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Petrolhead parents on a budget are hardly spoilt for choice in today’s showrooms – especially if a hatchback is considered a bit too small and they prefer their driving experience, rather than outward view, to be elevated.

In the circa-$40,000 price zone, there are just three members of the sporty compact wagon breed: the Renault Megane GT, Skoda Octavia RS, and Subaru Levorg.

The WRX-engined Levorg is missing here as its MY18 update wasn’t available in time for testing, leaving us with a France versus Czech Republic scenario.

The Renault Megane GT load-lugger is the successor to the GT220 Sport Wagon that debuted in 2013 as part of the last-generation Megane range, and follows the GT hatch released in late 2016.

A [v]RS badge has sat on the rump of an Octavia since 2001 – or since 2007 for Australia, when the Skoda brand returned to our shores.

Marketing has its famous four Ps, and here we’re going to cover this dual-purpose duo with our own set crucial to these models: Pricing, Performance (and Dynamics), Practicality and Presentation.


Pricing and specifications

Both the Megane GT and Octavia RS sit in the upper-middle area of their respective ranges – or at least once the next-generation RS Megane (due 2018) and Octavia RS245 (due November) arrive.

The Renault Megane GT is the only model to squeeze its RRP under the $40k mark, and only just with pricing from $39,990 after a $500 increase in August 2017. That’s a relatively big jump over its $36,990 predecessor, the GT220 Sport Wagon, though that model was six-speed manual only whereas the GT is, conversely, an auto or nothing.

The GT also comes loaded with more equipment than the 220. A healthy standard-gear list comprises highlights including 18-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, LED tail-lights, Alcantara sports seats, heated front seats, LED ambient interior lighting, an 8.7-inch R-Link multimedia touchscreen system, satellite navigation, keyless entry/start, front and rear sensors plus rear-view camera, blind-spot detection, side sensors, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, auto high beam, semi-automatic parking system, and RS Drive Mode with launch control.

That immediately gives the French wagon some advantages against a Czech rival asking another $2900 – after increasing again in price, to $42,890 RRP (the RS wagon cost $40,140 when this iteration of the Octavia was launched in 2014).

The Octavia RS now adds the previously optional $500 Black Pack exterior trim but asks $2800 for a Luxury Pack if you want to match the GT’s heated front seats (while adding heated rear seats), lane assistance, and blind-spot system, though the pack also adds lane assist, electric front seats (not even an option on the GT), and leather/Alcantara with red stitching upholstery (in place of standard leather/cloth sports seats).

It’s another pros-and-cons situation for a $2800 Tech Pack, which is needed to match the Renault’s keyless entry/start and semi-automatic parking system, though for the first time adds adjustable dampers (Adaptive Chassis Control), as well as Manoeuvre Braking Assist and a Canton audio system.

Skoda also counters with some worthwhile extras. Adaptive LED headlights are standard, as are nine airbags (against the Renault’s six), Multi Collision Brake, a larger (9.2-inch) infotainment touchscreen, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring.

The two wagons go different ways with technology that influences handling. The Renault comes with 4Control, which moves the wheels in a counter-direction to the fronts (by 2.7 degrees) at low speed for greater manoeuvrability and in the same direction (by a degree) at higher speed for greater stability. The Skoda brings XDL – extended electronic differential lock to help the RS put its power to the ground better through its front wheels.

Both offer variable vehicle settings, including sports modes – RS Drive in the Renault, RS in the Skoda – for heftier steering, faster throttle response, quicker gearshifts, and enhanced noise. (And firmer damping in the case of our Octavia test car).

Our RS was also fitted with both the Luxury and Tech Packs – which Skoda Australia says is how the “great majority” of RS buyers purchase the car – as well as an auto tailgate ($500) and 19-inch alloys ($700). All up, that puts this RS on the cusp of $50,000 before on-road costs.

The Megane GT featured here was fitted with the $1490 Premium Pack, which adds a Bose audio system and LED headlights.

Overall, the Renault has the edge in specification if you’re simply looking at pricing and features, and we’d prefer Adaptive Chassis Control to be standard on the Octavia considering it’s standard on the closely related (though admittedly smaller and slightly more expensive) $43,990 Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG.

Renault caps annual servicing at $299, though only for up to three years. The Skoda asks for $316, $390 and $487 for years one, two and three, though details costs up to six years. Both cars come with a five-year (unlimited kilometres) warranty.

Residual experts predict the Octavia RS will lose a bit more value after 40,000km – worth approximately 46 per cent of its new-car price compared with 52 per cent for the Megane GT.

