With four-wheel steer and a clever suspension set-up, the latest Mégane RS is a welcome return to form for Renault Sport. Look out, Civic Type R…

Moving amongst the small gathering of journalists and photographers, Renault Sport boss Patrice Ratti gives off the impression of being confident and relaxed, but there’s a palpable sense of tension in the room. It’s July 2017 and we’re at Renault Sport’s HQ in a nondescript collection of buildings on the outskirts of Paris. We’re here for an audience with the new Mégane RS – months before its official debut at that year’s Frankfurt motor show – and also the people behind it, all of whom appear to be at great pains to explain that this car will be a good ’un.

This isn’t a simple unveiling followed by a quick Q&A and some canapés, this is a proper deep-dive, nuts-and-bolts, four-hour-long forensic examination of every aspect of the hotly anticipated hot Mégane. Reading between the lines it’s not hard to imagine what’s really being said is: ‘Yes, we messed up the Clio RS, but don’t worry, we won’t make the same mistake twice.’

The other reason for being ushered across the Channel way before the car’s public debut is revealed by the 4Control badges on each C-pillar. That’s right, this Mégane features four-wheel steering. Of course, there’s also lots of talk about the new 1.8-litre engine, the availability of a twin-clutch transmission for the first time, the hydraulic bump-stops and even the LED headlamps, but it’s clear that 4Control is the main subject of ‘education’.

The hardware is largely the same as that used on the Mégane GT, but the tuning is pure Renault Sport. Essentially, 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 1 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.

Yet after all the graphs, statistics and technical explanations, it’s the parting shot of chassis engineer Antoine Frey that is most intriguing. ‘‘Ultimately with this new system,’’ he says, ‘‘you shouldn’t be able to tell that the car has four-wheel steering.’’

Fast forward to the present day, and photographer Dave Smith and I are in Jerez, Spain, where we’re confronted with a long line of Volcanic Orange Méganes. The first thing you notice are the bulging wheelarches that cover tracks stretched by 60mm at the front and 45mm at the rear, while an aggressive diffuser is claimed to generate enough downforce to negate the need for a Civic Type R-style spoiler. Sitting on standard 18-inch alloys the RS looks hunkered, purposeful and bursting with muscular intent.

Megane RS

It feels right on the inside, too. You sit just low enough in a high-backed and heavily bolstered seat that’s squishy and soft in the finest French tradition, while ahead of you is a three-spoke wheel complete with de rigueur 12 o’clock marker. There are also aluminium pedals, a configurable TFT screen for the dial pack and – what’s this? – a pair of gearshift paddles. Yes, all the cars here are fitted with the six-speed EDC (Efficient Dual Clutch) transmission, because that’s what Europe gets first. (We’ll have to wait until later in the year, but we’ll get a six-speed manual, too.)

Thumb the starter button and the engine fires quickly before settling to a bassy, burbling idle. The turbocharged 1.8-litre has been seen in the Alpine A110, but for the Mégane it’s been treated to a few choice upgrades. The cylinder head’s been breathed on by Renault’s Formula 1 boffins, while there’s also a new, faster-acting twin-scroll turbo, and the same mirror coating of the cylinder bores as the Nissan GT-R’s V6. Serious stuff, but the resulting power and torque figures of 205kW and 390Nm are class competitive rather than class leading.

Selecting Drive and moving away, the sense of trepidation is almost overwhelming. Porsche has proved that when four-wheel steering is done well it enhances performance without detracting from the driving experience, but can Renault pull off the same trick? Guiding the Mégane over the first roundabout my heart sinks in unison with the oddly lazy sashay from the rear axle as it swings left-right-left a fraction of a second behind the front wheels. A little farther up the road are a series of quicker bends where I find myself having to open the meatily weighted steering a little after turn-in as the rear wheels’ eagerness to get in on the action has the nose pointing at the apex sooner than I anticipate.

However, there’s little time to dwell, as our mountain road destination has switched from breathtakingly beautiful to barely visible. Low clouds obscure the views, while rain combines with the dusty tarmac to create ice-like conditions. Any attempt to push the Mégane now would be foolhardy and risk a red-faced call to Renault explaining that its pride and joy is parked in a granite rock face.

