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First Oz drive: Megane's radical rear fronts up

No crash-test dummy: Megane was the first small car to be awarded the maximum five stars in Euro NCAP crash testing.

Renault brings up the rear with release of the radical Megane

5 Dec 2003

THOSE caught in the media blitz surrounding the Victorian Government’s ‘Drive Right’ program should be accustomed to the radical rear end of the Renault Megane.

But now that the small hatchback range is on sale, Renault Australia is hell-bent on ensuring awareness spreads into other states and provides enough inducement for it to realise 150 sales per month and boost its total sales volume more than 50 per cent.

This will be a tough assignment given Renault has had a hard time selling cars in Australia since its resurrection here in 2001. Rising interest rates, the Megane’s astonishing looks and retail prices starting from $25,990 for the base 1.6-litre five-door – blowing out to at least $31,990 for the 2.0-litre versions – also count against it.

Yet there is more to the Megane than meets the eye. This was the first small car to be awarded the maximum five stars in Euro NCAP crash testing. Great attention is paid to driver and passenger protection. Standard equipment levels are high.

And, unlike other Renault models, there are no restrictions when it comes to important considerations like transmission choice throughout the range, which has a manual and auto available for the base 1.6-litre five-door, the 2.0-litre five-door in two trim levels and the sportier, single-specification 2.0-litre three-door.

These gearboxes amount to a five-speed manual on the 1.6-litre version, a six-speed manual on all 2.0-litre variants and an adaptive four-speed auto with pseudo-manual mode optional across the board for $2200.

Both four-cylinder engines feature variable valve timing and, running on premium unleaded petrol, can each amass 90 per cent of maximum torque from 2000rpm. The 1.6-litre produces 83kW of power at 6000rpm and 152Nm of torque at 4200rpm, while the 2.0-litre pushes things along to 99kW at 5500rpm and 191Nm at 3750rpm.

Built on Renault’s all-new C-platform – which is also destined for the, ahem, Renault-looking Nissan Pulsar due next year – the front-drive Megane rests on a 2625mm wheelbase, has a 1518/1514mm front/rear track and a kerb weight ranging from 1175kg to 1265kg depending on the variant.

The front suspension comprises MacPherson struts with a rectangular lower arm and 20mm diameter stabiliser bar (19mm on the 1.6), while the rear end uses a torsion beam configuration with integrated stabiliser bar.

Variable-assist electric power steering requiring 3.2 turns lock to lock is fitted and the turning circle is 10.5 metres.

Disc brakes are used at each corner, measuring 280mm diameter for the ventilated front discs (260mm on the 1.6) and 240mm for the rear. Together with a Bosch 8.0 anti-lock braking system, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, the stoppers are claimed to be able to bring the car to a standstill from 100km/h in 38 metres – in 10 consecutive attempts.

As seen on some other European cars, the hazard lights will also start blinking whenever brake assist is activated.

Important crash avoiding features such as these are supported with a high level of protective measures should the Megane driver get into real strife.

All rear seat passengers are supplied with a three-point seatbelt and adjustable headrest

In addition to the Euro NCAP result (indicating excellent crashworthiness) are twin-volume adaptive front airbags with adaptive seatbelts incorporating double load limiters and double pretensioners. Translation: these are first-class front seatbelts.

Note, however, that these newfangled belts are restricted to five-door versions, which have no need for the front seats to be moved to provide rear seat access.

In the three-door Megane Sport, Renault has attempted to provide a similar level of protection using an anti-submarining airbag for each front seat, claimed to be a world first and designed to keep the occupant securely harnessed during a crash.

Other injury-lessening features found across the range include front side airbags, curtain airbags and anti-whiplash front head restraints.

All rear seat passengers are supplied with a three-point seatbelt and adjustable headrest, with outboard passengers benefiting further with a seatbelt pretensioner and load limiter.

The equipment level is high in other departments too, with all Meganes featuring air-conditioning, a trip computer, six-speaker CD stereo, cruise control (with speed limiter), rain-sensing windscreen wipers (including the rear wiper), auto-dipping rear-vision mirror, one-touch electric windows front and rear, front foglights, automatic headlights with ‘see me home’ function and remote central locking with the so-called Renault card.

