WHAT IS IT?
An all-new version of one of our favourite hot hatches. The old Megane RS was an absolute riot; analogue, mechanical and with a rare tactility, it boasted a level of driver connection and appeal that pushed it beyond more polished rivals like the Volkswagen Golf R.
WHY ARE WE DRIVING IT?
Because a lot has changed for this all-new fourth generation. It’s now significantly larger in every dimension, there’s an extra pair of doors, the 1.8-litre four cylinder petrol is box-fresh and there’s a newfound layer of electronic wizardry with additions like four-wheel steering (a first for this segment) and five drive modes. Here’s hoping all that newfound complexity hasn’t diluted the RS magic.
Read next: Hot hatch bargains at Yaris prices
THE WHEELS REVIEW
THE PROBLEM with creating an absolute ball-tearer of a hot hatch is that when the time comes to replace it, you also create certain expectations. Welcome to Renault’s challenge. The previous Megane RS was a riot; a three-door, manual-only screamer (especially in hardcore Trophy R guise) that trounced its more polished rivals for driver appeal and chassis tactility.
Razor sharp, analogue thrills have become the Megane RS’s schtick, but the game has changed since the previous-gen car appeared in 2009. We now have drift modes, the brilliant Civic Type R and a newcomer from Hyundai that is gobsmackingly brilliant straight out of the box. Renaultsport needed to up its game, which helps to explain why this fourth-generation Megane RS is so fundamentally different. The sole bodystyle is now a five-door; the 1.8-litre, Samsung-built turbo four-pot is all-new, and, for the first time, buyers have the choice of a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. There is fresh electronic wizardry afoot, too. The Megane RS is the only car in its class with four-wheel steering and there are now five drive modes to play with: Comfort, Neutral, Sport, Race and Perso.
And it looks brilliant. Tough, four-square and with taut sheet metal stretched over bulging guards that are 60mm wider at the front and 45mm at the rear compared to the regular Megane GT, the RS oozes a cohesive and aggressive visual presence that its rivals from Honda, Hyundai and VW can’t match.
Two chassis tunes are offered: a core Sport set-up that starts at $44,990 for the six-speed manual (dual-clutch adds $2500), or a more focused Cup chassis that for just $1490 adds an aggressive torsion limited-slip differential, lighter Brembo brakes (355mm discs up front, 290mm rear), a 10mm drop in ride height, and bespoke spring, damper and anti-roll bar rates that are roughly 10 percent stiffer.
Choosing between the two is harder than you think, unless you want the automatic gearbox, which will be around 60 percent of buyers according to Renault Oz. Perplexingly the Cup chassis option is manual only, which could be a source of frustration given its extraordinary value.
Still, don’t dismiss the Sport Megane with dual-clutch as the weakling of the range. It’s anything but. On scarred, knotted tarmac at the local launch, the entry-level Megane acquitted itself well, its ‘softer’ suspension tune lending a breath of pliancy missing in Cup equipped cars. Even so, there’s no escaping that it remains a taut proposition. There’ a sense of intent to the way it reads the road surface and transmits bumps and irregularities into the cabin, though the damping is brilliant. Controlled and with vice-like discipline, it never feels overly stiff or punishing, though the front tyres do occasionally chase the camber of the road and torque steer is apparent under hard acceleration.
The six-speed dual-clutch upholds its end of the bargain too. Smooth, intelligent and unobtrusive in city driving, it’s also quick and decisive when you’re on it, providing you select the right drive mode. Comfort is a fun-sapper; the ’box constantly looks to shift into the highest cog possible and the throttle and powertrain feel as though they’ve swallowed an entire bottle of Stilnox. Neutral is the sweet spot for everyday driving, but dialling in Sport or Race (the latter disables ESC) adds a welcome, and noticeable, dose of aggression. Full throttle upshifts are hammered home with an addictive <Braaaaap>, the weighting of the steering is meatier and the response from the 205kW/390Nm 1.8 is more assertive.
