This Renault is all about performance
Renault has been building hot hatches for almost as long as Volkswagen, the inventor of the genre.
From the first Renault 5, right through various hot Clios, the government-linked company has taken the game to the opposition, producing harder-edged products than the all-rounders you find with VW and Ford badges on them.
Drive train: Transverse FWD turbocharged in-line 1998cc four. Six-speed manual transmission.
Drive train: Transverse FWD turbocharged in-line 1998cc four. Six-speed manual transmission.
Click photo at left for more views of Renault's hot Sport Megane.
Renault was the first to turbo-charge its hot hatches, and the company even put its engines where the rear seat should be - driving the rear wheels, of course - to create some of the most skittish Fives and Clios you could ever drive.
By comparison, the latest RS265 version of the Megane is almost generic.
The engine is where other makers' are: In the front, driving the front wheels, and though the car is more a coupe than a two-box shopping basket, it is a hot-hatch and a very quick one, as it happens.
The two-sixty-five comes from the car's horsepower and to put that into context, petrolheads of a certain age will recognise it as exactly the same number of horses as the triple carburetted Jaguar XK engine used in the E-type and Mark X all those years ago. It might surprise people that the French would use horsepower rather than kilowatts, as we do, but car magazines use the suffix "ch" or "cv" for chevaux, as in the 2CV for instance. Anyway, it's a lot more impressive than RS195, which is what it would be in multiples of 1kW bar-heaters instead of power in more convincing equine values. So RS265 it is, a full 15 horses or 11kW up on the previous hottest Megane, the RS250. Funny, that.
First, it looks a treat. For this isn't a hot hatch per se, a la Ford Focus ST and VW Golf GTi, it's a coupe, and when you get inside - and this won't be easy - you can tell. It is a dark and dingy drive if you're a rear passenger and you'll have to hunch because of the rear roof-line, and be sure that the two front occupants can cope without using the full travel of the front seats. You won't enjoy it back there.
The driver won't enjoy the letterbox-slim rear view, either, and they'll need all they can get, as the swoopy black-muzzled, yellow two-plus-two is a cop magnet. I was followed very closely on more than one occasion, by large white, blue and orange cars while driving "curious yellow" as I nick-named the car.
The car's profile is very pretty indeed however, and with well-crafted wheel-arch blisters - the front ones vented - to add some musculature, the RS is distanced from the ordinary Megane from which it is derived.
Under its wide, bottom-dweller's snout, is Renault Sport's latest derivative of its high output, 2.0-litre, turbocharged transverse four, whose latest claim to fame is making the RS265 the quickest front-drive car around the famous Nurburgring. The old record was held by the previous RS250 version of the car.
As well as the extra power over the old model, the new car has a lower ride height and a limited slip differential. This is along with some cosmetic work done at the front end and the inclusion of daytime running lights, and a slight fiddle with the interior.
There are two versions of the car: The Cup model, which for $53,990 fronts up with rear parking sensors (which you will need, trust me) automatic lights and wipers, and cruise control (again, a necessity if you're to avoid uttering that plaintive: "Sorry, officer").
The big visual difference between the Cup model and the $59,900 top of the lineup Trophy, is 18-inch instead of 19-inch alloy rims. The upper echelon model also gets racier Recaro bucket seats, a tyre pressure monitor and keyless entry/start.
The key to tapping into the RS265 extra 15 horsepower is the traction control button to the right of the steering column, which has three settings to choose from: On, Off and Sport. In the latter settings, the throttle response is more direct and you get more surge and more noise.
The reason you have to specifically "ask" for the extra 11kW, is because the standard 184kW/250hp setting is the only one that allows the RS to sneak past EU emissions laws.
With everything dialled in - or "off", in fact - the RS265 will catapult to the legal limit in six seconds flat, though I only managed 6.3 seconds. How do I know?
