2018 Renault Megane RS280 review

Here we have the new Renault Megane RS 280. With five doors and a more refined design, can it win the hearts of those obsessed with its mental three-door predecessor?

There are a number of reasons for Aussie petrolheads to get excited about the all-new 2018 Renault Megane RS.

For one thing, consider the Renault Sport pitch: Australia is the third biggest market for RS sales globally, sat behind its French homeland and Germany, and our appetite for go-fast Meganes and Clios as a proportion of total Renault sales is triple that compared with Europe.

Another excitable reason is that both the French mother company and its sporting skunkworks love to meddle with what have been largely successful formulae from hatchback generation to generation. With each new Megane RS, there’s inevitably surprise in what its maker has shaken up and, thankfully, much of it - though not all of it – tends to offer delight.

The first Megane RS, based of the Megane II and nicknamed French Mullet for its unorthodox lift-back design, is a cult car. It was a lively, engaging and thrilling drivers’ machine and a decent first stab, if only when its ‘independent steering axis’ front end wasn’t falling to pieces due to some suspect engineering integrity. Legendary, then, for areas good and bad.

The outgoing gen-two Megane RS was and is a vastly different beast. Renault Sport mostly went back to the drawing board: gone was the animated chassis and frumpy styling, in was a sleek and muscular figure that spearheaded what some call a ‘hyper hatch’ concept that was relatively benign in dynamics yet upped sheer pace. It was an instant icon.

It piled on some very un-hot-hatch tech – launch control, for instance. It was and remains wickedly fast, provided everything held together as horsepower climbed throughout its lifecycle. This wasn’t always the case: I did once witness a piston cry “freedom” through the engine’s crankcase on track in ‘265’ tune, though gen two, to my knowledge, isn’t renown for such dramatic indiscretions.

Another new generation, another reimagined Megane donor car, another all-new RS shake-up to greet 2018. As reported, it’s an appealing yet markedly different design, now five-door only (boo!), now-wider bodied, and powered by a downsized 1.8-litre turbocharged petrol engine if one aspiring to loftier outputs: 205kW (and 390Nm), or 280 horsepower as figured in the newbie’s Megane RS 280 designation.

It’s a large number by Renault Sport measures, if not quite output parity against key rivals in Honda’s Civic Type R, Ford’s Focus RS or Volkswagen’s Golf R. The power deficit will close, though, once the toughened Trophy flagship lobs in ‘300’ trim (224kW) later this year globally, creating a two-variant Aussie line-up come early 2019 until the inevitable limited editions pop up some time thereafter.

Spec highlights include a choice of six-speed manual and EDC dual-clutch transmissions (with clever ‘multi-shift’ automated downshifting), nifty segment-first 4Control rear-wheel steering as standard fitment, two chassis tunes in ‘regular’ Sport and ‘harder-core’ Cup (which also gets Torsen-type mechanical limited-slip differential), hydraulic compression bump stops in the suspension and a host of tricky gizmos ranging from R.S. Monitor Expert – that allows syncing filmed driving sessions with telemetry overlay - to the four-mode R.S. Vision ‘chequered flag’ front lighting.

Also in the mix is the inclusion of AEB, adaptive cruise control, safe distance warning, traffic sign recognition tied to an over-speed alert, blind-spot monitoring and hands-free parking, which bode well for the value stakes if such equipment is offered standard in Australia at its circa-$45k price point for basic Sport manual (EDC will add $2500). Speaking of options, the lurid Tonic Orange paintwork is a bold new colour for a bold new hatchback - the iconic RS Sirius Yellow is also available – that’s not French built, but rather manufactured in the Palencia plant in Spain.

Fitting, then, that Renault chose southern Spanish back roads and the legendary Jerez race circuit on which to preview to the world’s media the Sport EDC and Sport Cup manual versions respectively. “Sport Cup?” you ask. Essentially, the Cup chassis addenda that will only be offered in Australia in the flagship Trophy version can be optioned on the regular Sport in Europe, a highly desirable combination that won’t be offered – or offered as yet – Down Under.

We got to sample two version in Spain: the not-for-Oz Sport Cup with a manual for hot laps of the famed former Grand Prix circuit of Jerez, and the dual-clutch equipped Sport for punting around the nearby Andalusian back roads and byways. Worth noting, too, is that our road cars, by Euro measure, are well optioned with 19-inch rims and 245mm rubber (18s and 235s are standard), high-spec Alcantara trim (against cloth) and the best-of-three 8.7-inch portrait-style touchscreen infotainment (7.0-inch landscape-type is standard) and perhaps not indicative of standard Aussie spec.

