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First drive: Megane for the masses

Uncontroversial: Megane sedan sheds quirky hatch back-end for wider appeal.

Renault delivers a less controversial Megane in the four-door sedan

31 Mar 2004

RENAULT Australia’s rollout of its controversially distinctive - and distinctively controversial – Megane II small car range continues this week with the launch of the flamboyant French model’s most conventional bodystyle, the four-door sedan.

Variant number two to go on sale in Australia, Megane sedan dispenses with the distinguishing derriere that’s been so deliberately highlighted in the advertising campaign for the three and five-door hatchbacks launched in December.

As new price leader of the 2.0-litre Megane range at $29,990 - undercutting the five-door 2.0 Authentique manual by $2000 but $4000 more than the entry level 1.6 hatch - the six-speed manual Expression sedan is still no Corolla competitor.

But Renault hopes the four-door’s larger cabin and "more conservative styling" will attract less polarising opinions to actually outsell the hatch variants, which have not met sales forecasts in their first three months on sale.

"The Megane sedan will provide buyers with all the style, luxury and safety found in the hatch but packaged in a more elegant design," said Renault Australian managing director and chief executive officer Leon Daphne.

Local Renault executives deny the Megane hatch’s TV commercial, which likens the car’s back-end to those of various provocative women, focuses too heavily on the controversial styling of the hatch, which has failed to match the company’s projected estimate of 150 sales per month (with a best of 90 in January) or half of Renault’s volume Down Under.

Yet they hope the sedan’s more orthodox bodyshell can tap into a larger - and older – group of customers that, traditionally, makes small sedans more popular than small hatches Down Under for the majority of car brands.

But despite the popularity of small sedans - and the fact Megane sedan will actually target medium sedans like Mazda6, 80 per cent of which are bought as sedans -Renault Oz has set a conservative estomate of just 50-60 Megane sedans per month. Which is around how many 2.0-litre hatches, discounting the 1.6, it expected to shift.

"We expect the sedan will broaden the appeal of the range with its charismatic flare and desirable features building on the success of the hatch variants," said Mr Daphne.

Only the volume sellers in Toyota (Corolla), Holden (Astra), Ford (Focus) and Hyundai (Elantra) sell more small hatches than sedans and, while Toyota’s Corolla wagon and now Peugeot’s 307 Touring share the almost non-existent small wagon market, sedans still comprise nearly half of all small car sales.

Also interesting is the fact that while perennial small sedan favourite Nissan’s Pulsar – next year’s all-new successor for which will share Megane II’s underpinnings – still outsells Corolla sedan and Lancer sedan, the new hero of the small car market is Mazda’s new Three, which knocked off Pulsar overall and was best selling small sedan in just its second month on sale.

But the fact is that Renault’s premium priced Megane sedan - at around $8000 dearer than the base 2.0-litre Mazda3 and Focus, and the same price as Peugeot’s five-door 307 HDi - will need to sell its commendable safety, equipment and space advantages if it is to help lift Megane from the doldrums of the small car sales charts.

Presently 16th best of 17 manufacturers represented in the crowded Australian small car market, Renault outsells only Suzuki, Proton and Citroen (with its aged Xsara) for a paltry 0.6 per cent share. And fresh new premium Euros like Astra and Golf in 2004 – and Focus and (Citroen) C4 in 2005 – won’t make it easier for Megane.

Then again, of the so-called prestige small cars like VW Bora, Volvo S40 (also due for replacement this year), Audi A3, Alfa 147 and Benz A-class, Megane hatch easily outstrips all but BMW’s Mini. And on hatch sales alone Megane matches Honda’s tenth-placed Civic, which claimed four times as many sedan sales.

So it’s possible the sedan – the first of three new Meganes due by July, when the coupe-convertible and Scenic people-mover arrive - could help Megane become a more significant small car player.

Especially if Renault can maximise the hype surrounding its RS performance flasghip and the all-new seven-seater Megane Grand Scenic due in late 2004.

With that aim, Renault Oz will offer two specifications of this Turkish-built Megane, which offers a significant point of differentiation - but this time for all the right reasons – with a wheelbase that’s 61mm longer than the hatch’s.

That means that, unlike most small sedan variants, the doors and rear overhang are also longer than that of the hatch. Renault claims the extra length delivers a class-leading 230mm of rear knee room despite an extra two degrees of rear seat recline angle.

The rear overhang is increased by 228mm for the sedan by comparison with the hatch, creating a boot load volume of 520 litres, up 10 litres on the old sedan (which was never sold in Australia). There is also the convenience a 60/40-split folding rear seat.

The rear suspension system is also different on the extended platform, but the fundamental torsion beam design remains the same.

Renault is confident the modified structure of the sedan will still yield a five-star NCAP rating, the Megane hatch being the first small car to achieve the highest possible ranking.

All three Megane sedans, from the $29,990 Expression six-speed manual and $32,190 four-speed Pro-active sequential-shift automatic to the auto-only Privilege ($35,990), are powered by a 2.0-litre 16-valve engine with variable valve timing, producing 98.5kW at 5500rpm and 191Nm of torque at 3750rpm. Which makes it more powerful than Focus and Astra but shy of Mazda3’s class-leading output.

Each also features standard adaptive front and front side airbags, plus front and rear side curtain airbags and ABS, Emergency Brake Assist and Electronic Brake-force Distribution, five height adjustable head restraints, five three-point seatbelts, load-limiting front seatbelts and outboard seatbelt pretensioners.

Carried over from the high-series Megane hatch is climate control air-conditioning, six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio, trip computer, leather-clad steering wheel, driver’s seat height and lumbar adjustment, cruise control, speed limiter, light level sensors, fog lights, remote central locking and keyless start, while the Privilege adds leather trim and a soft-touch steering wheel inside and 16-inch alloys with chromed door handles outside.

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