It’s a tale of two base models within the Renault Megane range.
Both manual and automatic Renault Megane Expression grades cost between $21-23K, and the Spanish-built models share the distinction of being the cheapest European small cars on the market.
As with all non-RenaultSport models, and matching only South Korean brands Kia and Hyundai, the Megane gets a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty. Add the included 12 months roadside assistance and capped-price servicing – at $299 for the first three annual or 15,000km check-ups – and both entry-level Meganes boast among the most convincing after-sales care.
The Expression grade isn’t overly endowed with standard equipment, lacking the alloy wheels found on Pulsar ST and Cruze Equipe, and the foglights and rear parking sensors standard on the latter and i30.
Rather it mimics the equipment found on Corolla Ascent and 3 Neo, with 16-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, regular air conditioning, cruise control, basic six-speaker audio with USB input and Bluetooth audio streaming, and not much else.
From there, however, the manual and auto Megane Expression grades go their separate ways.
At $20,990 plus on-road costs, the six-speed manual Megane Expression utilises a 1.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine from the Clio. For $2K extra, automatic buyers get a continuously variable transmission (CVT) mated with a 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine.
From the outside, the only way to tell them apart is by noting the ‘TCe’ badge on the back of the manual 1.2-litre turbo we’re focusing on here, which is the newbie of the range. The 2.0-litre, by contrast, has been around since this generation Megane debuted in 2009. Disappointingly, restricted development costs apparently restricted the turbo engine being mated to an auto in the Megane.
As was the case with the Renault Megane until now, few small cars offer little engines with a turbocharger attached, with the exception of the 1.4-litre Golf and Cruze, both of which are more expensive at $21,490 and $23,190 respectively.
Whether commuting or driving enthusiastically, the upsides to small turbo engines over the non-turbo 1.8- and 2.0-litre engines found in Corolla, Mazda 3 and the majority of small cars, are numerous.
In the case of the 1.2-litre Megane, its peak 205Nm of boosted torque is on strong when the tachometer needle is showing just 2000rpm, where the 2.0-litre Megane needs almost double (3750rpm) before its lesser 195Nm shows up.
Even beyond those peak figures, though, a turbo engine is always producing closer to its maximum over a broader part of the rev range than a non-turbo equivalent.
In short, its torque is more accessible, and in real terms, it means less downchanges, less throttle and fewer revs are required, and therefore extra refinement as the engine isn’t working as hard.
Because the engine doesn’t need to work as hard, small turbo engines are claimed to be more economical. In the Megane’s case, the 1.2-litre turbo manual claims to slurp 5.6 litres per 100 kilometres of fuel in mixed driving conditions, compared with 7.8L/100km for the 2.0-litre non-turbo auto. One caveat is that the auto can take regular unleaded, where the manual needs premium unleaded.
Do flog them, however, and the manual claims a 10.9-second 0-100km/h, slower than the auto’s 10.3 seconds. The Megane turbo engine’s 97kW of power at 5500rpm is very close to the non-turbo’s 103kW at 6000rpm.
In the real world, the 1.2-litre turbo feels faster than the 2.0-litre non-turbo, though, in addition to being smoother and quieter. The Megane’s turbo engine is shared with the Clio Expression, but it gains 9kW and 15Nm over that smaller sibling.
In the Megane, the 1.2-litre’s outputs also compare favourably with the 1.4-litre Golf and Cruze, with 5Nm more torque than both of them, and 7kW more than the Volkswagen but 6kW less than the Holden.
Weighing in at 1394kg, the Megane is one of the heaviest cars in its class, yet the 1.2-litre feels just as brisk, flexible and enjoyable as its larger-engined turbo competitors. Teamed with a six-speed manual that has the same short shift pattern as the Megane RS265 (though it is more rubbery) the turbo is the engine to push the entry-level Megane towards the pointy end of the class for driveability. Only really low down in the rev range, and partially due to a tall second gear, does the Megane feel a bit sluggish.
Having previously tested only the 2.0-litre-only petrol Megane GT-Line grades at the facelifted model’s local launch in July 2013, it’s now clear that the Expression fixes another of that sporty model’s problems – ride quality.
Where the GT-Line gets 17-inch tyres and sportier suspension that together make it feel lumpy over less-than-perfect surfaces, the Expression rides on 16-inch tyres and standard suspension that is much more absorbent.
The entry-level Megane has a fantastic balance between impact absorption and control of the body over big hits. It takes nothing away from the engaging chassis, which loves to roll in corners but also feels nicely balanced.
The steering is a bit like playing an arcade game at first, with very light weighting, but it simply requires a delicate touch and makes parking a breeze. Beyond the weighting, it is precise, consistent and enjoyable.
When production switched from Turkey to Spain last year, the regular Megane also adopted the soft-touch dashboard and door surfacing from the Megane RS. While the sporty RS doesn’t have a great interior for its $42K ask, at $21K the Expression is a lot closer to its price-point rivals in terms of design and quality.
It helps that the interior is free of tinsel, because the basics are right – textured, consistent plastics, supportive seats, a clear digital speedometer, and tactile switchgear.
The monochrome central display exposes the interior’s five-year vintage, though the Bluetooth system connects very quickly back to the phone and the audio controls 'block' behind the steering wheel is intuitive once accustomised to it. Reserving rear-seat air vents for higher-grade models is just stingy, however, particularly when the Volkswagen has the vents standard. Both the Golf and Cruze also include a colour touchscreen.
Otherwise, rear-seat comfort and space are class-competitive while the 372-litre boot is only a handful of litres off the largest in the segment – coincidentally, the 380L Golf and 413L Cruze.
Although the Volkswagen Golf is the benchmark in the small car class, the Megane Expression gets surprisingly close, at least in 1.2-litre turbo manual form. It offers a better after-sales package, competitive driving attributes, and is $500 cheaper. Although its ride and refinement aren’t to Volkswagen standards, it is superior to the Mazda 3 in these areas.
For these reasons the Renault Megane Expression in manual form is one of the biggest surprises of the year, and a valid alternative to its best rivals.