2019 Renault Megane RS review

Australian first drive

Despite downsizing the motor, the new third-gen Renault Megane RS is a huge step up from the model it replaces with more pace, equipment and tech than ever before. It's no less capable, yet far more liveable.

Ever since French carmaker Renault launched its first-generation Megane RS in 2004, it’s been the go-to hot hatch for performance-bent purists with an eye for flair.

Not only was it hugely distinctive, polarising even, but it brought with it a whole new level of dynamics not yet seen in the segment. It was a proper race-bred chassis with a tonne of character and huge ability to boot.

The Renault Megane RS became even better with age, when the next-generation arrived in 2010 with not only more power, but also astonishing levels of road holding and outright performance. It was so far ahead of the game at the time that it became the first of the new ‘super hatch’ segment we have today. That group now includes rivals like the Honda Type R, Hyundai i30 N, Ford Focus RS, Volkswagen Golf R and even the Peugeot 308 GTi, all vying for top billing.

But, benchmark or not, the go-fast Renault wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. Firstly, it was only ever available in a three-door body, and the ride was straight-up bone-jarring even on relatively flat surfaces. The interior was an after-thought at best, and it sure did look that way, too. The only good things inside the cabin worth crowing about were the race-style bucket seats (for their sheer hold on your torso under extreme loads) and the superbly moulded leather steering wheel, which just felt right.

And, unlike subsequent performance hatch models from VW, you couldn’t get an automatic transmission. Put that oversight down to the marketing department who was still bent on going after die-hard loyalists to the RS badge.

But the game clearly moved forward over ensuing years, with Volkswagen in particular offering more refined and more practical choices for a superior daily drive experience from a humbler Golf GTI and various specially tuned variants that popped up every now and again - all the way up to a Wolfsburg Edition Golf R for the total everyday performance package.

Honda came along with its superb fifth-gen Civic Type R in 2017 and if you could get past its over-the-top styling, then boom – you were in for a special treat with the car’s phenomenal roadholding, more than enough go and outstanding ride comfort to boot. This was the new benchmark.

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New kid on the block, Hyundai, broke new ground with its first ever hot-hatch called the i30 N – a truly brilliant piece of performance engineering from the same guy who developed some of the most iconic M cars at BMW for over 30 years. No one expected it to be as good as it is.

Interestingly, both the Honda and Hyundai are not currently available with an automatic transmission, though Hyundai is currently developing its own dual-clutch box for a late 2019 release – an initiative that clearly recognises the benefits of greater choice in the segment.

It’s a huge consideration these days and, according to Renault, one clearly worth chasing, given the ever-changing customer demands – meaning the new-generation Megane RS needed to appeal to a much wider market, but not at the expense of its hard reputation as a giant-slaying halo car for the brand.

And just like the previous two generations, Renault has come out with guns blazing with its latest edition of the Megane RS, producing something far more revolutionary than evolutionary, especially if you count all the new tech on board and the fact that it’s a five-door only.

Renault has downsized the engine to a more formidable 1.8-litre direct-injection turbo four, and it’s a cracker. Making 205kW and peak torque of 390Nm from 2400 to 4800rpm – it’s the most powerful 1.8-litre motor on the market and will go from 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds.

For the first time in the segment, the RS steers with all four wheels, while buyers can choose between a traditional six-speed manual or dual-clutch auto. And both are good.

If you want something more than the Sport chassis, you’ll need to opt for the Cup, which gets stiffer springs and lower ride height, as well as a mechanical limited-slip differential and more robust brake discs made with bi-material aluminium. Note, however, that it's available in manual form only.

Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves. If you’re like me, you’ll probably agree its new-look body isn’t as distinctive as its predecessor, well certainly not at first glance. This a far more polished design that better considers the needs of a broader customer target, but no less buff.

In some respects, it’s a more focused approach with plenty of road presence. It’s a larger car all round, growing by 60mm at the front wheel arches and 45mm at the rear, but with an even more aggressive diffuser. It’s also slightly lower, dropping 5mm compared to the old model.

It makes for a tough stance, especially if dressed in Renault’s hero paint jobs like the Orange Tonic or Liquid Yellow versions at the launch venue.

Despite going after a greater share of the pie this time around, Renault has priced the manual from $44,990 plus on-roads, and the auto from $47,490. That’s well above the likes of the i30 N ($39,990) and Golf GTI ($41,990), but still cheaper than rivals such as the much-lauded Civic Type R ($50,990) and underrated Peugeot 308 GTi ($45,990).