Still, other factors are also part of the value equation…


Performance (and Dynamics)

You could call this an RS v RS contest to a certain extent, because the masterful engineers at Renault Sport have again been to work on the company’s GT model. They’ve tuned the chassis and slotted the Clio RS’s 1.6-litre turbo engine under the bonnet. And unlike the GT220, the GT bravely places a Renault Sport badge on the tailgate.

It could be argued the model should technically be called the Renault Sport Megane GT, even if Renault doesn’t market it that way.

The forced-induction four-cylinder gets a tickle up from the Clio for 151kW and 280Nm, though there’s a noticeable chunk of torque missing compared with the 340Nm GT220 (which used a detuned version of the RS265’s 2.0-litre turbo).

However, aided by a fast-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch auto, the GT is two-tenths quicker in the sprint to 100km/h with a quoted 7.4 seconds.

It’s a respectable time that trounces the 11.7 seconds of other Megane wagons, though it’s a surprising three-tenths slower than the GT hatch despite weighing only an extra 38kg.

If the GT wagon doesn’t feel rapid by the seat of the pants, it delivers excellent driveability and sounds refined, even when revved hard. And official fuel consumption of 6.0 litres per 100km is not only relatively frugal but surprisingly better than the 6.2L/100km of the smaller-engined (1.2L turbo) Megane wagons.

In a sporty context, however, the 1.6-litre turbo never quite excites the ears, and throttle response is a tad doughy even with the car in its RS Drive mode. The gearbox calibration is also flawed: it ignores manual mode by changing up prematurely before redline and tends to refuse a paddle-shifted request for a downchange from third to second gear.

And the positioning of the steering-column-mounted paddle levers is terrible – too high when the wheel is straight; a stretch for your fingers when the wheel is turning.

The MY17 Skoda Octavia RS didn’t need any updates to be immediately better in this respect. While its paddles are so small they could potentially suffer an inferiority complex, they’re attached to the wheel so are permanently in proximity to your fingertips.

The six-speed DSG is also more obedient to the driver’s commands on downshifts, holds revs to redline (and to the limiter if desired), and its shifts feel quicker and crisper.

Making the most of its extra capacity, the RS’s 2.0-litre – adopted from the Golf GTI 7.5 (and former Octavia RS230) offers more power (169kW at 6200rpm) and significantly more torque (350Nm).

Generated from 1500rpm (to 4600rpm) compared to the 2400rpm for the GT’s maximum pulling grunt, the RS’s engine offers even greater flexibility and in-gear performance. A 7.0-second 0-100km/h time also gives it a comfortable win in the traditional standing-start sprint.

With RS mode engaged, throttle response is superior and there’s more character to the Octavia’s engine and exhaust sounds – even if artificially enhanced by a sound generator. There’s a satisfying beat on light and medium throttle, which progresses into an urgent snarl when flat out.

The Octavia RS drinks only an extra 700ml of petrol per 100km (6.7L/100km) officially, though Skoda recommends 98 RON where Renault’s minimum fuel suggestion is 95.

Both turbo engines are hugely commendable for their smooth and progressive nature.

There’s just a single suspension setting for the Megane GT wagon, with no option for adjustable dampers as with the Skoda.

It’s mostly a fine effort by Renault Sport to try and straddle that difficult line balancing sportiness and comfort.

While the suspension’s firmness is ever present, there’s a large degree of isolation from urban nasties. The GT then feels sufficiently tied down on a bumpy country road, with the one exception its recovery from big high-speed dips – where it takes a couple of bounces or so before the car settles.

The GT’s brakes – bigger than those fitted to lower-spec Meganes – perform strongly and are easy to modulate, and when you tip the French wagon into a corner it enters with eagerness and limited roll. Its sports seats also provide excellent support around the lower back and hips.

Just expect wheel spin if you’re aggressive with the throttle out of tight corners, as there’s no mechanical limited-slip diff as featured on the former RS Megane.

The Octavia suffers a similar problem despite the presence of a diff-mimicking system that uses the stability control system to reduce the rotational speed of the inside-front wheel. There’s also mild axle tramp – where the front-suspension shudders under torque load – if you attempt a fast launch. (We’re expecting more from the RS245 that, as with the 230, will employ an electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip diff.)

Skoda’s sports seats don’t hug quite as tightly or sit you as low as the Renault’s, wind noise is more prominent in the cabin (though road noise is restrained in both cars), and around town the damping isn’t quite as sophisticated as the GT’s. The Octavia’s front end – at least with the optional 19-inch wheels fitted – tends to be flummoxed by sharper urban bumps, even if the adaptive suspension is set to Comfort.

It’s no deal-breaker, and the Skoda is otherwise the dynamic pick here, complementing its superior engine and transmission with the best handling. Pop it into Sport mode, and the RS flows more effortless along a typically pockmarked winding road, cornering flatter and feeling even tauter in its control.