Well, once you learn how everything works - not easy without a handbook - the standard trip computer can be turned into a race and performance timer that allows you to record and store lap and quarter mile (400 metres) times and most of all that arbitrary measurement, the zero to 100kmh time. It also tells you how hard you are cornering, but this is all irrelevant for day-to-day driving, and absolutely perfect for track days.
So, despite hooking the clutch release quite well and trying not to be a pussycat by allowing natural mechanical sympathy to take over, I was three-tenths off the car's full potential pub-bragging 100kmh time. I was quite pleased, truth be known. As the car growls to its power peak, it imparts a good old-fashioned high performance four-cylinder sound, and on the brief overrun between gears, you can detect the slightest turbo "snort" just like a modern rally car.
On the smoothest of surfaces, the Renault offers remarkable grip and traction. The tyres stick like glue to the decided line, unless a bump comes along to spoil things and with the perfectly chunky steering wheel rim communicating about things going on below, you soon learn to trust the car's messages. It will slice tightly through apexes and then bound through the chosen line with extraordinary accuracy, and so second-nature are the car's shift and clutch actions that they never interfere with the process of steering and enjoying the car.
For less hell-for-leather driving, the car is, for the most part, pretty civilised, with strong, accessible torque between 2500 and 5000rpm and the ability to leave the gearshift alone. It accelerates with more than enough urge to distance itself from mere mortal hatchbacks, almost without trying.
I say for the most part, because for normal New Zealand roads, it's a pity the RS's new stiffened and lowered chassis is not as adjustable as the powertrain. It crashes and bangs into and over bumps and potholes, and though kickback and torque steer is not an issue on smooth tarmacadam, the opposite is true when you have to cope with broken surfaces. This is exacerbated by the fact that lolling back in the RS's supportive and comfortable seats, you're not in the best position to spot such elements before they're upon you.
However, the steering is lovely, with just the right kind of resistance and with sufficient power assistance to make parking and town work easy without compromising higher speed driving.
Most of the time, with the patience to watch extra hard for items likely to affect the suspension, the Renault really is a pussycat. But you can't help wondering why you have all that performance for everyday driving, when to all intents and purposes, you can only really use it properly on the track. Which is as it should be, of course.
Driving day-to-day, Renault suggests the RS265 will manage just over eight litres per 100kmh if you're careful. I didn't manage that, but this car is obviously not bought for its planet friendliness or economy.
For the driver and front passenger, the Renault supplies two fabulous low-slung and grippy seats, but as I said before, the rear is not a place for taking adults for an extended tour. The steering wheel is delightful, but cannot be adjusted for height sufficiently for my taste.
Nearly everything else is a disappointment in the cabin. While the on-board computer is full of fun and talent, the stereo, whose screen is separated from the buttons that control it by 20cm, is a non-intuitive device that requires a lot of effort if it is to be tuned correctly. Having said that, it has Renault's terrific steering wheel controls to make up for that.
For a car that delivers such a sense of occasion about the way it handles and drives, the dash and minor controls are a disappointment with hard surfaces and a clacky feel about a lot of operations. I could forgive this in a base Megane, but not in a car costing $20,000 more.
The car's balance and well-contained body control conspire with its rapier-accurate steering and the smooth, flexible powertrain to make brisk cross-country travel a delight on the right roads. With that black-painted nose nuzzling from corner to corner and cruise control hooked-in for the South Island's more heavily observed arrow-straight stretches, the RS265 is a fine drive.
However, the winces as you pass over less-than-perfect examples of the road-builders art do tend to spoil things a tad, and for that reason some might opt for a Focus ST or Golf GTi with the added benefit of their superior rear accommodation as well as patently better ride quality.
But if regular track days are your bag, or the occasional tarmac rally, the Ford and VW just won't see which way the Renault went.
It all depends on your priorities and the Renault RS265 priorities are performance, performance and oh yes, performance.
I wanted to love this sexy French coupe/hatchback, but for all its talent and outright speed and amazingly entertaining and tactile manner in track conditions, its harsh ride is too compromised for my daily commute.