Megane RS

While I’m disappointed not to get the measure of the RS or its trick steering, the return trip reveals plenty of reasons to be cheerful. The engine is better than expected, feeling much stronger than its small capacity and average power and torque figures would suggest. It pulls hard from low revs and spins enthusiastically and rortily all the way to the 7000rpm cut-out. The experience is enhanced by the clever design of the exhaust back box. As engine speeds rise, the change in pressure causes gases to bypass a longer silencer tube and head for a shorter exit pipe, which results in a satisfying rasp when the engine’s extended and a muffled fusillade of pops and bangs on the overrun.

Yet it’s the damping that really steals the show, because as the road surface deteriorates it’s clear there’s real magic being weaved under your bum. Our car is on the standard suspension (a 10 per cent stiffer Cup set-up will be an option) but on these poorly surfaced Spanish roads it strikes just the right balance between control and comfort. There’s some firmness at low speed, but also an incredible plushness to the way the RS rides broken tarmac. Over really bad dips and crests I expect a sickening crash and shudder as the springs hit the limit of their travel, but instead the Mégane simply shrugs off the compression and continues at unabated speed. This incredible composure is largely down to the hydraulic bump-stops. With the ability to be tuned for a wider array of stroke and load, this neat addition has allowed Renault Sport to avoid the need for costly and complicated adaptive dampers.

If there’s a weakness it’s the EDC transmission. The column-mounted paddles are too small and set too high, meaning manual shifts are an uncomfortable finger stretch away. The ’box also shifts up automatically even when manual changes are selected in Sport mode. Race mode gives full control, but here the changes are delivered with a jolt clearly designed to hint at race-bred sportiness but which actually prove a little irritating.

It’s still dark when we set off the following morning, but the star-filled sky and dry roads suggest the weather will be on our side. Before long the sun is up and xwe’re bearing down on our destination road, the A-374 that wriggles its way through the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. A mix of tight hairpins and fast sweepers, it’s hemmed in by vertigo-inducing cliff faces and perilous drops. It’s here that the Mégane and I click.

Megane RS

The dry tarmac allows me to exploit the prodigious grip and lean harder on a chassis that’s up there with the very best. The trick is to be more measured and economical with your inputs and allow the four-wheel steer to do its thing. Worked like this the Mégane comes alive, slicing through quick corners with incredible poise and stability, while slower stuff is dispatched with uncanny agility.

The 4Control makes most sense in Sport or Race, 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 to deliver the sort of angle of attack that usually happens when the rear has come unstuck and is gently rotating. It’s eerie at first, but trust it and the Mégane can pick apart roads with phenomenal dexterity and pace.

Yet there’s also genuine interaction and throttle adjustability, giving you options on entry, mid-corner and on exit. Renault Sport’s Frey is right about it not feeling like a four-wheel-steer car, but it doesn’t feel like it’s two-wheel steer either; instead, it delivers unique sensations. The only cause for concern is the slight squirm and wriggle of torque-steer on some bumpy and heavily crowned surfaces, but hopefully this will be cured by the Torsen differential on the Cup cars.

Speaking of which, we have three laps of Jerez in a pre-production Cup-chassis car with a manual gearbox. The smooth surface means it’s impossible to tell what effect the stiffer springs and dampers have on the ride, but there’s enough time to discover that pushed hard the Mégane RS is pointy, expressive and endowed with just enough feedback to make things interesting. This short stint also confirms that the six-speed manual’s precise and short throw will make it the transmission of choice.

So, has Renault Sport rediscovered its mojo? It’s clear the Mégane RS is shot through with real magic. Factor in the impending arrival of a 221kW Trophy model and it’s clear there’s plenty to be excited about. Of course, we’ll have to wait to get the RS on local roads and put it up against the Civic Type R before we can grant it champ status, but all the signs suggest it’ll be one of the closest and most thrilling battles of 2018.

James Disdale

Specificatiom:
Engine: In-line 4-cyl, 1798cc, turbo
Power: 205kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 390Nm @ 2400-4800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed dual clutch (option), front-wheel drive
Front suspension: MacPherson struts, coil springs, passive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension: Torsion beam, coil springs, passive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes: 355mm ventilated front discs, 290mm solid rear discs
Wheels: 18in front and rear
Tyres: 235/40 R18 front and rear
Weight: 1430kg Power-to-weight 143kW/tonne
0-100km/h: 5.8sec (claimed)
Top speed: 250km/h (claimed)
Basic price: c$45,000 (est)
evo rating: 4