Hot-lapping one of the world's best front-drive hatchbacks around one of the best circuits on the globe.
The Nurburgring Nordschleif can undo driver and car well before its 20 kilometres and 72 corners are tallied, but the Renault Megane RS275 Trophy is thankfully a track-lapper that’s always on your side.
While the stripped-out, two-seater Renault Megane RS275 Trophy-R has reclaimed the title of fastest front-driver around this feared circuit, it won’t be available in Australia until December, with 50 units priced from around $65,000. The Megane RS275 Trophy we’re lapping here will arrive in double the numbers, for around $7-10K less, a couple of months earlier, topping the regular Megane RS265 range.
Unlike the Trophy-R, the regular Trophy gets a back seat, air-conditioning and Renault’s R-Link infotainment system with touchscreen and sat-nav. But it keeps the flagship version’s 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber, and gets as options the Arkapovic titanium exhaust (that saves 5kg) and Ohlins adjustable dampers, though both are tipped to be standard locally.
Besides a new, corporatised front-end styling treatment, there’s seemingly little change compared with the Megane RS250 and RS265 we’ve been driving since 2011. Just as in the outgoing Megane RS265 Red Bull edition, the touchscreen sits up like an afterthought on the dashboard, too much of a stretch for the driver to comfortably use, and the plastics and finish inside remains below what you’d expect for the price.
None of this matters at the ‘ring, of course. The fresh, Alcantara-clad steering wheel is a delight to grip, and the part-leather, part-Alcantara Recaro sports seats continue to grip you beautifully.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine familiar from the RS265 before it now makes 201kW of power (at 5500rpm, up 6kW) though torque remains pegged at 360Nm (between 3000rpm). That increasingly unfamiliar sight of a manual transmission lever continues to sprout from the console and it remains the only choice here.
Just before we head out onto the circuit, however, the ominous sign of a tow truck and ambulance heads out onto the circuit. It turns out the lead safety car has crashed, its front-end finding grass and mashing armco. Thankfully only the car sustains injury, though it’s an early reminder of the notorious reputation of this circuit. In an OH&S-obsessed world, here it’s all about personal responsibility and judgement. For our laps, Renault Sport doesn’t even give us a passenger instructor, or those racetrack training wheels, apex markers.
Studying the circuit layout and clicking the plastic buttons of a PlayStation controller racing on Gran Turismo 5 isn’t quite enough to warrant anything but a considered first lap. But this is a circuit and car that draws you in.
Exiting the pits, the Megane RS275 emits that familiar guttural growl when floored, and the manual remains a tight, short-shifting delight, even when using it in the confines of unfamiliarity with your right hand.
It’s already a kilometre to the first corner (the main straight is 3km!), so you’re conscious of big speed to wipe off more than when driving any other track. The next couple of kilometres look more like an intestine, yet one with the ability to stretch out then suddenly tie itself in knots. On the second lap, lessons learned here, the stunning grip of the Michelins can truly be appreciated. Turn in to a tightening radius corner late, and you can simply trust the front-end and keep on winding on lock, the resistance to understeer remarkable.
Big speed accompanies kilometres four and five as the track opens and sweeps up to exactly what you don’t want to see – a blind crest followed by a 90-degree right hand corner. The Megane RS275 gets air, then scrabbles into the tarmac after a big stomp of the 340mm Brembo brakes (10mm down on Trophy-R, by the way). Just don’t eye the run-off litter, one of the few (but probably most important) places on this track that gives you more than just a wall if you get it wrong.
After counting four ‘understeer elbows’ (where the track goes left or right, then forks the other way) towards the halfway mark, there’s yet another blind crest before more tightening radius curves. Here the Megane RS275 is starting to move around a bit, yet it never feels anything but secure, at least at novice speed. Once it’s turned in, you simply paste your right foot to the floor and let the now-classic front limited slip differential maximise the turbo torque and vortex you to the next corner.
By far the highlight of the track is the famed Carousel at 13 kilometres. Having had a passenger lap with a Renault Sport driver in the RS275 Trophy-R just before my own laps, I realise that you can use the heavy banking to your advantage, pummelling the front end of the Megane into the concrete slab that lines the far left of the 180-degree hairpin. This is a bumpy section, and the electro-mechanical steering tingles in your fingertips, unwaveringly mid weighted and delivering millimetre accuracy and precision.
You climb high over the back section, and for this Nurburgring virgin it’s far more secure to climb than the earlier section of ducking and weaving down off-camber sections that easily could unsettle the rear. The Renault doesn’t wander over crests, even at speed, its grip and stability remarkable. It simply refuses to be bullied by the racetrack, and devotes its precision to helping the learning driver. Its stability control is in Sport mode, and if it’s interfering, it’s doing a damn fine job of keeping itself hidden.
The ‘ring starts to flow in the last quarter of the track, I find, but it’s not without the odd sudden drop or bends that look like a ‘C’ then in the reverse again. By this stage there’s a nice camaraderie among a few journalists in black and yellow Meganes following similar lines at similar speed, and it’s almost as enjoyable watching these Renault Sports sit flat and grip, then shimmy a bit.
How much better the Renault Sport Megane RS275 Trophy is compared with a regular $42-50K RS265 simply can’t be quantified unless back to back testing is conducted.
From memory of driving the RS265 Red Bull around a much less demanding circuit in Australia earlier this year, the old car seemed to feel a little less stable on turn-in, rolling more particularly at the back-end than the RS275 did going much faster, in much tighter bends. That might be down to the new specially-designed Michelins versus the Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres previously used, or more likely the expensive Ohlins dampers fitted to our test car – which are 20 way front/30 way rear, manually adjustable under each corner as in a Volvo S60 Polestar.
What can be quantified is that the Megane RS275 Trophy supports its driver on one of the most fearsome circuits in the world. That we were learning the track while playing with the car, and it unflinchingly reacted to the odd average move, says much about this car’s communication and focus. Some may say that driving on the Nurburgring is irrelevant for the real world, but when a car reacts well to harsh conditions, you just know no bend in the road is going to challenge it. And even when you drive it properly, to its limit (read our passenger hot lap in the RS275 Trophy-R soon) its breadth of ability simply staggers.
The Renault Megane RS275 Trophy remains a lovable, hardcore racer for the road.