Years ago and when working for another magazine, I wrote that if Porsche ever decided to build a hot hatch, a front-wheel-drive GT3 if you will, they’d have found the space already occupied by the Renault Sport Megane RS. Well, didn’t the electronic mail bag light up with vitriol. How dare I compare a front-wheel-drive hatchback to one of the most-engaging driver’s cars available? I had a few quiet voices of agreement (probably Renault owners or dealers) but I’d clearly touched a nerve and most disagreed with my sentiment.
Of course, I was talking about the previous-generation model, but the controversial description finds apt usage again with the recently arrived third-gen Megane RS.
While the differences remain obvious and many, the new Megane RS maintains a focus that reminds me of how the GT3 goes about thrilling and engaging its driver. And for the first time, there is actually some technical cross-over between the French hot hatch and the German track star, as the Megane RS (like the current-model Megane GT before it) has adopted rear-wheel steering. The hardware is largely the same as that used on the Megane GT, but the tuning is pure Renault Sport. The electronically controlled set-up features actuators that can turn the rear wheels up to 2.7 degrees in the opposite direction to the fronts, then as speeds rise this switches to up to one degree in the same direction as the front wheels. This changeover happens at 60km/h in all modes other than Race, where the switch occurs at 100km/h. According to Renault, steering response is 20 per cent faster than on the old car, while high-speed stability is in a different league.
On the car’s international launch, chassis engineer Antoine Frey made an interesting point. ‘‘Ultimately with this new system,’’ he said, ‘‘you shouldn’t be able to tell that the car has four-wheel steering.’’
While all-wheel-steering systems have made a strong comeback in recent years (they were previously popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s), some of the applications have been a bit hit and miss. When Porsche first introduced all-wheel steering on the 991 911 Turbo S, it was hyper-reactive at high speed, giving a false sense of turn-in oversteer. During a drive at Phillip Island, Mark Webber himself gave us the tip that the Turbo S wasn’t actually sliding through turn one, so don’t overreact and throw opposite lock at it. The Lamborghini Aventador S was similarly flighty, while the Ferrari F12tdf would scare you spitless. Since those early fright machines, engineers the world over have worked hard on the balance of agility and hyperactivity, and cars such as the Ferrari 812 Superfast and 911 GT3 (along with much of the remainder of the Porsche range) have integrated the technology seamlessly.
But what of the Renault? Frey is right in that it doesn’t feel like most cars with all-wheel steering. Nor, however, does it feel like a traditional front-wheel-drive hot hatch. Attack a series of corners and there’s a unique blend of dynamic traits that sometimes feel like the Megane has a very aggressive mechanical limited-slip diff while at other times it feels like it possesses a more relaxed ESC/ABS-based electronic diff. The chassis really comes to life in Race mode where the rear steering is more aggressive.
The Megane uses a plus-sized steering wheel that blends with the sharpness of the rack to deliver a more linear rate of response than you might expect. The steering works in remarkable concert with the damping to deliver giant-killing cross-country pace.
One of the primary reasons I made my initial comparison to the GT3 all those years ago was the Megane’s ability to combine body control with compliance. And the new car is better again at keeping the 245/35 R19 Bridgestones in contact with the tarmac while also controlling roll, pitch and dive. It’s this suspension voodoo that grants the Megane its ultimate pace.
Speaking of pace, the Megane RS is genuinely quick. Regardless of whether you opt for the manual or dual-clutch transmission (both with six speeds), Renault claims identical performance figures: 0-100km/h in just 5.8 seconds and a top speed of 255km/h.
The chassis is so impressive that I’m 700 words into this review and I’ve yet to mention the engine or power outputs. For the record, the new-gen Megane RS uses a higher-output version of the 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that is found amidships in the Alpine A110. Here it makes 205kW at 6000rpm and 390Nm from 2400-4800rpm. The engine makes a deep note from idle upwards and, especially if you’re in sport mode and above, there are pops and bangs from the exhaust on downshifts and the overrun. It’s a strong engine and it thrives on being worked hard through the mid-range.
Like the GT3, the Megane feels and looks special. There’s a cold-start grumpiness to it that all serious performance cars possess and the car’s overall tautness exudes a confidence that many hot hatches can’t quite carry off. Jesse Taylor
Engine 1798cc in-line 4-cyl, turbo
Power 205kW @ 6000rpm
Torque 390Nm @ 2400-4800rpm
Weight 1450kg (141kW/tonne)
Top speed 255km/h
Basic price $47,490