Skoda also sneaks steering honours, thanks to the RS’s 360-degree consistency where the GT’s tiller can feel a touch vague off centre and more prone to mild torque steer.

Kudos to the GT’s 4Control system, though, which in addition to its stability assistance at higher speeds shaves a full metre off the Megane wagon’s turning circle – making this a highly manoeuvrable vehicle in urban environments.


Practicality and presentation

There’s a 6.3cm difference between the lengths of the Renault Megane GT wagon (4626mm) and Skoda Octavia RS wagon (4689mm), though there’s nothing between the widths and heights, and the Czech’s wheelbase is only 10mm longer.

And with rear seats upright, only eight litres of boot space separate the duo – with the Skoda ahead with 588 litres. However, flip down the two sets of 60/40 split-fold seats – via boot-oriented release levers in both – and the Skoda’s cargo-swallowing capability stretches to 1718 litres where the Renault manages only 1504 litres.

Each wagon is slightly compromised by a stepped floor where the seats fold, while if you option the Bose audio in the GT you also lose the temporary spare wheel for a tyre repair kit. Skoda’s optional Canton system features its subwoofer out of the way to the side.

Above: Skoda Octavia

The Octavia’s boot is also cleverer, with extra touches such as load-through port, elasticated item holders, multiple storage nets, fold-out shopping bag hooks, double-sided (rubber/carpet) boot mat, and – our favourite – an LED boot light that doubles as a removable torch. Brilliant.

Above: Renault Megane

Carrying adults in the back is another chalk-up to the Skoda. While the Megane is far from mean when it comes to accommodating heads, knees or feet, and equals the Skoda for seat comfort and rear armrest, the Octavia’s better interior packaging offers some extra space in every area. Forward vision is slightly better, too, and the Skoda provides two rear USB ports.

Both cars provide adequate cupholders and door-based bottle holders, though central storage could be better. The Octavia again puts in a little extra thought with its door pocket waste bin and an umbrella that’s stored beneath the front passenger seat.

Above: Renault Megane

The MY18 update brings the VW Group’s new 9.2-inch Discover Pro infotainment touchscreen to the Octavia RS, which reigns supreme over the GT’s R-Link 2’s 8.7-inch portrait-format screen: sharper resolution, better graphics, and more intuitive operation.

(And we don’t think buyers are missing out with the Skoda version mysteriously missing the Golf 7.5’s slightly gimmicky Gesture Control hand-swipe function.)

Above: Skoda Octavia

The Megane’s display still contributes to a successful overall cabin ambience that runs the Octavia close as a nice place to spend time, despite both being as guilty as each other in cheapening some areas of the cabin. (The Megane’s rear door trim, for example, is harder than the plastic used for the front doors; the Octavia’s presentation doesn’t ultimately match the perceived quality of its cousin, the Golf, despite several recognisable parts.)

Above: Renault Megane

The GT’s blue trim inserts – albeit plastic rather than the metallic they try to imitate – match well with the blue LED interior lighting strips, blue stitching, and blue/black Alcantara seats.

Renault Sport logos feature on the dash, headrests and door sills, there’s a GT logo on the steering wheel, and the Renault Sport TFT instrument cluster features a chequered flag pattern and RPM and Nm gauges.

The Skoda doesn’t quite go the same lengths – especially in terms of the dials – though there are the RS-branded seats and ergonomically sporty steering wheel, plus plenty of red stitching throughout.


VERDICT

With compact sporty wagon options limited, it’s a relief Renault and Skoda have both served up strong offerings.

The taut and subtly muscular Megane wagon is another big styling tick for Renault’s design team led by former Mazda man Laurens van den Acker, and the GT’s mix of refinement and sportiness increases its appeal.

It’s also brimming with equipment for a car priced below $40,000 (before on-roads), including the 4Control rear-wheel steering technology that is effective both on the open road and around town.

Yet if the Megane GT can be a fun wagon to drive, some performance and handling shortcomings mean it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of that Renault Sport badge. In a nutshell, it’s a warm wagon.

The Octavia’s design is arguably not as immediately attractive, even with the MY18 facelift that most evidently changes the look of the front end with split headlights and a further accentuating of the moustache grille.

Skoda prices have been creeping up in recent years, and that circa-$3K gap to the GT’s RRP also doubles if you want the adaptive dampers we’d recommend based on our experience of other VW products sharing the Octavia’s MQB platform. The Skoda will also cost more to own.

Yet if the RS is beaten in Pricing, the Skoda compensates by claiming wins in Practicality and Performance. It has the roomiest interior with the cleverest touches, and more importantly – considering the badges – it has the more engaging chassis and drivetrain to better reward octane-fuelled families.

Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.

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