A handful of car makers believe there is a division within the small car segment that sits between mainstream and luxury, and the Renault Megane wants to be included among these more ‘semi premium’, European offerings.
So despite a price reduction of $2000 that's accompanied by less equipment for the new entry-level model, the Renault Megane Expression, it means the French car maker's $20,990 starting price tag can’t compete with the $18,990 Nissan Pulsar, $19,490 Holden Cruze or $19,990 Toyota Corolla.
Despite the former two models scoring more equipment, with standard alloy wheels, Renault claims they aren’t rivals, and defends the higher price by pointing to value in the five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, fixed price annual-interval servicing and regular cheap finance campaigns.
The company prefers to compare the Renault Megane against costlier rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot 308 and Opel Astra.
It immediately raises expectations that the lightly facelifted Renault Megane range will be a cut above mainstream Japanese and Korean rivals.
A shipping delay meant Renault didn't have the new 1.2-litre turbo manual entry model available at launch, however. Instead, the offerings for the launch drive included the $28,990 GT-Line hatchback with 1.5-litre turbo diesel engine and six-speed dual-clutch automatic, and $31,490 GT-Line Premium Pack wagon with 2.0-litre petrol four cylinder engine and automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). See the full model line-up here.
The regular Renault Megane range has never been recognised as a dynamic leader, something which the brand in this country tacitly acknowledges. It’s part of the reason why the GT-Line brings firmer suspension tuned by hot hatch masters Renault Sport, among other steering and equipment changes.
Although other small turbocharged engines are in the pipeline, for now the old 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine soldiers on with a CVT. Producing 103kW at 6000rpm and 195Nm at 3750rpm, the unchanged engine remains a weak link in the Renault Megane range.
The CVT, which doesn’t have ‘gears’ so simply holds the tachometer needle at a high position when accelerating to maximise power delivery, exacerbates the engine’s refinement shortfalls.
The 2.0-litre is a noisy petrol engine, and not a particularly pleasant noise at that. Nor does it provide competitive performance in the 1391kg Megane; that kerb weight figure is among the most portly in the class, a full 158kg heftier than the Golf which also gets 5Nm more torque produced over a wider rev band.
The automatic 2.0-litre also claims a below-average 7.8L/100km, which makes it thirstier than the Golf 90TSI (5.4L/100km) and Astra 1.4 turbo (6.7L/100km), and less ‘premium’ contenders such as the Corolla (6.6L/100km), Pulsar (6.7L/100km) and Cruze Equipe (7.4L/100km).
A better bet is the 1.5-litre turbo diesel. Costing an additional $2500 on the GT-Line, consumption drops to just 4.5L/100km combined while torque rises to 240Nm at a very usable 1750rpm.
The six-speed dual-clutch gearbox is also a better partner to the engine than the petrol’s CVT, and a very good transmission full stop. There’s little of the jerky forward movement when the brake pedal is slightly lifted that plagues the DSG iterations in VWs, yet the shifts remain fast and slick.
The general refinement of the diesel engine is impressive, too, with only a distantly grainy engine note accompanying full-throttle manouevres.
As one of the smallest diesel engines in the class – the Hyundai i30 scores a 1.6-litre while the Cruze snares a 2.0-litre – the baby Renault 1.5-litre often requires plenty of throttle.
Producing just 81kW at 4000rpm, it never feels fast in a straight line, and in fact feels one of the slowest small cars available for the right side of $30,000.
It means that neither Renault Megane engine is quite fitting for the revised GT-Line chassis specification.
With firmer springs and dampers derived from the Megane RS 265 Sport chassis (not sold in Australia) and retuned steering, the regular Megane range quickly moves ahead of several rivals and closer towards the Cruze SRi, Golf, Focus and Mazda 3 benchmarks.
The 17-inch Continental tyres grip well, and the steering feels direct and nicely mid-weighted once beyond the initial vacant patch on centre. For the more enthusiastic drivers among the small car buying set who can't quite stretch to the hot-hatch RS, the Megane GT-Line is keen to respond to a lifted throttle mid corner to help the nose point in the desired direction just as the front wheels are teetering on the edge of understeer.
Where the standard Megane chassis feels under-damped, where the rear suspension especially takes a while to regain composure over big hits, the GT-Line feels superbly tied down on country roads.
Over dips, crests and undulations, the body feels secure, enhancing driver confidence.
Although larger pot-holes are impressively isolated, unlike in the Megane RS hot hatch, the firming up of the suspension has created a mildly restless ride. On seemingly smooth surfaces, the Renault Megane GT-Line fidgets noticeably, and on slightly imperfect backroads it feels lumpy. Other rivals – Focus and Cruze in particular – are better at finely balancing comfort and control.
Perhaps surprisingly, a production switch from Turkey to Spain has also lifted interior quality in the Megane. The previously hard door plastics, for example, have been replaced by the same soft-touch surfacing found in the (also Spanish built) Megane RS.
The GT-Line also gets the same superbly bolstered front seats from the RS, while the sports-profile leather steering wheel and the red-piping and faux-carbonfibre dash applique lift the cabin substantially.
The equipment level on offer in the mid-grade GT-Line models is impressive.
Although the Megane hatchback’s 378-litre boot is one of the largest in the class – beaten only by the Golf by a scant 2L – the wagon is difficult to resist for reasons other than the even-larger 524L load area.
A low bottom lip makes loading items into the wagon much easier than in the high-lipped hatch, and a small part of the floor cover flips up, then locks in place, to reveal a ‘milk holder’ and a strap to secure smaller items. Neat; clever.
Compared with the hatchback, the wagon also scores a 60mm extended wheelbase that improves rear seat legroom. The hatch gets below average room in the rear; the wagon slightly above.
There's an element of Scrooge McDuck, though, to rear seat air vents that are reserved only for the $30K Privilege specification where a Golf has them standard.
Overall, the well specified GT-Line is a worthy addition to this French alternative to the usual small car suspects. It is competitively equipped compared with a mid-range i30 or Focus, and handles as well as a Cruze or current Mazda 3. The full Megane range also has an attractive warranty and servicing program.
This Renault now just needs better engines and a more settled ride – and keener base grade pricing – to lunge towards the class benchmarks overall.