Still, the higher entry price is not without its rewards, either. The Megane also gets hydraulic compression stops on all four shock absorbers and another first for the segment: Renault’s PR blurb call it a “shock absorber within the shock absorber”, and their effect on ride comfort is noticeable.

The Megane is also fitted with big Brembo brakes, 19-inch allows with low-profile Bridgestone tyres for superb grip levels.

Inside, its chalk and cheese compared with the old model. Comfort levels have been dialled up with plenty of soft-touch materials above knee height (hard plastics below) and a host of modern tech. Finally, a rear-view camera with parking sensors and an 8.7-inch tablet-style touchscreen with good clear resolution and quick response times.

The instrument display is also largely digital, complete with a huge centrally-located tachometer that changes colour depending which drive mode you’ve selected. And, it’s all very intuitive, especially the drive modes and telemetry data.

In fact, there are around 40 sensors that give the driver real-time data such as tyre pressures, lap times, acceleration and braking pressure to name just some of the available information.

Renault has equipped the Megane with a solid suite of active safety kit, too, with the likes of lane departure warning with blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, distance warning. And, if you’ve never owned a Renault before, you’ll appreciate the automatic ‘walk away’ remote locking feature.

If we had any doubts about the Sport chassis setup with the dual-clutch box not being somehow in-line with ‘RS’ heritage, that was summarily quashed with the first few bends we attacked.

Just one button brings up the choice of five drive modes; comfort, normal, sport, race and personal. Forget about comfort as it seriously retards throttle response for anything other than a peak-hour crawl. Sport is where you want to be for any serious driving.

Throttle response is immediate with little or no lag. Within an instant, you’ve got some serious pull from this wonderfully versatile engine. There’s a nice spread of gear ratios too that syncs perfectly well with extra-long paddle shifters that somehow don’t seem long enough – at least for this writer – odd.

There’s a proper ‘crack’ with any full-throttle upshift. It’s properly intoxicating too, so I found myself over using the paddles back and forth from second to third and vice-versa. I didn’t expect the shifts to be that quick either. Its instantaneous, but there’s also plenty of overrun pops and crackles, especially in second, the moment you come off the throttle. This is good stuff.

I’m also a big fan of the new four-wheel steering system. For me, it gives me additional confidence in the tighter bends, especially if you’re carrying some pace. Moreover, steering wheel input is dramatically reduced, allowing for more focus on other things. Not that there’s any lack of steering weight – that seems spot-on to me.

We’d like to think we gave it a good crack on some fairly demanding twisties in parts, and the new Megane simply ate it up. If anything, we wanted to push harder, as the chassis felt more than capable of dealing with much higher loads.

It’s very well balanced and changes direction with cat-like precision and good progression on both pedals, particularly the brake. That said, the RS feels utterly track capable, even with the Sport chassis.

The big bug bear with all previous generation Megane RS models has been ride comfort – there was none. And this is where the new version has seen a huge improvement in my mind. It must come down to those hydraulic compression stops, as a well as a new suspension tune entirely, because the hot Megane is now viable as a daily driver – and not just for the enthusiast.

That said, after only a couple of hours of road looping, we were back at Norwell for a track session in the manual-only Cup chassis version. We’d already driven this car in regional Victoria and found it to be hugely capable in sketchy conditions on tight roads, but the ride was super firm, and we couldn’t wait to track it.

Norwell is a tight, technical proving ground in Southern Queensland that will show up any weaknesses all too clearly.

After a couple of familiarisation laps, we were well and truly ‘on it’ with the speedo showing 165km/h down the relatively small straightaway.

The 355mm front Brembos worked wonders under big loads (and late braking), even after repeated laps with a variety of different drivers behind the wheel.

There’s a host of very tight turns and yet the car proved wonderfully agile with a willingness to change direction, though still allowing for mid-corner corrections. The chassis feels superb under these demanding conditions and grip levels were exceptional even after repeated laps.

The fact you never really have to work the steering wheel all that hard makes a huge difference on track, especially at this track. The limited-slip diff also works marvellously – even in Race mode – and allows you to get on the throttle early on exit.

As much fun as we had on track, the only real choice here for a daily driver is the Sport Chassis with the mandatory dual-clutch auto, though it’s a pity Renault doesn’t offer a limited-slip diff on this model too, but that’s just me.

Naturally, we’d like more road time in the car and we’ll get that when it comes through the CarAdvice garage, but make no mistake, this is a huge step up from the old RS.

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