It is hard to overstate how important this Megane 280 is to Renault Sport, to the hot hatch market and to the people who love them. That's because, like the Clio 200 of 2013, it must replace a genre-defining model, a car celebrated for its unflinching focus, with a more accommodating, less taxing alternative. As if the pressure wasn't enough back then, it's been upped for the Megane because of the Clio's very public ostracising.
Now Renault Sport has to prove to those enthusiasts that this five-door only, auto-if-you-want-it path really is the correct one, while also competing against the most compellingly complete range of rivals to be seen in a very long time. What Renault is surely aiming for (and what buyers will want) is a hot hatch with the immersion of a Civic Type R and the easy going sensibilities of a Golf GTI - much less risks it featuring amongst the also rans. And while a launch drive promised plenty, limiting a drive of the Cup chassis equipped, manual gearboxed car to the super smooth Jerez circuit was hardly revealing.
Here is a proper test. South Wales, that tight troupe of tarmac ribbons just beneath the Brecon Beacons, and the Hyundai i30 N; a car as shocking to the hot hatch world as Sandy was to the T-Birds at the end of Grease. Nobody really thought something so plain and so virtuous could become quite so racy, and consequently attention hasn't left it since. Having seen off our favourite MQB-based car in the Leon Cupra late last year, the Hyundai has certainly earned its chance to go up against hot hatch royalty. Unencumbered by heritage or expectation, the i30 N has arrived to a blaze of praise and is ready take on all comers.
The Hyundai is also within five horsepower and five hundred pounds of the Megane at list price, so it's the perfect fit here. Albeit from very different positions, they're targeting ostensibly the same sort of buyers. And if you wondering where the Civic is in this comparison, bear in mind that 95 per cent of UK Type Rs are in GT spec; at £32,995, that's £5,500 more than the Megane before you even get to the fact of its 40hp deficit in power - a duel for the Trophy then, surely.
Instead Hyundai vs. Renault Sport begins in the salubrious surroundings of PH's Feltham outpost, late already at 8:15 thanks to South Western's uncanny imitation of a Southern train service. A jovial delivery driver suggests I'll like it because "it's a car for young lads really", adding that the ride was "really too firm" for her on the M25 slog. But what about those much lauded rally-style hydraulic bump stops? Not now, Matthew, not now...
Before the M4 slip road, it's clear this 280 is a patently different car to any of the 275, 265 or 250 derivatives that preceded it. For better and for worse. The fourth generation Megane is a more mature, higher quality, less demanding hot hatch than it ever has been; immediately a car in which the motorway slog to a good road can be enjoyed as much as it was endured once upon a time.
Well, sort of. There's no escaping the fact the Megane is a little frustrating in the initial exchanges. The media interface is slow to respond and difficult to understand, the four-wheel steer feels spookily direct at slow speed and the driving modes feel superfluous. Is it really necessary to have a Comfort and a Normal, a Sport and a Race? Particularly with an individual 'Perso' mode as well. And the more so without adjustability in the dampers. Could it be that the endless configurability options, richer materials and snazzy styling features are merely a facade for another ordinary hot hatch?
There are signs to the contrary as the M4 trundles through Berkshire and Wiltshire. The control weights are near enough spot on, pedals reassuring in their heft and gearbox satisfyingly slick, even if the steering isn't quite the paragon of EPAS excellence it once was. The ride that so irked the delivery driver is underlined by some real damping quality and very good mass control, highlighting yet again the faith that is too often misplaced in adaptive alternatives. The four-wheel steer even begins to make some sense when slicing up service station slip roads, delivering the sort of poised agility we've all craved in a modern Megane. Hmm...
With the M4 left in its wider tracks, the Megane is presented with a brief opportunity to stretch its legs before meeting with its Korean contemporary. And, well, they don't stretch very far, do they? Clearly an extra five horsepower from the Cup-S is not enough to offset the weight gain, the lustiness and drama of the old 2.0-litre conspicuous by its absence here. The new 1.8 is decently potent, and competitive enough in this sector, yet without excelling in any particular area. The Civic would be demonstrably quicker, the VW 2.0-litre more eager and even the Peugeot 1.6 in possession of a more effervescent top end.
The Megane's weaknesses are pretty cruelly exposed by a couple of miles in the Hyundai, in fact, chiefly because the i30 is proper hoot of a hot hatch. You get in, drive fast, make more noise than you probably should and smile a lot - it's immediately gratifying in a way that the Renault will never be. The engine is keener regardless of whatever mode either car is in, the whole car fizzing and pulsing with a pugnacious attitude that's unique to the class.
The Hyundai boasts even more unnecessary configurability than the Renault Sport, though it's fairly simple to cut through the crap: you want the eLSD at its most focused to make the most of that tenacious front end, the dampers in their normal mode (to avoid the crashiness of 'N'), the steering similarly configured (because when have the more aggressive steering modes ever been better?) and the powertrain in either of its sportier settings. Thus set up, you have a hot hatch born to entertain; nimble, athletic and indefatigable. Grip is decent, performance is really strong and the i30 feels compact - never a given these days. The Renault needs to up its game.
