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First drive: Renault Megane RS (2018) has grown up

An RS badge. A TopGear favourite

Lately we’ve been trained to associate Renault’s expanding range with inoffensive SUVs, brightly-lacquered crossovers and first-time car buyers but the RS badge has always been a way for Renault to remind the world of their trickle-down motorsport heritage. Shall we not forget Megane RS initiated this whole front-wheel drive Nurburgring laptime pecking order with the numerous special editions that have become today’s current obsession. A badge vehemently reserved for Clio and Megane, Renault understands something rival brands don’t – integrating the performance division with unsuitable bodystyles and trim lines dilutes the drama.

Is it a conservative, low-risk evolution?

On the contrary,the latest Megane RS represents a new trajectory that began earnestly in focus groups then deviated from traditional hot hatchback law.  A ground-up approach that repositions the car from purist to mainstream. There are obvious market trends that have rubbed off on the new car; sold exclusively as a five door hatchback, Megane finally has the practicality to challenge GTI while the EDC gearbox is closer than ever to DSG – a benchmark I’m convinced EDC was studied against. The 2018 Megane RS alters the paradigm from uncompromised ride firmness and witchcraft front-end grip to one of user-friendliness.

Then what makes the RS stand out?

Plenty to discuss here. The engine’s downsized to 1.8-litres but because they’ve let the boost slide north (1.7 bar compared to 1.3 bar), there’s still 206kW and 390Nm but lower carbon emissions and lighter consumption. All boxes ticked, even if the noise is muted compared to the predecessor’s raucous intake surge. Then there’s 4Control, the rear-wheel steering assist that was fitted to Megane GT but in this case reconfigured for extra playfulness.  Renault talks up this technology, keen to emphasise it as the vanguard of hot hatch dynamics.

Don’t keep me in suspense, how does it drive?  

RS fans, take a deep breath because there’s some depressing news. This new model re-programmes the RS’s fundamentals, transforming it from a no frills driving machine into a textured, not always cohesive hatchback that can’t replicate the same unyielding mid-corner grip of yore. The semi-locking differential (Cup version) doesn’t bite as hard and the front wheels don’t claw their way back to the apex if you enter too fast. It’s a car that requires finesse on the entry and patience on the exit to prevent wanton wheelspin. I’m not convinced there’d be a meaningful deficit in pace if the engine output was curtailed to 170kW and 350Nm.

What about the 4Control.

If Renault had any intention of developing the understudy to Ford’s drift model on RS, 4Control gets you pretty close to that experience.  In Sport Mode it works up to 60km/h. Race mode keeps it engaged up to 100km/h while deactivating the ESC. Ultimately what you end up with is a chassis balance that’s often unable to reconcile between front and rear stability. The first warning came early in the drive when we entered a downhill right completely sideways for the we’re-not-going-to-make-this-next left, left.

Later I had to give it half a turn of opposite lock at 60km/h on an unremarkable right hander. You could never provoke the same waywardness from the old car, and I’m not sure I’d call 4Control handling progress. Over-stylised, over-engineered. Unnerving. Perhaps we need more time to get comfortable with its quirks.

Same feedback in the stiffer, racier Cup version?

The Cup’s drawcard is the limited slip differential. Frankly owning a hot hatch that has over 200kW and 350Nm without one is a mistake. Other highlights include a six-speed manual gearbox (yay) and conventional handbrake (yay) but the power’s the same (boo), so are the seats (a little too high) and you still feel Renault is deliberately feathering some of the diff’s aggression for the upcoming Trophy. Renault SA is still deciding whether to bring Cup with manual or EDC. Or both. Expect survey poll on forums in coming weeks…

EDC like the one found in Clio

Not as slushy. In fact quite brilliant. Meaty and deliberate with long elegant blades that Renault calls steering paddles. Shame they don’t turn with the steering wheel – are you listening Ferrari – so at times you do slam the engine into the rev limiter.

Is it GTI quality inside?

Interior plushness has taken a big leap in an area that previous versions were never praised for. A quality of execution with the hallmarks of a flagship performance model lavished in abundance from seats that cup you in the right places, aluminium pedals, overtones of red on black, flat bottom wheel…all the reassuring snippets your inner child needs.

The tablet monitor has gone down the same path as so many other systems, intent on migrating all buttons into the submenus, even though functions such as adjusting fan speed would undoubtedly work better as a button. But it’s fairly adept at juggling a few tasks simultaneously, with a convenient home button when you’ve got a bit lost. Standard specification, and an area where Megane holds an edge, includes navigation, the RS monitor, heads-up display, auto parking and heated seats.

You seem underwhelmed

Perhaps but only because cars like the Clubsport, Focus RS, Civic Type R (admittedly more expensive) have pushed the hot hatch game on so far that we’ve been spoilt by their brilliance. The new 2018 Megane RS has greater bandwidth than the old car and by wedging its pretty, smug nose between the GTI and Civic Type R it’ll sell better than any two iridescent generations that came before it. In the end you have to see their point. If the Lux version lands in SA under R550 000 with all the specification, Megane RS will convert many new owners.

 

 

 

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