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New models - Renault - Megane

First drive: Renault's sporting Megane

Fronting up: Renault engineers have done a fine job of containing the torque steer and other wayward behaviour that is always lurking within powerful cars driven by the front wheels.

There's plent of potency under the restrained looks of the RS Megane 225

24 Sep 2004

RENAULT may be dragging behind the upbeat sales forecasts mooted at the 2001 reintroduction of the brand to Australia, but the feeling within the company is still one of cautious optimism.

With a comprehensive model range now in place – including the Trafic, Master and Kangoo light commercials – managing director Rudi Koenig expects 2004 sales to better those of 2003, when 3178 Renaults were sold here.

The tendency at Renault these days is to shy away from local sales forecasts and concentrate on how well Renault is doing on a larger scale. With global sales currently 6.6 per cent ahead of last year, and Renault currently the number one seller of passenger and light commercial vehicles in Europe, that’s not such a bad ploy.

But if Renault sales aren’t yet all they could be in Australia, it’s not for want of good product.

The recently introduced Megane hatchback and sedan range and the Clio are respected and relatively well positioned, if a little expensive in the case of the Megane.

Company management says Renault is still in the establishment phase, which means it is building up its car park and allowing the product to work its way into mainstream consciousness.

The most recent move to embellish the image is aimed at giving Renault a more dynamic look. This comes via the introduction of a second Renault Sport model – the Megane 225 – to back up the RS Clio first seen here in 2001.

The Renault Sport Megane 225 – to give its full title – is essentially a hot version of the regular Megane five-door hatch. Renault chose the five rather than three-door configuration because it better suits the requirements of the slightly older age group (than RS Clio) it attracts.

The regular 98kW 2.0-litre engine is replaced with a twin-scroll turbocharged version winding out no less than 165kW and able to reach 100km/h from a standing start in 6.5 seconds.

The power to weight ratio – 8.3kg per kilowatt – is virtually lineball with the yardstick Subaru Impreza WRX.

To transfer all this effectively to the ground, the RS Megane gets a new version of the MacPherson strut front suspension, with quite different geometry to regular Meganes helping minimise torque-steer.

Elsewhere, it gets the usual tightening-up involving a higher-rated torsion beam rear axle, stiffer isolating bushes and stiffer dampers. Suspension travel has been reduced at both front and rear, the tracks are wider by seven millimetres at the front and 15 millimetres at the rear, and the wheels are 17-inch alloys with 225/45 Continental SportContact2 tyres.

The RS Megane also gets Brembo-reworked brakes with alloy four-pot callipers up front, and larger and thicker rotors at both ends. The system works through Bosch’s latest 8.0 four-channel ABS with brake assist and is further enhanced via Bosch electronic stability control, as well as switchable traction control.

Visually, the RS Megane 225 is perhaps a little understated. The mood is suitably aggressive with a large under-bumper air intake flanked by driving lights, and a new tail panel with twin exhaust outlets, but the general look, apart from the controversial Megane hatch rear end, is quite restrained – once again recognising the more mature buyer attracted to the Megane.

35 center imageInside it is nicely fitted out, with well-shaped sports front seats, trip computer, six-speaker CD sound system, auto-dipping rearview mirror, climate control and six airbags. The optional LX pack adds leather seats, a sunroof and a six-CD in-dash stacker.

PRICING:
Renault Sport Megane 225 $42,990
(LX pack $4000)

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

DESPITE its 165kW and 300Nm of torque, the Renault Sport Megane 225 is less a WRX beater than a refined, very fast touring car.

Choosing to base the turbocharged Megane 225 on the five-door hatch rather than the seemingly more natural three-door hatch is indicative of where Renault sees this car slotting into the automotive environment.

The decision was made in the name of practicality - and the fact that the Megane’s slightly older customers would rate that highly in their car-choice criteria.

So a five-door hatch it is - and it’s a hard thing to argue against.

This is a civilised, smallish car of some potency. The look is restrained, especially in terms of body add-ons, with just the 17-inch alloy wheels, the more aggressive front and rear ends – plus a functional roof spoiler at the back that is able to triple downforce at 230km/h. Northern Territory drivers will be pleased to know that.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Megane is that Renault engineers have done a fine job of containing the torque steer and other wayward behaviour that is always lurking within powerful cars driven by the front wheels.

Renault says a lot of this comes from the redesigned front suspension with its independent steering axis, but much has been learned over the years in how to best control front-drive configurations, and the Renault no doubt employs a lot of things the engineers don’t even bother to talk about.

The bottom line is that, under most circumstances, the Megane 225 drives almost like a rear-drive car. Unless the driver gets really silly, it behaves with a composure rarely seen in a front-driver. Overstep the mark and the traction control system segues into action, putting down enough power yet staying within a hair’s breadth of wheelspin.

The variable-assistance, electro-mechanical steering is perhaps one area where clever electronics don’t quite do the job because, although it’s well weighted and quick-acting, there’s an occasional feeling of disconnection with what’s really going on with the front wheels.

The car driven on the introductory test drive sometimes felt a little disconcerting on high-speed, bumpy corners where the steering felt affected by the intense activity happening in the suspension.

The ride, on the other hand, was excellent considering this car’s potential.

Despite the fact it sits lower than the standard Megane and the suspension is quite a bit stiffer, passengers felt comfortable even when the road was quite rough and undulating.


Few turbo engines have the ready response from relatively low rpm, coupled with the impressive mid-range power of the Megane

The engine is superb. Respect for what Renault has achieved with this long-stroke, 16-valve powerplant grows with every kilometre.

Few turbo engines have the ready response from relatively low rpm, coupled with the impressive mid-range power of the Megane. It is hard to imagine it in an accelerative no-man’s land, waiting for the turbo to spool up. Mostly, it’s a matter of tromping the accelerator and away the Megane goes.

The six-speed gearbox is excellent but almost redundant because the spread of power is so generous. The Megane 225 will accelerate strongly in any gear provided 2000rpm or so is on board. The shift action is excellent and the clutch smooth and progressive, making for smooth, easy changes.

The Brembo brakes are very good, as you’d expect, slamming the car to a stable, straight stop repeatedly without fuss. Renault says the Megane 225 will make an emergency stop from 100km/h in just 36 metres.

At speed, the Megane 225 is also relaxed and quiet, very reassuring for driver and passengers.

Interior space? Well, it’s virtually the same as the regular Megane, even though the front seats are more sculpted and probably take up a little more room. The back seat is okay, but only if front passengers aren’t too tall. The 60-40 split-fold rear seat underlines the other side of this rapid point-to-point hatchback – its practicality.

A more expensive, but similarly impressive competitor springs to mind. That is the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA, which gives virtually the same performance for nearly $20,000 more.

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