Manual gearbox. Just two words, but it feels good to write them. Because whereas we couldn’t write about such a transmission with the Renault Sport Clio, we can talk about one with the new Megane RS.
Renault Sport copped a fair amount of flak from enthusiasts (and, yes, media) for not providing a manual with its smallest pocket rocket, and perhaps that prompted the decision to offer both a self-shifter and an auto-shifter (for the first time) for the hot Megane.
It makes the Megane RS the only model in its segment to offer gearbox choices (unless you count the Mini Cooper S 5-door as a rival).
Not that the French hot-hatch specialists invested in a new manual; it’s the same six-speeder carried over from the previous model (with some tweaks).
As expected, the manual represents the entry point to the Megane RS range starting at $44,990. It’s a $2500 premium for the dual-clutch auto version.
We have another option on our test car instead: the $1490 Cup Pack that brings a Cup chassis (over the standard Sport suspension), brakes manufactured from a “bi-material” aluminium/cast-iron, black rims for the 19-inch Interlagos wheels, and a Torsen mechanical limited-slip differential.
Interestingly, the Cup Pack is not available with the auto – Renault Sport suggesting only ‘real’ drivers use stick-shifts (though what does that say about the brand’s Formula 1 drivers, including Daniel Ricciardo, who use flappy paddles?).
So, what’s the manual like? Well, mixed. The positive aspects are that the weighting of the shift action and the clutch pedal feel spot-on – some heft without being overly heavy; the biting point of the clutch is also obvious. The throw is neither short nor long, but somewhere in the middle, and we didn’t mind that.
The negatives are that the shift action is a bit clunky, and the lever doesn’t slot into each gate with satisfying conviction despite being accurate. So the interaction, despite Renault’s claims of giving the shift a sportier feel, isn’t as tactile as with the Honda Civic Type R’s terrific slick, metal-knobbed rower.
We also sometimes found it easy to accidentally apply more revs than necessary to get the Megane off the line initially, owing to a small dead space at the top of the throttle pedal’s travel. Interestingly, we found the Race mode helped in stop-start traffic – its increased response allowing for smoother take-offs.
You don’t necessarily need to change gears frequently, though. The Renault’s new 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is flush with torque: 390Nm produced between 2400 and 4800rpm.
The engine pulls strongly and progressively from well below that lower figure – about 1000rpm – so even tight corners that aren’t quite hairpins can be taken in third without costing momentum, while fourth gear is a deliciously flexible gear for flowing, winding roads.
Drivers need to switch the RS from Neutral to Sport mode – via the RS Drive dash button – to accentuate pops and crackles from the exhaust, as well as the burbling on the over-run when lifting off the throttle.
The noise effects, as they are with the Clio RS, are enhanced by the audio system, though arguably sound more natural than they do in the smaller Renault Sport model.
It’s still relatively polite, though, and the manual misses out on the computer-controlled ignition-cut theatrics of the EDC (dual-clutch) auto, which produces wonderful barks on flat-chat upshifts.
The Cup chassis isn’t as easy to live with every day as the standard Sport suspension. While the Megane’s hydraulic bump-stop set-up – described as “a damper within a damper” – cleverly helps avoid crashes into potholes, the ride is constantly unsettled.
However, there’s some pay-off during spirited drives for going with the Cup chassis that stiffens anti-roll bars and bump stops by 10 per cent, springs by 25 per cent and dampers by 30 per cent. While the ‘Sport’ RS handles fantastically well, the ‘Cup’ RS feels even more tied down on the limit.
Combine that with the greater brake feel of the Cup Pack’s composite brake pads, and the driver gains incremental confidence for braking that bit later and carrying just that bit of extra cornering speed.
The Torsen limited-slip diff feels like it allows the RS to pull just that bit harder out of corners, though it’s not a night-day difference compared with the stock brake-based torque vectoring system, and there’s some mild, but not bothersome, torque steer.
So, the Cup Pack is a good choice for track days, though it’s worth noting a harder-core Trophy variant is coming later this year.
The RS’s directional changes are astonishingly quick, placing the Renault’s agile handling in the exalted company of the Focus RS and Type R.
The Renault’s four-wheel steering is a throwback to another Honda – the Prelude. Whether it confers a dynamic advantage to the Megane RS in the hot-hatch segment is debatable, though its high-speed cornering stability – when the rear wheels are turning one degree in the same direction as the fronts above 60km/h – is without doubt staggeringly good.
Wider tracks (by 6cm up front, and 4.5cm at the rear rear) and wider rubber over the regular Megane also help.
Below 60km/h, the system moves the rear wheels in the opposite direction – up to 2.7 degrees – and you discover you don’t need as much steering lock as you might expect for tighter bends. It certainly makes negotiating roundabouts an effortless exercise, while the turning circle is super-tight.
The track-focused Race mode increases the four-wheel system’s switchover point to 100km/h.
You can see what the front and rear wheels are doing (as well as speed and steering angle) via the RS Monitor display selectable on the Megane’s touchscreen. This includes a Track Tips section that will be informative for some owners, but possibly a case of teaching a granny to suck eggs for keener steerers.
The central digital rev counter (with convenient digital speed in its centre) is familiar from lower-range Meganes, as are the flanking engine-temp and fuel gauges that perhaps occupy more instrument-panel real estate than necessary.
Some of the regular Megane’s cheaper, scratchy plastics also carry over on parts of the doors and dash, though the higher you look, the higher the quality of materials. The centre console also looks smart with its smooth black plastic and silver side panels.
There are plenty of RS cues, too: the chunky (though not overly thick) steering wheel with red centre stripe, perforated grip section and RS logo; red cross-stitching for handbrake, gear lever and steering wheel; straight red stitching for seats, doors and console bin lid; ‘RS’-embossed sports seats (with effective bolstering yet great comfort) with a carbon-fibre-mimicking pattern that matches neatly to faux-carbon-fibre trim inserts on the doors and dash.
Those chunky seats aren’t helpful to rear legroom that’s already average for the regular Megane. Knee space is limited even for an average-sized adult sitting behind their own driving position. Toes are also a bit squeezed, and the thick headrests obscure much of forward vision.
Plenty of headroom, though, and the bench is comfortable, while rear passengers are supplied with their own vents. There’s an armrest with cupholders (seemingly designed to take either a large flat white or two piccolos), and bottles will fit in the door bins. No USB ports, just a 12-volt socket.
The seatbacks fold to expand boot space, though they don’t fold completely flat and create a small step on the floor. With seats upright, the boot offers a decent capacity of 434L and there’s good width.
If you ticked the Bose audio option (worth it for just $500), there’s a subwoofer under the boot floor (along with a tyre repair kit).
Maintaining the Megane RS costs $399 every year ($50 more than the regular model), with each of Renault’s three official service schedules initiating complimentary roadside assistance.
It’s a shame Renault Australia treats its RS customers so poorly by offering them only a three-year warranty compared with five years for other models.
That ownership blot aside, the Renault Megane RS is once again a strong temptation for keen drivers.
You just probably need to be the keenest of the keen to opt for the Cup Pack that heightens the Megane’s road-attacking senses, but also downgrades the everyday liveability of the Renault on its standard suspension (and especially the EDC version).