It’s no wonder the world is going automatic. Long gone are the days when losing a clutch pedal also meant sacrificing a gear ratio or two, as well as a great wad of performance. About the only thing anyone could miss from the bad old days of glacial small autos is some of the marketing names, though whoever thought ‘Toyoglide’ gave an impression of speed had clearly never driven one.
If you love driving, nothing beats the pleasure of a great manual. And if you don’t mind lowering your aspirations to the bottom end of the small hatchback market, there’s a wealth of sharp-shifting manuals waiting to tempt the Fangio in all of us.
Europeans worship the manual gearbox almost as much as the Greeks love smoking, so it’s no surprise that Peugeot, Renault and Volkswagen open their nifty-handling Peugeot 308, Renault Megane and Volkswagen Golf ranges with six-speed, three-pedal variants.
In the Volksy, you can have a manual in either the $21,490 base car or the retiree-tinged $25,240 Comfortline, but not the beautifully finished Highline (even though it exclusively offers a sporty R-Line package). The Frenchies, however, only serve up a manual in their entry-level specials – the $20,990 Megane Authentique and $21,990 308 Access – or their performance models. So we’ve gathered the cream of the affordable Euro crop, all sub-$22K yet also surprisingly flash for the poverty end of the market.
Well, the Golf and 308 are. The Renault Megane is a different story, from a different era seeing its DNA dates back to 2008, which helps explain its dour interior and lack of visual sizzle. In Authentique spec, you’re seeing a Megane for what it really is, without the trick Recaro seats and brightly coloured belts of its Renaultsport stablemates to liven up the place. About the only moment of sparkle in the Megane’s cabin is its interesting semi-digital instrument set-up because the rest is darker than an Arctic winter. Even chrome door handles can’t save it, though a more adventurous seat fabric would’ve gone a long way to making the Megane less dull. Rumours that Joe Hockey did the ‘working poor’ cabin fit-out are unfounded.
Alongside the austere Renault, the Pug and Volksy are almost flamboyant. The base 308 misses out on the high-design centre touchscreen of more expensive variants, but the architectural shape of its dashboard and the flourishes of aluminium trim and textured upholstery give it a massive leg-up over the Megane. And while the base Volkswagen Golf still has an air of German restraint, its lush plastics, crisp instruments and beautiful leather-bound steering wheel make it feel genuinely special, as does its luxury-car refinement.
If you look closely, the Golf’s in-cabin superiority runs far beyond having this trio’s only leather wheel. An excellent multi-adjustable centre-front armrest above a front storage bin, a sliding cover for its cupholders, touchscreen multimedia, remote window opening, rear-seat air vents and a parcel shelf that can be stored below the boot floor are all just about unheard of at 30 grand, let alone 22. The only ‘exclusives’ the French pair can offer are LED daytime running lights on the Peugeot and the Renault’s five-year warranty and full-size spare. That said, one unexpected upside of the Megane Authentique’s alloy-esque wheelcovers is that underneath them hides a set of styled black steelies for a bit of Skyline GT-R menace (see p.78). Especially with the test car’s optional Diamond Black paint.
Sadly, that’s where the GT-R connotations end for the Renault. Its 97kW/205Nm 1.2-litre turbo four – an uprated version of the same donk in the Clio – is no powerhouse, though a 17.4sec standing-400m time ain’t too shabby for a large-ish hatch with a small engine.
Stretched to its 6400rpm redline, the Megane’s zingy engine sounds sportier, if much louder, than the Golf’s less powerful 1.4 turbo, and its in-gear response is right on the money. Almost identical to the Golf and 308 from 80-120km/h in third and fourth gears, the Megane falls away in fifth but is stronger than the Golf in sixth.
Where it drops the ball, though, is in shift feel. Its firm, short-travel clutch and meaty gearchange lack the crispness that makes the Peugeot and Volkswagen manuals so pleasant to use. Combine that with the softness of the Renault’s turbo boost and throttle response, and you’re left feeling slightly dissatisfied. But there’s definitely some latent potential. How
about more boost please, Regie?
The Golf’s 90kW/200Nm 1.4-litre turbo four is an elastic, stress-free worker, not an object of sporting inspiration. It’s all about tractable response and
mid-range effortlessness, yet it doesn’t object to being stirred along via the Golf’s slick six-speed gearchange. Even when you do, fuel economy remains outstanding, but there’s a better petrol engine here and it belongs to the Peugeot.
Given the worker-bee quality of most mass-market French petrols, it’s a revelation that Peugeot’s ‘Pure Tech’ 1.2-litre turbo triple is such a fantastic engine. On paper, its 96kW/230Nm outputs aren’t greatly different to the Renault’s, yet there’s a sparkle to the Peugeot’s throttle response, and a sweetness to its power delivery that raises this engine to another level. Without question, this is the greatest three-cylinder engine of all time, with the possible exception of some obscure mad-bastard domestic-market Daihatsu from the 1980s.
Not only does the Pug exude that thrummy three-pot character, it does so without affecting its refinement. Quieter than the Golf, yet much spritelier than the Megane, the 308’s engine blends loads of chubby boost (peak torque is just 10Nm less than the 308 1.6 turbo’s) with a smoothness that hasn’t always been a given in a three-pot donk. And it has a lovely metal knob topping a gearshift that is notchier than the Golf’s, demanding more dextrous use of the clutch to approach the Volkswagen’s slickness, though greater mileage should free it up more.
