Think of relatively affordable five-door hot-hatches and your mind probably strays first to the benchmark Volkswagen Golf GTI, then broadens out to consider the Ford Focus ST.
But unless you’re a particularly died-in-the-wool fan of either of the following brands, or in one case accept a three-door bodystyle, your initial thought probably doesn’t wear Renault Megane or Alfa Romeo Giulietta badges.
Nevertheless, both the French and Italian models offer interesting alternatives to the ‘norm’in the five-door, circa-$40K turbocharged pocket rocket class: the newly released Megane GT 220 hatch and the existing, ageing but still undoubtedly sexy Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde (QV) respectively.
Comparing this duo of outsiders priced just $340 apart ($39,490 list price for the Renault in GT 220 Premium guise, and $39,150 for the single-trim QV) becomes all the more interesting when you consider the surprising paucity of hot five-door models of this size about at the moment.
Consider the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart are now sedan-only, the Mazda 3 MPS has been phased out and there is not yet a new-generation version available, the Honda Civic Type-R is long discontinued and the Kia Pro_Cee’d GT and hardcore Megane RS 265 only have three doors.
So, what is this duo of cars all about? Well, both trade on their Euro cache, their punchy turbo engines, the successful racing pedigree of their makers and the fact that both are way less popular than a Golf and bound to get you noticed.
Now, our more regular readers may know already that Alfa Romeo Australia has leant us a QV for a long-term loan of several months, giving our new Melbourne office the chance to figure out what’s it’s like to actually live with one of these outsider offerings.
But now, the car that has (mostly) affectionately become known as Ralph —ten points for imagination, right? —is nearing the point of return, and what finer way to say ciao than pit it against a new French rival? (Or if Renault gets its way, au revoir…)
In a more general sense, we’re also gearing up to welcome an updated QV in the new year —not on a long-term basis, mind —that rocks the same look but improves on this one with a new multimedia system and revised, lighter version of the current 1.75-litre turbo engine from the 4C.
The updated QV, which actually looks the same as the current one, also replaces the current car’s six-speed manual gearbox —a feature shared with the Renault —with a new dual-clutch automatic. Yes, if you want an Alfa hot hatch with a ‘proper’ manual gearbox, you’d better jump in soon and get the car you see here.
Besides, while we will review this updated QV when it arrives in a few months, pitting the current model against a new and hyped kid on the block provides us and you with an ideal baseline of what precisely is the best budget European five-door hot hatch without a Volkswagen badge.
Firstly, how refreshing it is to encounter a pair of conceptually similar vehicles —both five-doored, turbocharged, sporty and Continental European —with such a markedly different appearance. That said, we know for a fact these cars will be cross-shopped: the general public has told us so.
In the blue corner you have the Renault, familiar in shape but sporting that slinky new Laurens van den Acker-penned nose design introduced here last month. In the red corner, you have the Alfa, all curves and four-leafed clovers and hidden rear door-handles. It’s still gorgeous, to our eyes.
Crucially, both have presence. A Golf or a Focus is a little anonymous by comparison.
Despite their miniscule $340 price differential, the variance between standard specification is marked. The Renault is a new offering, though, and the upgraded QV will get a proper multimedia touchscreen, addressing a key grievance with this car.
Both models get 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, rear parking sensors, upgraded sound systems (Bose for the Alfa, Arkamys for the Renault), rain-sensing wipers, aluminium-look pedals and Bluetooth phone/USB —though only the Renault gets Bluetooth audio streaming until the updated QV arrives and LED daytime running lights.
Our test Alfa had the optional plug-in dashtop Tom Tom navigation system, and you can also option up electrically adjustable leather seats, a sunroof and a sporty styling pack if you wish.
The Renault in standard guise costs $35,940, but with an optional $4000 Premium pack upgrade our car had over the Alfa: heated seats, a panoramic sunroof, seven-inch integrated screen with navigation, a reverse-view camera, front parking sensors and an R-Link system familiar from the Clio and Megane RS; displaying figures from 15 sensors including torque and power curves a CG diagram of longitudinal and lateral accelerations and a lap timer.
The Renault’s warranty is also longer (five-year, unlimited kilometre versus three-year or 100,000km), and it has three-years of capped-price servicing capped at $299 a pop.
Despite the dearth of equipment, it is actually the Alfa that feels more premium. It has a cleaner cabin design, nicer switchgear and better surface texturing, plus cute touches such as water and fuel gauges that read ‘Acqua’ and ‘Benzina’– in Italian water and fuel respectively. Its embossed leather seats are also much comfier, though offer less lateral grip than the Renault’s buckets.
Additionally, the Renault’s huge panoramic sunroof has a negative effect on body rigidity, since it creaks and groans constantly. The Bluetooth is also prone to cutting out music, though at least Renault actually offers it!
Both cars have ergonomic flaws: the Renault’s being its two-stage cruise control with a console-mounted switch and steering wheel button, singular front cup-holder, and a touchscreen situated too far away from the driver (the central toggle works fine though). The Alfa has a clumsy USB point buried deep in the glovebox beyond most hands, and more offset and slippery pedals without a footrest.