The Megane RS looks fantastic in the flesh: wide, squat, handsome styling without the flamboyance of the old version. With its unique side body panels, the extra 60mm front and 45mm rear body width – with correspondingly stretched wheel tracks - does wonders for the Megane form, with a tinge of concept car flavor and absolutely no boy racerisms.

If you think Type R is too lairy and juvenile and Golfs are too bland, wait until you see this French beauty in the flesh.

The cabin has a racier vibe if with ample restraint and maturity in design and styling. If feels solidly built, there’s quality in the materials and fit and finish, and it feels built for go-fast purpose without impinging too much on general comfort. The mechanical-adjust seats and driver controls are form-fitting and purposeful, the rear seating is ample without providing generous accommodation, and there’s not much in the way of nonsense or clever-dickery. Interestingly, the EDC version gets an electronic park brake, the manual a conventional, motorkhana-friendly handbrake.

That’s not to say everything is to all tastes: the chunky steering wheel features leather grips and Alcantara high and low of centre boss – I’d prefer the other way around – and the stagger between the right and centre pedals is a touch too exaggerated (though you do a decent alloy dead pedal as a handy left-foot brace). And the too-short column mounted paddle-shifters are only really fully useable with the wheel in the dead-ahead position, rather than the more favourable wheel-mounted design that’s predominantly adopted by performance cars.

The infotainment is mostly good: it’s fast acting, has high-resolution, neat side-swipe functionality and clear graphic design, though there are too many menu steps at times. Apple CarPlay is standard and the exhaustive array of RS Monitor features – from wheel slip to tyre temperature – is a bench-racing weekend warrior’s wet dream. Ditto the drive mode selection, which toggles between Neutral and Sport at the touch of a button but also offers Comfort, Race (which disengages stability control completely) and Perso, which is completely user assignable… just in case you desire full Race mode with ESC left on, say.

The Bose nine-speaker audio is standard and for good reason: it does the synthetic heavy lifting when it comes enhancing the Megane RS’s engine sonics that, as it turns out, is one of the richest and finest notes in the hot hatch business. Gone is ‘tune-by-Hoover’ effect of the old RS, replaced by a rich, gutsy if not completely honest exhaust notes that’s sheer ear candy on the march, complete with a brapping ignition cut on upchanges in the EDC version that makes an AMG A45 sound cartoonish.

You only get launch control with EDC and there’s no Type R-like rev-matching trickery in the regular manual – “we debated and decided not to use it,” says Renault Sport. And yet both versions claim identical and quite impressive 5.8sec 0-100km/h times. There are differences in specification semantics: at 1407kg kerb, the manual is 23kg more lightweight, and its 255km/h v-max is five kilometres per hour higher than the dual-clutcher. That said, the EDC cars come with slightly fitter (by 0.2L) combined consumption claim of a frankly optimistic 6.9L/100km.

What’s properly impressive is just how much low-to-mid-range shove the 1.8L turbo four generates when it’s on the march. It’s not slam-your-hair-into-the-head-rest ferocious, but it’s easy to evoke wheelspin and there’s oodles of lag-free response and overtaking verve. Wind it out towards the 6250rpm redline and that immediate shove levels out somewhat, and the nature of the engine is that it’s more fiery when pointing and squirting in lower gears than in increasing velocity at highway speeds. But it’s a faithful and enthusiastic ally that delivers more than its modest capacity suggests.

On road, the EDC is decent around town, happier and slicker shifting in Sport once you get a move on. The so-called Multi Change Down is pretty cool if you choose to use it in the heat of battle, particularly when diving deep and hard into a braking zone. Rather than snicking the left paddle-shifter down for every downshift, you can opt to hold the paddle and it’ll automatically shuffle through to the ‘best’ gear to match the moment’s velocity. It’s a clever, user-optional, on-command feature so if you don’t like it you’re not forced to use it.

The sonics, the engine shove and cooperative EDC conspire for an eager, racy, feel-good vibe when bombing across back roads. It generates speed and continues to carry it with ease. Thankfully, the steering feel and the accuracy with which the Megane RS points through corners is excellent: there’s very little torquesteer and decent corner exit drive even without a mechanical LSD benefit found in the Cup chassis, and when the nose does move offline slightly during wheelspin, as it tends to do across salty Spanish roads, it’s tempered and predictable.

The chassis it’s all paired with is excellent, at least in softer Sport that clearly tuned towards spirited road use, given its firm yet superbly disciplined nature. There’s a nice clean and clear edge to the dynamics, and the passive dampers help to maintain exceptional body control while still filtering out road surface imperfections. There seems to be more playfulness, more ‘life’, to the handling character compared with lower-rung variants of the old Megane RS, though the new car will convince you that, point to point, it’s the swifter device.

