Australian deliveries of the next-generation Renault Megane five-door are just around the corner, with an on-sale date expected for some time in September.
But clearly, Renault Australia couldn’t wait that long to show off its hotly anticipated Volkswagen Golf rival to local media and dealers, because it brought four left-hand-drive European-spec cars here hot from the Spanish plant for "market planning".
We headed to the Anglesea proving ground in regional Victoria earlier this week to put the fourth-generation Renault Megane through its paces, on a high-speed loop, a simulation B-road and even a skid-pan with a slalom setup.
On hand were Meganes in two specification levels: the GT-Line and the GT, the former of which is a base offering with sporty accoutrements, and the latter of which shapes up as a very capable pseudo Golf GTI rival.
Before we get stuck in, there's some housekeeping to sort. For one, we don't know pricing yet, though you can expect the entry hatch models to mirror the Mazda 3 and Golf by starting in the low $20ks and climbing to about $40k for the GT, before options.
Second, the Megane will arrive first in the five-door hatch form you see here (about a year to the day after its world premiere at last year's Frankfurt motor show), before the wagon arrives during 2017. The next-gen hardcore RS (five-door) version will likely arrive in 2018, with the current three-door car still available in the interim.
With those obvious questions out of the way, let's look at the car we have in front of us. And then linger. Because beyond the slightly fussy headlights (optional LEDs as pictured), we think the 2017 Megane is a glamour, and a suitably upmarket shift over the subdued previous model, not the mention to box-bummed version of the early 2000s.
Our sporty GT-Line and GT test cars came with specific sportier bumpers, bigger intakes, mesh inserts, unique diffusers and bigger alloy wheels (10-spoke on the GT-Line and curvy five-spoke units on the GT). But the profile is spot-on regardless.
It's a similar tale on the inside. Renault has trickled down many components from its luxurious new European models such as the Talisman to the Megane cabin, and dramatically increased the quality of the metal and foam-injected plastic materials, which feel of good quality. As with fellow French brand Peugeot's new models, the execution feels a bit German.
Both of our test cars, the GT-Line and GT, were loaded with features such as changeable ambient cabin lights (part of the GT-Line package); supportive suede sports buckets with dual-density foam, and taken out of the Talisman luxury sedan; and a crisp Bose stereo. All of our test cars also had TFT digital instruments with digital speedo and multiple display formats.
The Megane will be available with two different-size touchscreens supporting Renault's simple-to-operate R-Link 2 software: a basic 7.0-inch landscape unit with standard reversing camera display, or an optional 8.7-inch portrait screen that can pinch-and-zoom like a smartphone. No surprise which ones came on our specced-to-the-nines test cars.
It all feels well-resolved, though until we see Australian pricing and specifications we'll withhold full judgement. We can say that on first impressions that cabin is up there in terms of design and execution with the Golf, Peugeot 308 and Mazda 3.
Being French, Renault clearly had to have a few ergonomic quirks. The basics are fine, with ample steering wheel and pedal adjustment, though the classic audio volume stalks and two-stage cruise control (with a switch on the transmission tunnel and a settings button by the wheel) are wilfully unorthodox. C'est la vie.
The rear seats are quite supportive and there’s enough leg-and head-room to fit four large adults, though rear passengers exceeding 185cm might find the low roofline slightly limiting. Standard rear air vents are a nice touch. The 434 litre boot is good for the class, large enough to store an average-sized pram or a few travel cases.
Under the bonnet of the Australian Megane range will be two petrol engines, with no mention given to a diesel. Base models, extending up into the GT-Line, get a familiar TC130 1.2-litre turbo-petrol that belies its small capacity with outputs of 97kW/205Nm (a base Golf 1.4 has 92kW/200Nm), matched to a six-speed manual gearbox or seven-speed EDC dual-clutch automatic.
Typical of downsized turbos, the little 1.2 has a strong hit of torque from low in the rev band, and will cruise along with minimal fuss at higher engine speeds. On the closed circuit, we sat all day well north of Australian speed limits and the car felt pretty relaxed. The six-speed manual has a positive action and light clutch. We didn't drive an EDC 1.2.
The GT is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-litre engine, which is essentially a reworked version of that used in the Clio RS (and, more distantly, the Nissan Pulsar SSS and Juke turbo). With 151kW of power and 280Nm of torque, it's not quite on a par with the 162kW/350Nm 2.0 Golf GTI, but very neatly matches the 151kW/285Nm 1.6 in the Peugeot 308 GT.
It may fall short of the previous GT220 Megane with its 162kW/340Nm punch, but more importantly for Australian buyers unwilling to shift their own gears, comes with an EDC dual-clutch automatic transmission, opening Renault up to a whole new audience of buyers.
The engine feels relatively strong, backed up by the decent circa-7.0 second 0-100km/h sprint time, though rolling throttle response is not as immediately crisp or responsive, nor is the wall of torque on offer as all-encompassing, as the Golf rival. Our brief drive didn't permit us to properly test the EDC, though colleague Alborz drove this car in Europe and found it decent, but prone to bouts of indecisiveness in urban use.
Flicking through the various driving modes on Renault's Multi-Sense system, fitted to both the GT-Line and GT, adjusts the shift times of the EDC, the resistance in the electronic power steering, the throttle response and even the cabin lighting. You can also pipe engine noise into the cabin, to make either drivetrain sound more aggressive and guttural from the driver's seat.
We can certainly attest to the Megane IV's strong chassis balance and well-sorted suspension. The car is based on the Renault Common Module Platform (with much commonality with things as banal as the Nissan Qashqai), but mid-corner balance and body control, as well as harsh-bump absorption, feel up there with the best.
The real revelation is the trick 4Control system in the Megane GT, which subtly steers the rear wheels. At low speeds (below 80km/h), the rear wheels turn very slightly opposite to the fronts to help manoeuvrability, while at higher speeds they steer in the same direction to help stability. It's not new tech (think classic '80s Japanese cars such as the Honda Prelude), but it works really well.
A back-to-back test on a high-speed roundabout in the GT-Line without 4Control and the GT with it reveals the stark differences. The GT's nose just tucks in, and the rear wheels seemingly 'push' the car around corners. No front-wheel drive understeer here. On the high-speed loop, the car felt more stable and responsive. I actually had to correct seemingly over-eager inputs a few times before adjusting.
A rapid 60km/h to 0km/h ABS stop also showed good braking pedal feel and response. Traction levels were also good, thanks to the sticky Continental rubber on both variants. By all accounts, the crew that drove the cars the day before us in a torrential downpour said the same.
The main letdown dynamically is the electric-assist steering which, while quick enough from centre and able to load up with more resistance in sport mode in both the GT-Line and GT, comes across on first impressions as a little detached.
All told, the GT shapes up as a great hot-ish hatchback with a luxury bent. But it's no coincidence that there are enough rounded edges there to be sharpened up by the proper Renault Sport Megane due in 2018, which will have 220kW-plus, a Cup-style chassis, and which will potentially come with the option of a manual gearbox, unlike the Clio RS.
Clearly, we can't bring you our full impressions on the 2017 Renault Megane until we know rather important elements such as local pricing and specifications, and drive it on Australian public roads. We'll also reserve judgement until we've drive a non-sporty version.
Nevertheless, there's plenty here to be enthused about, about four months out from the launch. The fourth-generation Megane looks the business outside and in, has a resolved and classy cabin, and the GT promises to be an enticing hotted-up hatch offering. We're looking forward to more wheel time soon.