This is a bit of a strange one for me. I've never truly 'got' hot hatches. I've grown up never being fond of front-wheel drive or finding myself needing a large boot and the whole recipe was one that I could appreciate but never really desired.
Then, enter COVID-19. Sat around the housekeeping busy with work but with no commuting and rewarding my productive hours with an hour or two's downtime, I found myself browsing classifieds for bargain cars. A while back I had said to myself ''you can't get a fun or trackable car for under $4k that runs and is licenced."
Turns out I was wrong.
The closest I've come to buying a hatch was a Megane 225 F1 team, and at 18 and facing huge insurance premiums in the UK - it just wasn't meant to be. I searched Renault F1 one day hoping to either land on a Megane (or an Espace!).
Turned out - a Clio 182 Cup F1-team was available at a price I couldn't in my right mind refuse. But after high-tailing it down to the seller in an uber, facemask and hand sanitiser in hand and taking home a bargain - I was looking for parts the very next day and saw a Megane 225 at the same price. Again, running, regoed and having seemingly little work to do. I negotiated the price down to $2.5k (literally the price of a service on the GTR recently), so was expecting an absolute wreck. I couldn't have been more wrong.
So to zip to the topic at hand - I've been running around daily in a Megane 225 for a few months now. My motoring prejudices tell me that being french, isolation must have been making me make reckless decisions and I was in for maintenance woes; but on opening up the service books, I find over $5k had been spent in the last few years. Cam Belt, Head Gasket, Pressure testing, Throttle Body refurb, the list goes on - anything major has generally been done and the car had an extensive - three owner history. All women - but knowing that my partner has as much fun with the throttle than I do - that wasn't of any extra assurance!
If that surprise wasn't enough, I gave her an oil and spark plug change and hit my favourite stretch of road. And whilst perhaps it's a by-product of low expectations, I was astounded at how good my little bargain project started to become.
Looking at it, the Mrs simply said ''ugly''. I don't expect that to change any time soon, nor her to be the last to make that remark. I remember that derriere being the subject of a marketing campaign, with the car driving through adverts with Groove Arnarda playing in the background.
But I like it. It looks unique amongst generic family boxes that the road is lined with, whilst remaining subtle enough to fly under the radar. A chunkier bodykit makes it sit a lot more nicely than it's non-sport counterparts. But peak through the windows at the stitching marking the centreline on the steering wheel and Renault Sport on the leather bucket seats and you'll get a hint of something that might be somewhat sporty underneath.
Outside, the twin-centre-exit exhausts and Brembo brake callipers poking through the 18-inch wheels confirm that all might not be quite so mundane after all.
The 2-litre turbocharged engine is a hoot. I tend to baby a used purchase until I've got some kms and have serviced it, which was the case here. But after then it was time for a play. From about 3,000 rpm through to about 5,500 you get a surge of torque (300nm in fact) and attitude that sees you pick up the pace with surprising gusto. It's actually quite addictive. It constantly eggs you on to give it a squirt of gas at every opportunity.
Sure, it's nowhere near as sophisticated as the hot-hatches of today - the torque steer will make sure you don't forget that - but 0-100 in 6.5 seconds means it was never a slouch. It's aimed more at low-end rubber shredding than high revs - which in turn makes it so darned accessible and easy to drive. The gearbox is well-ratioed and the ride, tight meaning that you always feel able to hit the gas.
And it's far from a one-trick pony. Naive of me, but on showing it some corners, I ended up again giggling through surprise and enjoyment. Turn in is well measured and the front end is surprisingly communicative - and grippy. Again, that diff won't express the composure and confidence of a modern equivalent - but it has such a satisfying way of dealing with the extremes. When you push a little farther when the conditions allow and tiptoe into the limits of the front end grip, you feel the front predictively understeer but when you pass the apex and lift off the throttle, you feel the back end drift into place. Lovely.
The Brembo brakes are punchy. I haven't had them through a true workout but on a few spirited drives, they were sharp, very well-modulated and consistent with a suitable amount of play in the pedal. The pedals themselves are very well suited to my not-so-large size 10 feet, allowing comfortable heel-toeing of the aluminium pedals if you should feel so inclined. The soundtrack is a source of disappointment. Given the statement prominently made by the twin exit pipes, it's a crying shame that they are so muted.
The clutch is a bit of an all or nothing affair and it's taken me a while to get used to it. I find it fairly light with most of the action higher up the range-of-travel on my example. I was initially concerned that it might have seen better days having travelled 136k kms but Sporty Renaults are seemingly renown for it. Once you get used to it, you'll be slipping the six-speed box through the gears with ease. The box has a generally nice feel albeit with a long throw that erodes some of the accuracies - but that seems to be an ergonomic compromise. The stick falls to the hand very nicely, especially when you have your arm on the centre console. A compromise between performance and comfort perhaps. The oddly placed handbrake handle feels more like the landing gear controls of a plane but again when you slip your arm off the arm-rest to operate it, it makes sense.
Jumping in the Clio after, you will realise that the Megane is nose-heavy by comparison and gets a little hairy if you try to push too hard. But I've put a good 3,000kms in a couple of short months on and there is no question which one I would rather do those kms in. The seats seem to fit me very aptly, nice and tight in the bolster, but soft and comfortable on my usual 70k daily spin in the cockpit.
Speaking of the cabin, it's a pleasant place to be. You have to remember it was a $40k or so car so you can't expect 'premium' but certainly provides enough creature comforts. Its boxy shape makes it incredibly roomy, up-front and in the back. It has isofix mounts meaning it's even a good choice to get my daughter in the back if need be (it also had a 5-star Euro N-Cap rating). In its time it had a good spec list for the price bracket - including fog lights, auto-windscreen wipers, cruise control and even a little credit card sized gizmo masquerading as a key - which after some time slipping it in and out of my pocket, was an under-rated innovation in its time if you ask me.
It, of course, misses out on more modern 'standards', sat-nav and Bluetooth to name a few, but having a double-din radio, I was fortunate in that mine came with an aftermarket solution which brings it bang up to date in the tech field.
All in all the quick project has somehow become a daily driver. A role which I Was originally penning an e28 745 for. But driven sedately it has returned a real-world 8l/100km for me; driven aggressively it's returned nothing but smiles so far. It makes the B-roads to work enjoyable and the highway stints comfortable.
It's all-round practical, easy yet rewarding to drive harder in and the only real problem is that it's had me wanting more of the same and constantly searching for an R26 F1. But given the price paid, it's a hard justification to make. It might not have the build quality of a Golf GTI nor the steady residuals of the 5-cylinder XR-5 (or Focus ST as it was in Europe), but the Megane has a character and enjoyability that trumps both.