Kicking things off at $25,990, the 1.6 Authentique misses out on colour-coded door mirrors, climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel/gearshift, heat-reflective windscreen and driver’s seat lumbar adjustment found on the $31,990 Dynamique, which in turn does without leather trim and the $1990 panoramic sunroof option available on the $34,990 Dynamique LX.

Wheel specifications are a further point of differentiation, with the Authentique using 15-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, Dynamique using 16-inch alloys and the LX grade getting 17-inch alloys. All models have a full-size spare wheel.

The $33,990 three-door Sport is based on the Dynamique LX grade and has few unique features other than the additional airbags.

Megane Authentique manual – $25,990
Megane Authentique auto – $28,190
Megane Dynamique manual – $31,990
Megane Dynamique auto – $34,190
Megane Dynamique LX manual – $34,990
Megane Dynamique LX auto – $37,190
Megane Dynamique LX Sport manual(3-door) – $33,990
Megane Dynamique LX Sport auto(3-door) – $36,190


AT THIS price, and pitted against strong rivals including the Ford Focus, Peugeot 307 and in 2004 the all-new Volkswagen Golf and Holden Astra, the Renault Megane would have to be good. Damn good.

And for the most part, it is.

Its shocking rear end alone almost guarantees it will be destined for lone hands rather than legions of new customers. But Renault and its unrepentant chief designer Patrick Le Quement do at least deserve some credit in exciting the senses – something that applies, to a certain extent, to the driving as well as the ogling.

With no 1.6-litre versions available at launch in Melbourne this week, our first Australian tour was limited to the 2.0-litre Dynamique auto. It emerged as a solid, competent performer on wide-horizon stretches and when the road starts to tighten.

This is no Clio Renault Sport for sheer driver involvement. For that, we must wait for the Megane RS version due in about 12 months.

Its most endearing attributes are its smooth and honest engine performance, responsive automatic transmission, good brake feel, absorbent ride across broken bitumen and solid handling characteristics including decent grip levels from the 16-inch tyres and a good handle on undue roll during quick directional changes.

While simple to operate from the T-bar, the sequential manual mode has a mind of its own as it will dive down from fourth to second in response to large throttle inputs and change up a gear whenever it nears redline – a point where engine noise mars the generally high degree of refinement.

Bigger road blemishes can also send some shock into the cabin.

The weakest link comes with the electric power steering. As much as we like hanging on to the three-spoke tiller, the steering provides negligible feedback and feels too artificial in its weighting with a strong self-centring action.

The driver sits up high in a well-bolstered (though somewhat narrow) bucket seat and in most cases will have no trouble finding a suitable position with full-seat height and steering wheel reach and rake adjustment.

Cruise and stereo controls are attached to the steering wheel, the instruments are simple enough to read and the Renault card/start button operation and most switchgear are soon mastered.

Working the stereo and the handbrake handle (as opposed to lever) takes a little longer, while no less than four information screens compete for the driver’s attention – one for the stereo, another for climate settings and, in the instrument cluster, one each for the trip computer and transmission indicator et al.

Rear accommodation is not as amenable for adults as the exterior suggests, with limited legroom behind the front seats and shoulder room across the bench seat.

Headroom is good and rear door pockets and a fold-down centre armrest with box (for holding pens and placing two drinks) are provided.

The luggage compartment is a sufficient size for this vehicle class, the full-size spare wheel is contained under the floor and volume can be extended with the 60/40 split-fold rear seat.

Those features aside, not even a bum as wide as this has stirred the designers into creating a large opening for the hatch – the aperture is far too narrow – and, among a few other niggles, the rear tailgate release is mounted too low.

The question now for the French brand is how well Australians take to the Megane hatch – and far from pretending the radical rear end doesn’t exist, Renault’s television commercials will concentrate on little else than the back passage.

That could be a masterstroke for the individualistic target audience aged 25-40. Or it could backfire for the car with which Renault is banking on boosting its standing at the so-called arse end of the world.

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