The Renault’s back seats are also significantly less spacious than the Alfa’s, even though its wheelbase is marginally longer. A six-foot tall individual can sit behind a driver in the Italian offering; slim chance in the French one. Both have 60/40 folding rear seats, though the Renault’s boot with the seats up is slightly larger (372 litres to 350L).
If you want more carrying power, Renault is unique in offering the GT 200 as a wagon for an additional $1500.
Under the bonnet, both pack force-fed four-pots with punch, and channel power to the front wheels via six-speed manual gearboxes.
The newer Renault gets a 2.0-litre unit that produces a Golf GTI-matching 162kW of power between 4750rpm and 6500rpm, and 340Nm of torque between 2400 and 3500rpm. This is enough the hustle the 1326kg hatchback from 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds (1.1sec slower than the Golf).
The Alfa gives up about 250cc of capacity to the Renault with its 1.75-litre direct-injected turbo engine, but puts out more power (173kW at 5500rpm) and the same torque (at a low 1900rpm). At 1319kg, it is 7kg lighter than the Frenchie too, leading Alfa to give it a claimed 0-100km/h sprint mark of 7.2sec.
Claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption is 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres for the Alfa and 7.3L/100km for the Renault, though you can add 25 per cent to either under dynamic driving. We found them fairly line-ball.
Compared with a regular Megane (and the ‘warmer’GT-Line models), the GT 220 (the name, by the way, refers to the engine’s horsepower output) gets a specific Sport chassis tune one step below the RS 265’s Cup chassis that includes extra stiffening and lowered suspension —though the rear suspension setup remains a humble torsion beam —plus bigger 320mm vented front and 280mm solid disc rear brakes.
The Alfa also gets firmer suspension than its more modest cousins and bigger 330mm/278mm discs, as well as a more advanced multi-link suspension setup at the rear that should in theory help its road-holding exceed the Renault.
A back-to-back blat along a winding piece of road reveals some marked differences between the pair. At full pelt, the Alfa simultaneously has less to offer yet is more of a handful —noticeably so.
First, it struggles at times to put its 173kW punch through the front wheels and onto the road without exhibiting torque steer. And when we say it struggles “at times”, we mean literally any time you drive it harder than, say, six-tenths. No tricky diffs or torque vectoring here.
Part of this may be down to the nature of the power delivery. The power delivery is like an older-school turbo; there’s no big wad of lowdown grunt here, but rather peaky surge above 3000rpm. There’s some serious punch once you’re up there though, provided the DNA switch (driver operating mode) is in Dynamic setting.
The six-speed gearbox, with its lovely shiny silver knob, has a long-ish throw and a notchy gate, but is pleasingly ‘mechanical’in its operation. The (offset) clutch take-up is very narrow and near the end of the pedal travel, which takes some adjustment.
While its raspy little engine and stylish looks give it character in spades, this is no track-honed hot hatch in the traditional sense. Its ride soaks up smaller imperfections much better than the Renault, although its body control during harder driving isn’t what it needs to be and nor is the chassis adjustability.
Conversely, around town the Renault will rattle out your fillings. The Alfa’s steering is also precise, communicative and weighty, which goes a long way to smothering other issues with the setup.
The Renault, as with its more potent RS brother, has near-faultless and adjustable chassis balance that accommodates ample pedal modulation and direct —if somewhat uncommunicative and light —electro-mechanical steering that isn’t in the same league as the 265.
The Megane feels exceedingly planted and disinclined to roll in the body, and the sticky Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber holds on well, albeit while channelling more noise into the cabin than in the Continental ContiSport-shod Alfa. Without a limited-slip differential or sport mode for the stability control, the Renault can feel a bit more strained when powering out of a bend, but not to the same degree as the Alfa.
Its tight suspension also translates to what we already mentioned was a very stiff ride that fails to round off small and large corrugations alike and can threaten to throw you off line at times, and somewhat worryingly, cause the sunroof to creak and groan. We didn’t spot any body flex, but clearly there’s a rigidity gripe there.
The visceral engine itself possesses an abrasive and delightful induction snarl and a much more immediate knack of delivering its power than the Alfa despite having less on-paper power. It feels more muscular and responsive to throttle input than its rival, and remains tractable through the corners and swift to unleash when punching out.
The gearbox, like the Alfa’s, is notchy but slick enough though has a noticeably long vertical travel. It has a higher clutch take-up point as well. Brake feel is also less linear, in the sense that it is soft at first then bites markedly.
If we were to sum the driving experience up in a line, we would say the Renault is a more cohesive tool to throw around a twisty road thanks to its sharper chassis and more immediate power delivery, but the more spacious Alfa is better-suited to urban commuting — in this sense, it feels like a fast warm hatch rather than a proper track-honed hottie.
And this is where a dichotomy between this pair emerges. The Renault is undoubtedly better-equipped (for now) and has a dynamic edge. But it also has inferior rear seat packaging and a harsh urban ride. The Alfa feels more upmarket (and let’s not forget the badge cache), comfortable and spacious around town, though it falls to water next to the Megane when the road gets challenging.
In that sense, the GT 220 perhaps fills its narrow brief better, but we also remain fond of the little Alfa for all of its quirks as we prepare to wave it goodbye from the CarAdvice garage.
Images by Tom Fraser and James Ward.