Where the Megane claws back some ground, and ultimately argues the strongest case for itself, is on a twisty road. It’s the easiest car of the three to simply jump into and drive hard, displaying instant poise and adjustability from a lifted throttle that enhances its involvement, and elevates its handling to a level far beyond most of the competition at its $21K price point. Indeed, the Megane’s co-operative back end proves that torsion-beam bums are what you make of them, and that this pseudo driver’s car has more than a hint of Renaultsport about its chassis.
The slightly left-field Peugeot requires greater acclimatisation, but is similarly enthusiastic. As soon as you slip into its supportive driver’s seat, it feels vastly different to the Golf and Megane, with both an unusual and interesting driving environment. Its little steering wheel is brilliant, though unfortunately not leather in Access grade, and its driving position is fine once you get used to the low-set wheel position, its instrument pack sitting right up in your eyeline, and its reverse-swinging tacho.
But the 308’s chassis is instantly up for it. It’s much more reactive to mid-corner throttle adjustments than the Golf, and while it feels more softly sprung than the Megane, the 308’s sharp steering, quick turn-in and terrific body control give it a layer of dynamic polish that the handling-biased Renault fails to achieve. And the 308 does so with personality and panache.
In the Golf, everything harmonises with such lovely, seamless fluidity that you almost don’t notice how capable it is at first because you just feel so calm and relaxed when driving it. The VW’s big steering wheel and the on-centre aloofness of its steering are in sharp contrast to the Peugeot’s hyper keenness, but its chassis is sweetly balanced and its refinement continues to be a highlight. Pity the driver’s seat doesn’t offer lumbar adjustment, though, and its somewhat squeal-prone 195/65R15 Michelin Energy Savers don’t seem to have the wet-road purchase of the French pair’s Goodyear Efficient Grip tyres – 195/65R15s on the Peugeot and sportier 205/55R16s on the Renault.
But the Golf holds one invincible ace up its sleeve and that’s ride. The quiet and serene fashion with which it blots virtually any road surface is exceptional for any car, let alone a small hatchback. The entry-level Golf is truly a luxury car in a concentrate, with class-leading rear seat room and comfort, and little extras such as individual map lights and fully lined door bins designed to take 1.5-litre water bottles.
The Peugeot runs the Volkswagen close for ride and refinement, with a suppleness that has been missing from French hatchbacks for way too long, though there are moments you can tell it has a torsion-beam rear end, not the Golf’s multi-link IRS. A series of challenging mid-corner bumps expose a shifting in its rear end that serves as a reminder of its non-independence, though the 308’s rear-biased balance and eagerness to change direction more than compensate.
What really puts distance between the Pug and VW, though, is the Peugeot’s emphasis on its front-seat package. Up front, it’s terrific, but jump into the back and it’s impossible not to notice the seat’s lack of under-thigh support – you sit with legs completely splayed – and the marginal foot and toe room if both front seats are cranked to their lowest positions. Clearly, if you value rear-seat acreage, you’ll need to stretch to the long-wheelbase 308 wagon. Still, it could be worse. You could be in the Renault.
While the Megane’s upright rear seat is reasonably supportive and headroom is quite generous, you wouldn’t call it luxurious by any means. Loud road rumble exposes the Megane’s seven-year vintage and the non-height-adjustable front passenger seat makes life hell for any adult sitting in the back-left spot, staring directly at the front headrest. It would be much better for kids, though even wee little ones would notice the lateral head toss on bumpy roads and the suspension’s inability to settle down, even when carrying a load.
So while the Megane Authentique’s handling talent and its sharp $20,990 starting price scream base-model value, its drab and dated interior, and its lack of visual sizzle, make it almost seem expensive. Then again, with its mega warranty, capped-price servicing, five-star safety and impressively vast boot, the boggo Megane manual would be a pretty good starter car, especially for someone who values driving entertainment. Lose the wheelcovers, chip the ECU, fit a performance exhaust, upgrade the speakers…
The 308 Access might be $1000 dearer, but in some ways it feels twice the Renault’s price. Its cabin, for instance, is vastly more modern and interesting, and its crisply styled exterior becomes more handsome the longer you look at it – especially those indecently sexy hubcaps. But it’s the all-new Peugeot’s huge leap in refinement and sophistication over its ageing compatriot that puts it in another league.
Indeed, so great is the 308’s revival of Peugeot’s once-revered abilities that it’s a close run thing between it and Volkswagen’s COTY-winning Golf. Where the VW hits hard with its outstanding refinement and devastating breadth of ability, the Pug fires back with its chirpy personality, more entertaining dynamics and hugely endearing three-cylinder engine. In comparison, the Golf’s all-round slickness almost seems a tad boring. Brilliant, yes, but for some people, just not exciting enough, especially its styling.
What nudges the VW over the line, though, is its back half. The best rear seat in its class – Golf is a true five-seater – is supported by the best boot and a benchmark rear suspension set-up.
Yet in many ways, despite not being quite as perfect, the 308 is the more likeable package. It’s prettier, sportier, more fashionable, sounds charming, is slightly quicker, yet sips just as little fuel, and is definitely more unique.
It may not be one of the greatest all-rounders ever made, which in so many ways the Mk7 Golf is, but the 308’s character is infectious, and for car tragics like us, that’s something you can’t measure.
This article was originally published in Wheels magazine April 2015.