PORT ELIZABETH – Like a pride of lions woken from slumber by the scent of a foreign predator entering into its territory, you have to wonder whether the faint sound of chirping tyres heard some 30 km upwind at Volkswagen’s Uitenhage headquarters this week piqued the interest of any number of the brand’s Golf GTI models resting in the den. Indeed, even if the selection of the newly refurbished Aldo Scribante racing circuit as the venue for the launch of the all-new Renault Mégane RS was purely coincidental, the pricing and positioning of the third-generation RS range certainly serve as a warning shot across the bow of the long-established king of this segment’s sales.
Especially revered for their dynamic ability, each of the previous two generations of Mégane RS may have had the measure of the equivalent GTI of the day when it came to carving up a race track yet, indeed, few modern rivals, including the Mégane, have ultimately been able to match the legendary Volkswagen when it comes to offering owners a genuine blend of everyday usability and surefooted, if not quite scalpel-like, dynamic prowess.
And while die-hard fans of cars such as the Honda Civic Type R and previous Mégane RS derivative may scoff at comparisons with the “soft” Golf GTI, rival marketing departments certainly wouldn’t mind a slightly larger slice of the monthly sales pie enjoyed by the broader-appealing VW.
In an intriguing power play, Renault South Africa has chosen to simultaneously launch two versions of the new Mégane RS 280 into the market. Priced identically, a Lux version aims to cater to the GTI-type buyer keen on maintaining a modicum of daily comfort within their RS package, while the altogether sharper Cup derivative looks to appease enthusiasts.
Though downsized from the 2,0-litre mill that serviced in the previous model, the new turbocharged 1,8-litre engine nevertheless offers 205 kW and 390 N.m of torque between 2 400 and 4 500 r/min. The first notable difference between the Lux and Cup derivatives is the presence of a six-speed EDC dual-clutch transmission in the former, while the Cup is fitted exclusively with a six-speed manual ‘box. Curiously, despite the notably fast reactions of this heavily revised dual-clutch transmission, including its launch control function, Renault claims an identical 0-100 km/h sprint time of 5,8 seconds for both cars.
Some 60 mm wider at the front and 45 mm broader at the rear compared with a standard Mégane, there’s a welcome level of presence around the new RS, even before optional bright yellow or new Orange Tonic paintwork is specced. Like the recently introduced Clio RS, the Mégane also features the brand's slightly gimmicky (yet altogether functional) RS Vision foglamp clusters.
Making the most of the car’s wider stance, Renault has stretched the RS’s track widths, front and rear, by 41 mm and 26 mm, respectively. While the 18-inch alloys on the Lux spec can be optioned (at R8 070) up to the 19-inch items fitted standard to the Cup, the latter variant remains distinguishable via its red brake callipers.
Under-the-skin differences between the two new Mégane RS derivatives include a more forgiving Sport suspension setup on the Lux model and a firmer (by around 20%) Cup arrangement for the manual model. That said, the Cup package also includes a mechanical limited-slip differential up front.
Interior upgrades for both RS derivatives include impressively comfortable bucket seats, a healthy splash of chrome and carbon-look trim bits, suitably sporty instrument cluster updates and a nicely moulded steering wheel. It’s a pity Renault couldn’t find place for the car’s RS mode button– for scrolling between driving modes (from comfort to race and a “perso” individual setup)– somewhere on the wheel, as opposed to its less obvious placement among the climate control buttons on the facia. Also less then ideal (despite what the Italians may tell you) are transmission paddles fixed to the steering column rather then to the wheel itself...
Heading out for a series of flying laps around the technical Aldo Scribante circuit, my first attempt was somewhat more eventful than planned, as the RS’s new "4 Control" rear-wheel steering makes the initial turn-in that much more pronounced. Indeed, in race mode and with the stability control dialled out accordingly, it took a few more laps of correcting playful oversteer before I found the optimal balance between entry, mid-corner and exit speeds, eventually putting together a respectably neat lap.
That said, and keeping in mind this was both the least track-focussed of the two suspension setups and that the rear-wheel steering can be calibrated for sensitivity via the other four driving modes, I found the otherwise impressively well balanced Mégane RS Lux to be more intricate and sensitive to small changes in driving styles then the likes of the Civic Type R. Indeed, I appreciated the fact that I needed to learn how to get the best out of it rather than simply getting in and pinning the throttle. The last fast hatch that asked the same in terms of a period of acclimatisation was the Ford Focus RS.
And therein lies my as-yet unresolved conundrum with the new Mégane RS. Like the Focus RS’s clever all-wheel-drive system that ultimately allows its driver a modicum of rear-wheel-drive action behind the wheel, has Renault made the new RS more complicated than it needs to be? For all the fun I had on the track, I came away wondering whether I wouldn’t have been both neater and faster were the rear wheels fixed in one position, such is the competency of the rest of the package.
One further reservation I hold (and, trust me, I look forward to more time behind the wheel and figuring it out) is how well the firmer suspension setup on the Cup car will cope with our generally poor road surfaces. As it stands, the Lux model, complete with its rally inspired hydraulic “bump stop” dampers, offers a well modulated ride already erring on the firm side.
Look out for a full road test of the Renault Mégane RS 280 Lux in the October 2018 issue of CAR...