And, handily enough, it absolutely does. Because beneath the new-found maturity, the cabin frustrations and the ordinary engine, there's a chassis of exemplary quality in this Megane. Certainly one that's worthy of the Renault Sport name, and absolutely superior to the Hyundai's.
It's that classic Renault Sport trait: the point at which others are reaching their limits is where the Gallic genius begins to shine. Bumps and undulations that have the i30 floundering and ragged are dispatched by the Megane, the car utterly unflustered yet the driver informed of everything that's going on. The harder you drive it, the better it gets, which is what we've always loved about Renault Sport cars - more responsive, more agile and more alive, the quicker you go. What's changed is that before you always knew the cars were up for it; here there's a sheen of sensibleness to penetrate first. It should also be said that, as is the frustrating way with progress, the speeds required to access this magic are higher than ever, though you'll struggle to complain when car, driver and road all come together in this fashion.
The Renault's balance is more favourable than the Hyundai's, seeming to work all four of its contact patches more equally. Where the i30 is all about the prodigious grip of its front end (therefore making the breakaway of the rear sketchier), the Megane feels fantastically neutral and adjustable, the car as willing to play fast and accurate as it is a bit slower and sillier. At speed the four-wheel steer really make sense too, aiding that sense of agility while never feeling overly nervous or darty. It feels a more satisfying and cohesive car to drive quickly than the i30, everything working together to deliver something brilliant rather than a few enjoyable elements standing out on their own.
Swapping back into the Hyundai after prolonged exposure to the Renault makes its defence unravel further. It's more dynamically dogmatic, offering up fewer approaches to its driver and in a fiercer manner. There's no doubt it's tremendously entertaining and mightily capable, but only when driven the way it wants to be driven - the Renault is more amenable to the driver's wishes.
So the Megane has to win, right? It's an agonising decision. One last drive in the Renault feels to have clinched it, with a deftness and lucidity to its ride and handling that eludes the Hyundai. But then the i30 is transport for the long journey home, which means accessing an infotainment system that makes a whole heap more sense, driving modes that are far easier to navigate, clearer dials and an engine that's a tad more exciting. Y'know, the things that make a difference day in, day out.
Then there's the bottom-line sucker punch: as tested, the Hyundai is £28,595. The Megane? £34,345. However you cut it, whether outright or on payments, that's a significant difference in this segment. It's not that the i30 is bare bones either; it's simply that you can't add any options other than paint. Which, in 2018, when Mini is 3D printing the London skyline to slap on your dash for £150, is quite refreshing.
True enough too, the Renault is not £6k better. Nevertheless, much of what makes up that difference you could do without. Add the Cup Pack, 19-inch wheels, the R.S. Monitor and the nav upgrade and it's £2k more rather than £6k, a premium the drive - in our opinion, at least - just about warrants. (Lovely though that Volcano Orange paint is, for example, £1,300 is a big chunk of cash.)
On this occasion, then, in the sunshine of Wales and with the Megane as new kid on the block, the Hyundai has to finish up second best. This is clearly not the floor-wiping of yesteryear though. It's quite possible that those used to the intensity of old Meganes might be put off - and no more likely that the latest version's more mature demeanour will lure people from their Golfs. And that's before you mention the pesky Honda, too, which arguably edges back into consideration once you're the wrong side of £30k.
Still, there's manifestly a lot to like about this latest Megane Renault Sport - even if the feeling that there's more to come is often persistent. That's almost always the case with Renault hot hatches though, isn't it? For now, the 280 version is entertaining without being totally enthralling, and convincing without being compelling - a gap that might yet be closed by the Trophy version. Certainly though this is a more auspicious start than that which the Clio enjoyed, and history has shown that the Megane tends to improve over time. That it is good enough already to shade the enormously likeable i30 N is testament to the job done by Renault Sport at the first try. Only time will tell if the Trophy can provide a more emphatic victory.
SPECIFICATION - HYUNDAI I30N PERFORMANCE PACKAGE
Engine: 1,998cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive (limited-slip differential with Performance Package)
Power (hp): 275@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 260@1,500-4,700rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Price: £28,010 (base price; as tested £28,595 comprised of Micron Grey for £585)
SPECIFICATION - RENAULT MEGANE R.S.
Engine: 1,798cc, turbocharged four-cylinder
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive, limited-slip diff (with Cup Chassis)
Power (hp): 280@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 288@2,400-4,800rpm
Top speed: 158mph
Weight: 1,407kg (kerbweight without options)
Price: £27,495 (base price; as tested £34,345 comprised of Volcano Orange metallic paint for £1,300, Cup Chassis Pack (limited-slip diff, red brake calipers, stiffer springs and dampers, anti-roll bar) for £1,500, Alcantara Pack (R.S. embroidered upholstery with heated seats) for £1,200, Alcantara steering wheel for £250, 19-inch 'Interlagos' black alloy wheels for £950, 8.7-inch portrait touchscreen with R-Link 2 for £300, Bose pack (Bose sound system with seven speakers, digital amp and subwoofer) for £800, Visio system (lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition, auto lights) for £250 and Renault Sport Monitor for £300)
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