THIS ought to be terrifying. The road runs across a rolling plateau, open at first before diving downhill in a series of ever-tightening, wildly cambered bends. Fat gobs of rain spatter the windscreen. I’m attempting to keep the teardrop-shaped tail lights of the Hyundai i30 N somewhere ahead of the red ribbon that marks top dead centre of the Megane RS280’s steering wheel.
Rather than slowing for the corners we seem to be accelerating, sucked into the rainforest as if we’re in a venturi, having crossed some unmarked event horizon. Every once in a while, the Hyundai’s tail lights disappear mid corner as it yaws into a big tail slide, before blinking back out of the gloom, the tyres firing bark and leaves in twin vortices behind it. I’m laughing like an idiot. The Megane will do that for you.
It didn’t take too long to figure out which car we ought to pitch the Renault against. The Hyundai i30 N’s beautifully judged blend of talents were enough to land it top spot on the podium in our hot-hatch showdown in the April edition. In order to establish itself as a worthy addition to the Renaultsport canon, the RS280 at least needed to level with the $40K Korean. At first, it seems as if the Hyundai stands little chance. The Renault’s overt display of bulging arches, gaping vents, big rubber and a rear diffuser that might actually do something makes the i30 N look distinctly underdone.
The Megane’s optional Tonic Orange signature paint finish also helped clone-brush the Hyundai into near invisibility. Still, there’s something to be said for a certain discretion, even if the early money’s all on the French hatch.
One thing that’s worth knowing from the outset. The 202kW Hyundai and the 205kW Renault are virtually line ball in terms of pace. At Heathcote the Megane was a mere tenth slower to both 100km/h and 400m than the i30 N, while on the open road, they’re impossible to separate. The red car is two kilos heavier than the orange one and while the Renault opens a torque advantage (390Nm vs 353), you need almost another 1000rpm on board to plug into peak twist action in the Megane.
It’s clear that the Hyundai has a broader dynamic repertoire than the Renault, thanks in no small part to its adaptive damping. The suspension can be either more accommodating than the Megane’s or punchier, the drive modes easily accessed by the pale-blue steering wheel-mounted tabs. Thing is, one really well-sorted suspension setting always trumps a selection of so-so calibrations and the Renault’s is a gem. Like all the best Megane hatches, the RS280 with Cup chassis feels fluid at speed yet body control is excellent with brilliantly telegraphed transitions into understeer and, with a sharp lift of the throttle, oversteer. The stability control interventions are also malleable, if a little lax, but in Race mode it switches them out completely.
Despite the fundamental excellence of the RS280’s chassis, there’s a thin but impermeable membrane of artifice that sits between the Renault’s contact patches and you. The 2.7-degree four-wheel counter steer can suddenly and unpredictably alter the car’s centre of balance to a point over your left shoulder, as if you’ve suddenly taken up the slack on a steel hawser tethered to the corner apex. The first time it does it, you think it’s the diff dragging you in, but you’ll feel it even off-throttle.
Then there’s the fact that the steering, which, unlike Ferrari’s system that retains speed of response when you need it most – that is when you’re really piling on the big numbers – the Megane’s rack initialises its 1.0-degree virtual long wheelbase set-up when you’re looking to attack a corner hard. A little more often than necessary it feels as if you’re reacting to the Renault rather than dictating to it. It’s undeniably effective, though, and huge fun when you tune into its nuances. It makes a Civic Type R feel a little straight-laced in comparison.
The Hyundai, which came in looking wholly outgunned, more than holds its own. Switch it into N mode on smooth roads or, on scabbier bitumen, the custom setting that offers all the angriness but with the softer damping, and it feels puckishly no-nonsense. It’s almost as easy to swing the back out and get the nose engaged into a corner, the i30 N just feeling a little edgier in yaw, due in no small part to a slightly shorter wheelbase, both real and virtual. The Hyundai’s gearchange is night and day better than the Renault’s, offering a well-oiled slickness allied to pedals that are better weighted for heel and toe downshifts. If you can’t be bothered with that, Hyundai also offers switchable rev matching like that in the Civic Type R.
The i30 N sounds fiercer than the Renault too, its engine cammier and more characterful at idle, while delivering a cleaner build in volume and a more extrovert set of bangs and crackles on the overrun. By contrast, the Megane’s fireworks sound muted, our testers convinced at first that they were coming from the rear speakers rather than the tailpipes.
There’s little doubt that the RS280 looks tougher and has more going on inside. The Hyundai feels a little too close to the cooking i30s and the seating position feels too high, whereas the Megane cocoons you low and piles on one sporting cue after the other. In the showroom, the Renault appears to easily justify the price differential of $5K between a base RS280 and an i30 N, and the loyalty of hardcore Renaultsport fans and hard-won credibility of the badge cannot be underestimated. That RS badge has become a guarantor of a certain level of excellence.
Buyers will be rewarded with a hot hatch that goes straight into the top drawer of current contenders. What they won’t get is a better car than the Hyundai i30 N. Drive the Megane at absolute ten-tenths and it probably has a veneer of talent beyond even the i30 N. That’s fine for the odd track day but requires a level of commitment incompatible with public roads. For the huge majority of the time, the Hyundai is a more satisfying and more rounded proposition. Cheaper, just as quick and possessed of a broader skillset, it does enough to get the nod here.
The decider comes upon the realisation that were you interested in a Megane with serious track day chops, it’s likely that you’ll sit on your money until the 220kW Trophy model with bimodal exhaust, Recaro seats and super-sticky Bridgestone S007 rubber arrives in 2019. That’ll be the one that uncorks all of the Megane’s potential and sends us into paroxysms of hyperbole. So it’s a familiar story from Renaultsport then. The RS280 is good, but we’d hold out for something better. It’ll likely be worth the wait.
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