Far less conspicuous by the seat of the pants, though no less impressive, is the effect of the four-wheel steering system. In all drive modes bar Race, it transitions from steering the rears in the opposite direction (up to 2.7 degrees) to the same direction (up to one degree) at 60km/h. In Race, specifically for track work, the swap-over point is 100km/h. On road, then, the effect is very subtle unless you’re moving slowly and making a hook turn or negotiating a hairpin, where it works a treat. Carrying speed, it adds some stability without robbing the chassis of its innate playfulness.

The other subtle feature, the “rally inspired” hydraulic compression stop, is essentially a ‘damper inside a damper’ that controls wheel movement and dissipates energy under big compression hits. Tangible benefit? Hard to tell in normal driving, yet the benefit is really obvious when you hit a nasty depression in a lumpy Spanish back road going, ahem, fairly bloody quickly. No crash through, excellent rebound control, a chassis that settles quickly and safely. It’s claimed to temper the ride across potholes and speed bumps, though this is something we didn’t get to test.

The 355mm front and 290mm rear Brembos, with bi-material aluminium/iron disc rotors, are powerful and progressive if a little touchy at low speed. That can, if only occasionally, have a tendency to squeal. In fact, if there any areas of criticism to be laid on the Megane RS on the road, it’s that the wing mirrors get a bit noisy above around 100km/h, and on coarse surfaces those grippy 245mm Bridgestone Potenzas get a rowdy rumble on.

Where those tyres suffer most are around the narrow curves of Circuito de Jerez, not because they’re left wanting for grip during ten-tenth frivolity, but because the Megane RS Cup-spec chassis works them so hard they get shagged very quickly. It’d be an expensive day at the track on standard rubber. Renault Sport hints they’re looking at a more track-friendly tyre for the more powerful, inevitably quicker Trophy version, but it’s difficult to certify R-spec tyres on a volume-selling road car in most regions.

I thought it strange the dual-clutcher was demoed on road and manual reserved for track…right up until halfway around the first flying lap. Despite no rev-matching functionality, it's a superb marriage on track the manual with Cup dynamics, a real driver’s treat, and bloody quick too. Renault Sport has made some song and dance about the proof in this new RS pudding being track talent rather than sheer power. And I’m inclined to believe them. No 1.8-litre front driver should be as quick as this.

It’s where the tricky diff, the wider track, the clever front suspension, even the four-wheel steering really comes together. The Cup tune really shines, converting engine output to progress fantastically well, providing eyebrow raising pace driven cleanly or grin-inducing playfulness if the driver wishes. It’s progressive and communicative in character, thoroughly well sorted, and extremely cooperative in adhering to the driver’s whims.

The last car I drove at Jerez, a BMW 4 Series, was out of its depth, requiring restraint with throttle and brake inputs while demanding animated steering, mostly in correction. No slight on the Bimmer – it’s not pitched as a track device. But the Megane RS Cup is the opposite: you can bury the throttle and jump on the brakes, you can dig in and be ‘ham-footed’, and it doesn’t get flustered. And yet it maintains poise and precision where it’s sharp direction finder only requires measured inputs.

Is the new Megane RS any quicker than the best of the old generation? It’s hard to say without a back-to-back comparison. There does seem to be more dynamite underfoot – not in the aforementioned piston-through-the-crankcase sense – and a different cut to its handling jib, but whether that translates on the stopwatch remains to be seen. Sampling the EDC, rather than the conventional manual as we did, on track might’ve provided a clearer impression.

Indeed, those responsible for the new Megane RS handiwork have long maintained that the ultimate measure of the car’s prowess is in red-misted circuit work, an area of the car that delivers the most and more than compensates for with an engine underpowered against rivals.

It wants to return to the home of the measure of motoring manliness, Germany’s famed Nordschleife, to better the gen-two Trophy R predecessor’s best of 7:54.36, and steal back the unofficial King of the Front-Drive Hot Hatch accolades from the Honda Civic Type R that recently pinched it. If perhaps once the new Trophy 300 arrives next year.

But as a first taste of the entry 280 version, vital signs are healthy indeed.

Renault Sport has successfully reformulated its iconic small-segment hot hatch yet again, resulting in an intelligent, sophisticated and goodies-laden hero car that comes together well as a complete package.

The new Megane RS is a car that should, importantly if not crucially, continue to compel lovers of the breed and offer those shopping in the increasingly vibrant and ever-more performance and pace-centric segment for a capable, unique, surprisingly mature and oh-so-French alternative, be it the quickest device on the block or not