Read next: 2018 Renault Mégane RS: what’s new?
Sport versions miss out on the Cup’s Torsen LSD, instead relying on electronics for torque control, but for road driving, it’s no great loss. Out of tight first- and second-gear hairpins, the front axle just grips and goes, even with ham-fisted throttle inputs. There’s no fuss, no scrabbling, no spinning of the inside Bridgestone.
What does take some getting used to is the four-wheel steering. It pulls the usual trick of turning the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts at slow speeds (by up to 2.7 degrees) before moving in-phase as the velocity increases (up to 1.0 degree), but unlike some of the more subtle systems on offer, the effect in the Megane is pronounced. It never feels nervous, but the eagerness with which the chassis wants to turn can feel unnatural at times until you learn to trust that the grip is there. And there’s plenty of purchase. And balance. Adjust to the 4WS’s agility, and to the ultra-fast steering (it can feel darty to begin with and is so quick it’s easy to turn into corners too early), and there’s a lovely fluidity to the way the Megane RS covers ground.
To really exploit its dynamic depths, however, you need a circuit, and to step into the more focused, manual-only, Cup-chassis variant. At the tight and technical Norwell Motorplex outside of Brisbane, the RS is a hoot. Quick, raucous and communicative, it’s the adjustability of the chassis and the playfulness of the rear axle that define the experience. Lift off mid-corner and the rear will slide subtly to help tuck the nose into the apex. It’s a feeling enhanced by the 4WS, though this can be dialled back by engaging Perso mode and selecting neutral for the 4Control. Sharper lifts and decisive prods of the brake result in even bigger angles, though the way the rear-end breaks free is beautifully progressive and predictable.
None of this is to say there aren’t chinks in the armour of Renaultsport’s new charger. The shift action of the manual ’box, for example, can feel notchy at times and never quite reaches the highs of the oily, super-precise unit in the Civic Type R. I was expecting a little more potency from the engine too. The 1.8-litre donk is strong and has a muscular mid-range, though it lacks an addictive top-end rush and it’s easy to bump into the 7000rpm limiter.
Overseas first drive: 2018 Renault Megane RS280 review
There are other foibles, too, like the bucket seats that feel too big for slimmer drivers and lack the body hugging support of the old car’s Recaros. And there’s noticeable tyre roar on coarse-chip surfaces. But these are small gripes in what is an otherwise very convincing package. Renault has altered the character of its iconic hot hatch and the result is a car that feels distinctly different. The four-wheel steering adds a unique character, though at times it can seem as though there’s a layer of newfound electronic complexity that separates the driver from the action slightly. The RS magic is still there, though it seems we’ll have to wait until next year’s Trophy version, which gains 220kW/400Nm outputs, stickier rubber and Recaro seats, to properly unlock it.
Where this new RS has gained most is in its broader skill set. While the old car had a cult following, its three-door, manual-only recipe narrowed its appeal. That’s a hurdle this new, bigger-than-ever Megane has overcome with convincing ease. And unlike the Honda and Hyundai, adding the option of the dual-clutch ’box means that one of the best hot hatches on sale now has an even wider reach.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
There’s so much to like about the fourth-gen Megane RS. Bigger, more practical and with a broader appeal thanks to the addition of an automatic option, it retains much of the raucous RS magic that we’ve come to expect, but falls just shy of the dynamic highs that made its predecessor such a standout performer.
PLUS: Rockstar looks; chassis balance and chuckability; rear-end adjustability; five-door practicality; option of dual-clutch ’box; value of Cup chassis
MINUS: 4WS can feel unnatural; seats not as supportive as old Recaros; manual gearshift could be slicker
Model: Renault Megane RS
Engine: 1798cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 205kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 390Nm @ 2400rpm
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch
0-100km/h: 5.8sec (claimed)
Kerb weight: 1450kg
On sale: Now