TWO in the Honda, three in the Renault. That’s how many steps it takes in each car to transform the infotainment screen into a lap timer. While the inclusion of such telemetry on older-generation hatches would have been dismissed as marketing gimmickry, in modern terms it emphasises the new (admittedly social media-fuelled) standard by which the latest breed of scorched hatchbacks are judged. The cardinal measurement of the moment is a timed lap around the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife.
That said, search online for any recent Nordschleife track-day footage and the number of Renaultsport-fettled products – both new and old – circulating at the head of the field will astound you. And, based on CAR’s track experience with hatches bearing the mark of Renault’s in-house performance division, it’s usually the hottest Mégane of the day – currently represented in our market by the RS 275 Trophy – that sets the benchmark for what a performance-focused hatch is capable of.
Delve a little deeper into that online search, however, and you’ll come across recent footage of a pre-production Honda hatch with red badging blasting its way towards a new (and quite astonishing) Nürburgring lap record for a front-wheel-driven car of 07:50,63. It is a record previously held by, you guessed it, a Renaultsport Mégane…
Realise that Honda spent three full years pursuing this lap time and you begin to understand why the Type R version of the ninth-generation Civic took so long to be granted the production green light, and why it looks the way it does.
Garish to some, few can deny the sense of purpose (and, ultimately, function) behind the Type R’s lavishly flared and perforated aluminium wheelarches, near-smooth underbody, moulded diffuser and, of course, that wing. So outlandish is the hottest Civic’s body kit that it threatens to make the car’s standard 19-inch alloys appear modest by comparison. That these lightweight items, which house bespoke 350 mm Brembo brake discs, are fitted with specially developed Continental Sport Contact 6 rubber, comes as a reminder of the lengths to which Honda has gone to ensure the new Type R conquers all.
With Renault having just unveiled an all-new Mégane at the Frankfurt Motor Show, it’s safe to assume the Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy (and tuned Trophy-R in other markets) will be the final hurrah for this much-lauded, seven-year-old, third-generation vehicle.
Parked alongside the Honda Civic Type R – and ignoring the distinct Sirius Yellow colour scheme on our test unit – the cosmetic enhancements to the 275 Trophy look positively subtle. Based on the lithe Mégane Coupé body, the Trophy is distinguishable by its grey F1-type front blade and standard centre-mounted and carbon-tipped Akrapovič exhaust pipe. Not to be outdone by its Japanese rival, this hottest Mégane also features massive Brembo brakes at all four corners; their presence is highlighted by red callipers clearly visible behind blackened 19-inch alloy wheels.
There’s no shortage of red accents in the cabins of both hot hatches. Where Honda has coated the moulded front bucket seats in this crimson hue, the ultimately more comfortable (read: forgiving) Recaro items fitted to the Renault settle on stitching and seat belts for accentuation.
Between the flair of the French and the exuberance of the Japanese, neither the ageing Mégane nor the somewhat haphazard facia of the Civic are particularly user-friendly. That said, each cockpit has been lifted above the ordinary by small, yet significant, bespoke touches. For the Trophy, this means a perfectly moulded Alcantara-clad steering wheel and billet aluminium racing pedals and gearknob. The pièce de résistance in the Civic’s cabin – racing-inspired pedals and gearshift indicator lights aside – is a welcome return of the legendary titanium gearknob.
While this beautifully finished gearknob and the wonderfully precise six-speed manual transmission it operates will be familiar fare to fans of hot Hondas, the engine is altogether foreign. For the first time in Type R history, Honda has chosen to forego its high-revving naturally aspirated pedigree in favour of turbocharging.
Rather than abandon its famed VTEC variable valve-lift technology, in the hottest Civic this system has been re-engineered to work in conjunction with the single turbocharger in an effort to minimise lag. The result is a strong 228 kW at 6 500 r/min, with 400 N.m of torque available between 2 500 and 4 500 r/min. While it doesn’t quite offer the same eardrum-pounding 8 000 r/min redline as the previous generation, the new Type R’s direct-injection engine nevertheless spins to a 7 000 r/min limit.
While the 275 Trophy’s peak power is available 1 000 r/min earlier than the Honda’s, the most powerful turbocharged 2,0-litre Mégane to date makes do with 201 kW and 360 N.m of torque. The additional 6 kW gained over its 265 sibling is as a result of a revised ECU and, as mentioned, the fitment of a lightweight, titanium Akrapovič exhaust system.
The throttle-open soundtrack emitted by the 275 Trophy’s new tailpipe is brutish. Similar in tone to that of the Opel Astra OPC, there’s a jet engine-like white noise that adds aural drama to proceedings as the rev needle sweeps towards the 6 500 r/min redline. Launched with initial restraint on the throttle, the Trophy recorded a fastest 0-100 km/h sprint time of 6,28 seconds.
Featuring a tailpipe per cylinder, the Type R’s exhaust note is disappointingly muted compared with the Renault’s, but it compensates with a smile-inducing flurry of whistles and exhales from the turbo wastegate. As with the Trophy, it’s the careful management of the throttle to limit wheelspin that results in optimal launches from standstill. Ultimately, the Type R achieved a best 0-100 km/h sprint time of 6,0 seconds flat.
Such is the strength of its engine that the Civic was able to accelerate from 60 to 120 km/h in fourth gear in just 6,35 seconds. The Renault, in turn, needed 7,74 seconds.
On the road
As track-focused as both hatches are, it’s little surprise neither offers the same level of everyday usability as the Volkswagen Golf R. However, despite the Renault’s heavy clutch and a firmer-than-average default ride on both cars, each manufacturer should be applauded for remembering that their hot hatches still need to be driven to and from the track – and possibly via the grocery store.
Where the Mégane offers three driving modes, the Civic affords a choice of two. The buttons to tweak their systems are marked RS in the Renault and R in the Honda, and are able to adjust the sensitivity of the throttle (heightened), steering (firmer) and amount of stability control intervention at the touch of a button. Where the French model offers a halfway-mark sport mode before RS is activated, the Civic’s party trick is a 30% stiffer damper rating once race mode is selected.
Although the Honda’s firmest damper setting proved too harsh for the average Western Cape road surface, there can be no denying the heightened sense of occasion the Type R exudes when heading into a sequence of corners. While Honda has opted for conventional torsion-beam rear suspension in this application, its new dual-axis front setup and limited-slip differential not only provide exceptional turn-in precision, but also perform an admirable job of coping with torque steer.
Even in race mode, the steering remains relatively light and, combined with a sensitive throttle, orchestral soundtrack and the sight of those gearshift indicator lights visible over the steering wheel rim, the experience of driving the Type R at the limit is an exhilarating one.
By contrast, while an experienced driver will be able to exploit the Honda’s superior power and torque to eke out a gap over a trailing RS 275, the Mégane’s sheer composure is difficult to ignore. Where the French car’s Bridgestone-sourced front tyres ultimately can’t curb understeer as well as the sticky, bespoke rubber fitted to the Civic, a flex of the right foot and a minor adjustment on the perfectly weighted steering effortlessly tugs the Mégane’s nose back into line. If Honda has done well to counter torque steer in the Civic, Renault has all but eliminated it.