ish rear seat

10 Mar 2011

THE line between Renault and Nissan is blurring. For proof, compare a 1976 R12 with a Datsun 120Y.

The French car is front-drive, sophisticated, secure, spacious, soft, and elegant while its rear-drive Japanese rival feels simple, flighty, tight, hard, and superficial. And while the Datto blitzed the Frenchie for popularity, the latter remained in production until 2004 as the Dacia 1310. Great design endures. 120Ys rust away.

Fast forward 35 years and we wonder if Nissan Australia – importers of Renault – would have been better off rebadging the X32 international version of the European-market X95 Megane ‘Pulsar,’ ‘Sunny,’ or even ‘200Y’.

Why? Because – and this is not meant to undermine the latest Megane’s many attributes – it steers, sounds, and feels (from your bottom if not the tips of your fingers) like a Nissan, despite what you see or even smell.

Built in Turkey, and using an undisclosed amount of existing Nissan small car (N16 Pulsar?) architecture including a variation of the 2.0-litre engine and gearbox (six-speed manual or six-stepped CVT continuously variable transmission) familiar to Dualis/Qashqai/X-Trail owners, the X32 is different enough underneath from its continental identical twin to not qualify for the same ENCAP five-star crash test rating.

How high (or low) the Megane hatch (as well as its closely related X38 Fluence sedan sibling) scores has yet to be determined. But this fact highlights the ‘Nissan-ness’ of the Renault.

The upshot is obvious the moment you step inside the $29,990 Privilege CVT tested here.

Until the contemporary Megane’s launch late last year, the centurial marque has long priced a premium on its Oz-bound product.

Consider that the X84 (2003-2009) Dynamique 2.0-litre auto cost more than $4000 more but lacked parking radar, Bluetooth connectivity, true keyless entry and start, leather upholstery, GPS, and other conveniences.

Indeed, it was closer in spec to today’s base $24,990 X32 Megane Dynamique CVT. Go for the manual and that drops to an astonishing $22,990. Cheap!

But is it a bargain? First impressions are positive. Solid, weighty doors that swing open wide allow easy access into an interior that is distinguished for its elegant simplicity.

The dash – basically the same BMW-esque horizontal item found in the supernaturally talented Megane Renaultsport 250 – continues the good vibes with a rubberised top layer (the hard plastics are just in sight below), sensible use of metallic plastic trim around the usual areas (dials, wheel spokes, door pulls) and a surprisingly austere instrument pack.

Usually we would choose analogue over digital speedo every time (unless they’re combined). But the RS250 (and Fluence’s) unreadable dial gives way to a great big black-on-white numbers that look modern and distinctive. The (analogue) tacho’s splash of yellow adds more freshness, as does the cool white night-time illumination. Note though that the steering-wheel controls are not lit.

More thumbs up go to the attractive and easily manipulated steering wheel, great front seats with anti-whiplash headrests that really can support your head with simple adjustment, heaps of storage, and an effective climate-control system. Renault’s been building cars since the 1899 and it shows.

This interior heaves with enough extras to make Ricky Gervais wince.

Along with power windows, MP3 player, electric folding rear view mirrors, trip computer, alloy wheels and fog lights, the Privilege has a Renault key card that unlocks and then locks the car when you walk away from it without having to press a button. So fancy!

But although it works well enough, the installation of the standard Tom Tom satellite navigation screen is bulky and ugly, and comes with a fiddly remote control.

Rear vision isn’t magnificent either. Blame the rising window line and fat derriere for that.

While we’re back there, the rear seat area is not bad at all, even if knee room is limited. There are provisions for cups, maps, and elbows, a pair of air vents to help keep your cool, overhead grab handles, a 12-volt outlet, a flush-fitting armrest, and – as with all the seating – pleasant white stitching.

Here’s another observation: the longer Fluence may have more legroom, but its smaller door apertures make getting in and out harder than in the hatch. And the latter has more rear headroom too – though a Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf is better again. We don’t like the flimsy feel of the rear cushion when you flip it forward to lower the backrest flush with the rear cargo floor.

Something very trad French about the boot is the slapdash finish (contrasting vividly to the nicely assembled cabin) as well as the old-school full-sized steel spare wheel slung under the floor and accessible by undoing a bolt. The floor area is long and wide but a little shallower than the aforementioned rivals.

And that’s surprising, since the Focus and Golf have multi-link rear ends while the Megane puts up with an allegedly more space-efficient torsion beam axle. Seat-up volume is 360 litres.

Clearly C-segment French small cars have an aversion to this expensive but more dynamically effective set-up, and so – not surprisingly – it is here that the Megane falls short a tad on the road.

Good things first. That 103kW 2.0-litre twin-cam engine/CVT combo is exceptionally quiet and ultra smooth in everyday driving.

Lively at take off, and with enough torque to provide instant forward thrust when necessary, it has a strong workhorse charm and simplicity in this age of laggy smaller capacity turbo installations.

On the open road the Megane is a natural, effective cruiser, taking in the miles in its stride, and aided by one of the most effective cruise (and speed limiter) control systems available.

But there is that inevitable CVT drone and elasticity to the power delivery if you demand more from it – which you have to do fairly often around the ‘burbs to join fast-moving traffic for example – and this does ultimately reduce refinement as well as hurt fuel efficiency. Our test Megane spent most of its time in inner-city jams on boiling-hot days, which helps explain its 11.5L/100km consumption.

We have few qualms about the steering though. It feels nicely weighted and quite responsive, with sufficient feedback from the wheel for the driver to feel connected to the experience. The turning circle is tight, helping make an already agreeably manoeuvrable car even easier to park.

As speeds rise, the limits of roadholding start to diminish as expected, but the Megane still seems surefooted and composed. Of course it will eventually start to turn wide into corners as most front-drivers do, but the engineers have dialled in a reassuring amount of body control – underlined by a strong set of brakes.

But why does the rear end have to crash over all manner of bumps with a crudeness that you wouldn’t expect even from the cheapest new car these days? We’re not talking Kia Cerato bad, but a Toyota Corolla is quieter.

Along with some road-noise intrusion, the suspension feels loud and fidgety on all but the smoothest of surfaces. This is a Renault and we expect better.

Indeed, it is here that the Megane (and Fluence) feels least French, lacking the suppleness and absorption of its predecessors. That’s not progress. Even the noisy Mazda3 is more hushed. Maybe a different set of tyres will help. In comparison, a Golf (and new-gen Focus as driven by colleague Marton Pettendy in the United States) seems generations more sophisticated.

Yet, if you are a gentle and undemanding motorist (or passenger) coming to it from an older vehicle, this deficiency may not seem big deal. Just try before you buy. For we really, really like the Megane anyway, and would recommend one to somebody who seeks value, ease, functionality, and smart design, and won’t mind the occasionally rowdy ride.

That’s why, for these and other reasons outlined above, this particular hatch tastes like a French-Japanese fusion cuisine.

As we said, the line between the two sister companies’ cars have blurred.

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