The latest-generation Megane RS draws on Renault’s forty years of hot hatch experience

The Renault Megane RS Has long been an evo favourite. From the Cup model to the stripped-out, track-focused Trophy R, this French fast hatch has always been at or near the head of the class. Even in the face of newer and quicker competition, the previous-generation Megane proved its credentials time and again as the driver’s choice. No pressure for this all-new version, then.

Since the old car went off sale, the hot hatch landscape has changed massively and now includes standout performers such as the Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai i30N, plus revised versions of the Peugeot 308 GTi and VW Golf GTI. So, in an effort to maintain its position as the brand behind the top pocket rocket, Renault Sport has gone to town on this latest version, incorporating a host of new technologies aimed at delivering the sharpest and most engaging driving experience. Spearheading this roll call of high-tech innovations is the 4Control four-wheel steering system, but there are also hydraulic bump stops, an EDC twin-clutch gearbox (don’t worry, there’s a manual too) and a down-sized 1.8-litre turbo that’s every bit as powerful as the old 2.0-litre.

All of the technical innovations you’ve just read about in the previous pages are well and good, but what we all want to know is do they improve the driving experience and allow the Megane to maintain its status as driver’s favourite? Well, let’s cut to the chase and give the latest Megane a big thumbs up. 

Let’s deal with that 4Control steering first because, if anything’s going to put a dampener on the dynamics it’s this. There’s no denying that the sensations you feel in the first few kilometres are a little unnerving. Through a roundabout, for instance, there’s the curious feeling of the rear of the car swaying from side to side as you twirl the wheel this way and that. Point the nose into a fast corner and you’ll find yourself having to open the steering just a fraction as the Renault turns in quicker and more sharply than you anticipate. However, get past the initially unsettling reactions and you soon learn to appreciate and exploit the set-up. It makes most sense in Sport or Race settings, where the system reacts faster and, in the case of the latter, continues to turn the rear wheels in the opposite directions as the fronts at much higher speeds (up to 100km/h) to deliver the sort of angle of attack that usually happens when the rear of the car has come unstuck and is gently rotating. It’s eerie at first, but learn to trust it and the Megane can carry impressive speed through a series of bends. 

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. 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 the new-gen 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 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.

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