There are good reasons for putting the Holden Commodore SS up against the benchmark hot-hatch. The Holden Commodore SV6 has already fought off its ageing rear-wheel-drive rival (see here), and reduced pricing in the VF Commodore range sees the V8 grades slip below $45,000.
The Holden Commodore SS can be purchased for $41,990, but the SS V we’re driving here is $45,490. The brilliant Renault Sport Megane 265 starts at $42,640 though our tested 8:08 limited edition costs $51,490. Crucially, there are no mechanical differences between the grades with the exception of grippier Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres on the Megane 8:08 – interestingly the same rubber fitted standard to both Commodore SS and SS V.
On paper, it’s easy to choose between them relying solely on priorities. Need to seat five and blast long and twisting roads? Choose the 4.9m-long Holden Commodore SS and enjoy its burly eight-cylinder engine ticking over at less than 2000rpm on the freeway. Live atop a mountain pass with bitumen that often turns back on itself and suddenly narrows? Pick the 350kg-lighter and much smaller Megane RS265.
But beyond that rationale based on personal circumstances, with both cars costing less than $45,000, which makes a better fist of being a relatively affordable sports car? Which is the best overall pick?
Both Commodore SS and Megane RS265 Cup come standard with cloth trim, climate control and a CD player. The Holden then clean sweeps the Renault for interior quality, ride quality, refinement and ergonomics.
The touchscreen in the SS is high resolution and simple to use; the seats are wonderfully supportive; both road and engine burr are relatively hushed; and even on 45-aspect tyres the ride over lumpy urban roads is superb.
By contrast the Megane has a completely unintuitive radio set-up with a black and white pixelated display; smaller and fiddly buttons that match its lesser body size overall; it thrums a constant roar on coarse-chip surfaces; and on broken slabs of concrete that are loosely defined in Sydney as urban arterials, the suspension gets very choppy.
Despite its smaller size, vision is more restricted in the Renault, and although the broad-shouldered Aussie sedan isn’t much better in this regard, every Commodore uniquely comes standard with handy auto reverse-parking technology.
The Holden’s quieter, seemingly softer nature means it immediately feels less focused than the outwardly racy Renault. Forget all the interior quirks, and the Megane simply has the better gearshift and brakes. The wonderful, short-throw snick-snick of its six-speed manual is miles ahead of the Commodore’s longer throw and slightly rubbery unit that occasionally snags itself when shifting quickly.
While the brakes in the SS are nicely modulated, with good pedal feel, the RS265 comes standard with Brembo brakes across the range that stop harder and are less resistant to fade. If you want Brembos on a Commodore SS, you’ll need to pick the $51,490 SS V Redline, coincidentally for the same coin as the Megane 8:08 tested here.
The bits of the cabin that are most important for keen drivers – gearshift and brakes – are simply better in the Megane RS 265.
In the Commodore, the throttle pedal connects to a 6.0-litre V8 engine with 270kW of power and 530Nm of torque. In the Megane RS 265, with its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, it’s 195kW and 360Nm.
Those numbers, however, are relatively meaningless, because the Holden weighs 1729kg, a hefty 355kg more than the Megane RS 265. Standardised to how many kilowatts each car has to push its weight, the Commodore produces 156kW per tonne where the Megane RS makes 142kW per tonne. It’s a rather lot closer, in other words.
The Commodore SS will hit 100km/h in a fraction under six seconds, the Megane RS265 a fraction over. But the Holden driver will be slugged with 11.5L/100km fuel economy according to official lab testing, while the Megane RS265 claims just 8.2L/100km. That difference plays out in the real world, too, but with higher figures.
The different engine configurations are exactly reflected by their characters.
The Megane RS265 engine punches harder through the middle part of the tachometer, when the 2.0-litre is having air rammed into it by the turbocharger; yet down low in the rev range, it isn’t as torquey as its bigger rival, and throttle response isn’t as finite. The Renault engine sounds zingy and whooshy as it approaches its 6800rpm cut-out.
The Commodore SS engine sounds deeper, more classic eight-cylinder thunder than high-pitched thrash-metal as with the Megane RS265. The Holden doesn’t rev as hard, despite lacking a turbo that usually demands reduced rev-ability, and the refinement measures introduced with the VF Commodore range means it’s also considerably quieter than the Renault. For the first time, well, ever, the V8 engine no longer throbs through the cabin at idle.
It’s a close call on which engine is better; though arguably for a sports model the Commodore should be louder.
By virtue of its lesser weight and smaller size, in addition to its harder suspension tune, the Megane RS265 feels more agile and hewn into the road surface through bends. It turns into corners with the sort of grip and poise that defines the finest sports cars, while the superb front limited-slip differential, which sends more grunt to the gripping outside tyre than the spinning inside one, means the Renault fires out of bends.
The Commodore SS, by contrast, feels a bit nose heavy, meaning you can’t simply rush into a bend at speed and expect it to grip-up and stand on its nose as with the Renault. Like the Megane RS, however, the driver can get on the throttle early to avoid understeer.
Instead of pulling itself like a vortex through the corner like its front-wheel-drive rival does, though, the Holden, being rear-wheel drive and with a rear limited-slip differential, segues into fluid, controllable oversteer.
The wider the bend, the more fun it’s possible to have in the Holden Commodore SS. The VF chassis – as with the VE with which it retains 40 per cent of parts – is simply beautifully balanced and wonderfully disciplined. On really rough roads, it also beats the Renault for comfort, and matches it for fine control.
But when the road gets really tight and twisty, the Megane RS265 simply steams ahead, leaving the Commodore SS to feel a little bit clumsy and the otherwise nicely calibrated electronic stability control (ESC) a little bit panicked. The SS needs the more relaxed ESC setting standard on the SS V Redline.
The ESC in the Renault is utterly brilliant in all situations.
There is simply nothing in it for steering feel. Both the Holden and Renault electro-mechanical power steering systems are everything the new-age fuel-saving electric units should be – sharp, precise, consistent, light, brilliant.
Remember those earlier questions? Which is the best affordable sports car overall? Dealing with two absolute champions of the breed, there is no loser. Both are winners.
But while the Renault Megane RS265 is the best to drive, for the money, it’s the Holden Commodore SS – with a much more inviting cabin, a better ride, less noise and still-superb handling – that wins because it is simply the most complete overall.
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Holden Commodore SS V
Engine: 6.0-litre V8 petrol
Power: 270kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 530Nm at 4400rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 11.5L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 274g/km
Renault Megane RS265 8:08
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 195kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 360Nm at 3000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 8.2L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 190g/km