JEREZ, Spain – Renault Sport is known for its ability to infuse run-of-the-mill vehicles with race-bred technology, often instantly transforming them into cult cars. The previous-generation Mégane RS is one such example. Owners of these special cars know that, although their steeds may not hold much in the way of executive appeal, once the chips are down, the RS is able to respond like few cars in the hot-hatch category.
With this in mind, I find myself behind the wheel of the new Mégane RS in a mountainous region outside Jerez. Skipping the Comfort and Normal driving modes, I head straight for the "RS" button to select the Sport setting, turning the instrument dials red, sharpening throttle response and setting the transmission on high alert. Once pointing in the intended direction, I plant the accelerator. The front wheels screech and I find myself fighting torque steer, making straight-line acceleration tougher than I expected. Slightly bemused, I ease off the throttle to let the car settle – this is not the planted-under-full-attack RS I remember.
This notion is confirmed when I turn in hard at the first corner. The front end struggles for grip on entry and wheel-spin slides the car wide on exit. The Sport chassis comes without a limited slip differential (LSD) and it is clear that the electronics are not able to deal with the 390 N.m onslaught. Has the Mégane RS gone soft?
A more mature Megane
In a segment where the Volkswagen Golf GTI positively dominates sales, it's evident that the French brand's marketing department has handed a new set of requirements to the Renault Sport development team. The result is a practical five-door body (no three-door option will be offered), a new dual-clutch (EDC) automatic transmission, a downsized 1,8-litre engine and more pliant, non-adjustable suspension employing hydraulic bump stops. Something new to the segment is four-wheel steering, which ostensibly aids dynamic ability below 60 km/h (or 100 km/h in Race mode) and stability at higher speeds.
Measured approach needed
Backing off to nine-tenths road driving (as opposed to outright hooliganism), the Mégane feels more at home. Where the four-wheel steering provoked some oversteer before, the car now tracks true round slow bends. More restraint on the throttle allows the front wheels to find grip and I realise just how comfortable the suspension set-up is over broken surfaces. The new six-speed EDC transmission, gearbox technology similar to the one that was the subject of much criticism in the Clio RS, feels well suited to this application. Thankfully so, since the fixed shift paddles are sited too high for easy operation (and the gear shift lever is devoid of a manual shift function).
It quickly struck me that the new RS will offer the general public more in terms of all-round ability at the (slight) expense of on-the-edge performance. Comfort mode confirms this view as the Renault becomes a capable cruiser that still offers a good turn of speed when overtaking is required. It's a pity, however, that the EDC transmission does not allow the engine to rev out when not in Sport or Race modes.
From the outside, the RS appears muscular but in a stylish way, resulting in an arresting design that's even better in the metal. It's 60 mmm wider and 5 mm lower than the Mégane GT, with just enough wheel-arch flare to get noticed, without attracting the wrong kind of attention. The front grille features a splitter element while the central exhaust is framed by a diffuser in a nod to this model's motorsport pedigree.
Inside, it's a big step up from the old car, building on the interior of the GT but adding RS-specific details on the seats, steering wheel and door sills. In short, Renault has aimed for a sporty and upmarket cabin, but has only just missed the mark thanks to the use of some inferior quality plastics in the lower dash region. The tablet-like touchscreen infotainment system, meanwhile, is sometimes a little clunky to operate, with a pesky delay between commands.
So, is the new Mégane (in Sport chassis guise) a disappointment? If you evaluate the vehicle purely on ultimate performance (as most existing RS customers likely would) then the answer might be "yes". Indeed, these customers would do well to wait for the Cub (or indeed Trophy) version. The Mégane Sport is more mature than before and aims to attract new buyers to the brand by offering the sort of practicality, ease of use and driving entertainment for which its main competitor has become known (while also offering a sense of individualism in a predominantly white, silver and grey car park).
On track in the Cup chassis
Climbing into the Mégane RS with Cub chassis at the Jerez circuit, I find myself shivering. It could be the four-degrees Celsius ambient temperature or the fact that I'm about to tackle the famous MotoGP circuit in a hot-hatch developed to entertain. The 1,8-litre engine still delivers 205 kW (the Trophy version next year will sport a Honda Civic Type R-rivalling 221 kW), but is now connected to the front wheels via a Torsen LSD and six-speed manual gearbox. The firmer suspension set-up includes roll bars that are a notch stiffer than on the Sport as well. This is the only version of the Cup that our market will get (in October 2018).
After a sighting lap, the instructor leaves the circuit, allowing me three flying laps. It takes just one corner to realise that this is another vehicle altogether compared with the Sport. Turn-in is sharper and the LSD allows much better acceleration out of the corners on the same Bridgestone rubber. I toggle the drive setting to Race, disabling the electronic safety net, and go on maximum attack.
This is how an RS should behave, gratefully accepting brutal gear-shifts and overly enthusiastic cornering. Eventually, understeer again sets in, while the rear becomes light under certain cornering scenarios, keeping me on my toes (the RS monitor handily records data for later analysis). Ultimately, there is still room for improvement (I'm eager to sample the Trophy at a later stage), but this is indeed a promising start...