When it comes to the small hatch segment, the Australian marketplace is pretty crowded. You have to have something that sells on its reputation, is brilliant value for money, or is an outstanding drive to ensure your place is cemented in the mind of the Australian buyer.
Renault’s foray into the segment is the new Megane, a bigger and bolder car than its bum-heavy predecessor. The new one is certainly smoother, with more even proportions, yet still exhibits the French quirkiness the Megane was known for, inside and out. So, will it sell on reputation, value or drive? Alborz and I each spent a week in a Renault Megane Privilege (with Alborz also testing out the Cabriolet) to find out.
Let's start inside the car - with the good. The Megane's interior exhibits quality plastics, is reasonably comfortable (for the front-seat passengers anyway), and has the brilliant fingertip audio control set-up behind the steering wheel like most current Renaults.
The Privilege variant includes sunroof, full leather, parking sensors, dual-zone climate control and satnav. The navigation system comes from TomTom and, here's the bad, it looks a bit tacked on. Because it’s mounted so far away from the driver, you need to use a remote control, unlike all other TomToms which utilize touchscreen convenience. Also cheapening the unit is the clearly visible SD-card poking out of the side. At least the satnav is quick and accurate.
The stereo is also no class leader, and with only four speakers, it lacks depth. The driver's instruments are a mixed bag, with a crystal-clear, large LCD digital speedo in front but an analogue tacho on one side and trip computer screen on the other. Frankly, it looks a bit piecemeal.
The front seats are comfortable, as long as you don’t have very long legs; the squab is a bit too short, making you feel like your legs overhang the seat. The back seats don’t fare much better: legroom is not exactly expansive, but even worse is the headroom – anyone six-foot or over will be brushing their hair with the roof-lining. The boot is rated at 360 litres.
Okay, so the interior has its good and bad points, but how do the Megane's road manners hold up? Well, if you enjoy your driving, then it’s fair to say there are better alternatives.
The engine, for example, does a reasonable job of moving the Megane along (I say reasonable as its 0-100km/h time is 10.5 seconds), but with the CVT holding revs up during spirited acceleration, the 2.0-litre petrol four’s buzzy nature becomes apparent. On the roll it does feel quicker than its acceleration figures suggest, which is typical of a car equipped with a CVT.
The Megane's fuel economy is listed as 7.9-litres/100km however in our week of travelling we didn't get close to that, with the fuel use finishing up at 10.2-L/100km which is closer to the listed urban figure of 10.5L/100km.
The steering is electrically assisted, which is good for saving fuel, but it creates an unfortunate distraction. At the straight-ahead, no steering effort is required and so the assistance disengages, preventing unnecessary strain on the engine, maximising economy. As soon as you push either way, there’s a momentary lapse before the power steering comes to life. This creates a sticky feeling to the steering, and then when you do turn a corner, it lightens off to become completely devoid of feel.
The ride doesn’t fare much better. It’s firm, especially at lower speeds, and you feel every bump in the road. But then as you throw it at some bends, it leans over, killing any notion that the firm ride would lead to a decent handling hatch. Certainly the RS250’s suspension tune hasn’t been echoed here. The Megane could have had a beautiful French ride, but instead ends up with a crashy, bumpy mess. Dynamically, the Megane lags behind the competition.
You see, the Megane has one big problem. It starts with "V" and ends in "olkswagen". The Golf is miles better in just about every tangible aspect: Steering, transmission, engine smoothness, economy, power, torque, interior styling (and integration of driver aids) and space.
Then there's the brilliant Ford Focus, which is also a front-runner in this class. If you enjoy a decent drive, the Mazda3 should also be on your shopping list. If you're hell-bent on buying French, then go for a Peugeot 308 - at least you'll have a car that handles.
And that's the issue with the Megane: there are just too many better choices out there. It's a car for someone who wants to have something different, and doesn't care about how it drives.
For everyone else shopping in this category, the usual suspects are class-leaders for a reason.
It’s not often Karl and I would agree on a car, he has bad taste in almost all things. After all, he lives in Perth and people do things rather differently over there.
On the Renault Megane however, it’s hard to disagree with him. Renault’s entry into the small car segment is not the best choice in its class, but it’s not the worst either. The problem is, in this day and age of choice, you have to have good reasons to pick a Megane over its competitors (namely the European designed Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus).
The most important thing to remember about Renault is that they are doing some great deals at the moment; you can get very competitive financing options thrown in as part of your purchase. Also, the company offers a five year unlimited kilometre warranty, which is pretty darn good if you intend to do a lot of driving. More importantly, Renault doesn’t sell too many Meganes, which meanas your car is likely to stand out amongst the sea of Golfs and Focus’.
The Megane’s interior is one of the better looking ones on the market, sure the TomTom satnav feels poorly integrated, but at least it has one. The remote control only takes care of the SatNav system and has no connection to the rest of the multimedia system, which is annoying to say the least.
The Bluetooth audio system works well, both for phone connectivity and for audio streaming. Although the microphone sound quality can be improved.
As for the steering and ride quality, I disagree with Karl’s assessment. The Megane hatch is quick enough for its application, it’s easy to drive and can be engaging if you push it a little bit. The CVT transmission is very noisy (like the Mitsubishi Lancer) but it’s a case of something you’d have to get used to. By all means, buy the 1.5-litre diesel, it’s a much better choice than the 2.0-litre petrol.
The other car in the Megane range (apart from the awesome RS250) is the Cabriolet. Having spent a week in a white one, I can tell you it’s much more refined than its hatchback brothers.
For a start, the audio system is top notch, providing so much clarity and bass (without distortion) that you can go deaf in minutes. The SatNav is also far better integrated, having thrown away the remote and opting for button controls mounted near the gear lever.
The roof operation takes 21 seconds but requires you to come to a near stop before it obeys, this can be irritating if you have to put the roof on or take it off at a red light – a bit of give as you’re slowly moving off the line can be very handy. The black glass sunroof lets in a fair bit of heat in Brisbane’s summer, making it rather toasty inside if you leave it parked out in sunlight.
Speaking of Brisbane’s summer, the glare inside the cabin makes a few of the instruments a little useless (e.g. climate control) – as they can be almost impossible to read when in direct or even indirect sunlight. Another pet-hate was the steering wheel controls which don’t light up at night, meaning you’ll spend a bit of time trying to work what each does initially with trial and error.
Overall though, it’s a good-looking convertible and turns a lot of heads. Compared to the Volkswagen EOS, it’s definitely got more character and its quirkiness is part of its appeal. The starting price of $45,990 is reasonable given the amount of standard kit – if it was available with a diesel (it’s not), it’d be the one to go for as the 2.0-litre engine is the same as the hatch, but the near 200kg plus weight difference means it’s even slower.