Since its introduction in 2017, the FK8 Civic Type R has become as formidable an adversary as Arsenal's Invincibles team of 2003-04 - regardless of the opposition, it simply cannot be surpassed. Though not as easy on the eye going about its business as Wenger's swaggering side of 15 years ago, the Civic must now carry a similar level of confidence into each new test; no rival before has triumphed, so why would the this one?
The Civic is a better driver's car than even a Mountune'd Focus RS, faster and more efficient than an i30 N and cheaper than a Golf R. While being a thousand times more interesting. So what chance another Renault Sport Megane, a car arguably mired in the kind of underwhelming infancy that Dieppe apparently foists on every new model?
Well, maybe. Despite some undeniable blemishes, the Trophy has already proven to be a more thrilling vehicle than the standard Megane in our hands, and superior to the Golf GTI TCR. Let's not forget either that the Trophy harks from an almost unbroken line of genuine hot hatch pedigree - Clio 182, Megane 275, etc etc - and so expectations are never less than lofty when the name is applied to a lowly Renault. Wider reservations tend to evaporate in the shadow of the Trophy badge. The Megane II wasn't adored from launch, don't forget; neither was the Clio 197, come to think of it...
Still, this is a step up in class and no mistake. The Civic's bewildering array of talents remain as compelling as ever: rapid, intense, tenacious and fierce when needed; comfortable, mellow, plush and refined when not. Given the quality of its contemporaries, the Civic cannot be described as peerless - but so patent are its abilities that class-leading status has never been in serious doubt. Its damping is a masterclass in wheel and body control, delivering unerring precision without sacrificing comfort - even +R is acceptable where it never used to be, and vastly preferable to something like the i30's N mode.
Traction is otherworldly, 320hp consistently reaching the tarmac seemingly unperturbed by surface or steering angle; it's a feat made more impressive by the Civic's fairly ordinary - by mega hatch standard - Continental SportContact6 tyre. The braking performance is mighty, the grip huge, and the speed still pretty extraordinary. But it's the Civic's facility for just making absolutely the right kind of progress everywhere and seemingly at all speeds which separates it from the also-rans. The more you drive it, the more it seems to give back - and the more believable its 7mins 43 sec 'ring lap becomes. It's some car.
Yet here's the thing; in terms of objective handling ability, it's difficult to separate Honda and Renault - and that's a colossal compliment for the latter right out of the gate. The Trophy feels no less fast despite its smaller capacity and lower outright power. It is keyed into the road surface with the same assurance - and, at speed, nonchalantly shrugs off the sort of imperfections which elsewhere might cause you to lift. Its sophistication speaks to the level of technology - some of it, like the PerfoHub independent steering axis, familiar from other applications - deployed underneath. Perhaps more time (or a track comparison) would have thrown up a starker gap in talent between the two, but there's precious little daylight on a by-the-numbers B road. Ideological grievances remain (there are some more tangible issues, too, as we'll come to), but talent manifest in the Megane's chassis is unmistakable.
Moreover, it's a cheekier, livelier, more boisterous hot hatch than the Honda - in ways that expose the Civic's slightly po-faced demeanour and rather ordinary soundtrack. The Megane pops and bangs like an old F2 rally car, blares an induction roar to all inside and feels all the more willing to be adjusted on brake and throttle than the crushingly composed Civic. And even allowing for the iffy red wheel accents, it's hard to imagine anybody rejecting the Megane's styling in favour of the Civic's. It's a genuinely great looking hot hatch, a car with presence, attitude and intrigue that doesn't have to resort to lairy bodykits to achieve it.
There's a reason the Honda has been head of the class for so long, though, and why so many have fallen by the wayside in its invincible crusade. And that's because it's such a satisfying, rewarding, enjoyable car to interact with. For those who appreciate the finer details of the human-machine relationship, the Civic turns what ought to be the tinniness of a Bluetooth speaker into the intimacy of a small club gig. Sure, it's not the stripped-back immersion of 15-20 years ago - but the sedimentary layers of safety and refinement so noticeable elsewhere are made to seem wafer-thin by Honda. The manual gearbox and brake pedal honestly rival the best Porsche can offer for their reassuring weight, sumptuously slick operation and the addictive use their feel engenders. The steering is no great exemplar but it's immediately faithful, accurate and, crucially, not entirely sullied by gloopy resistance in certain drive modes that so many are. The driving position isn't far from perfect with the seat lowered from the old FK2. All the tools are at your disposal to fully exploit and enjoy an excellent chassis; these attributes won't make or break a car, though they imply a different level of thoroughness in the development and make getting the best from a car so much more intuitive.
The Megane, by contrast, makes the collaboration between driver and car less clear, fuzzier and more frustrating. Arms reach further for a wheel, feet must contort a bit for pedals, hands grab a chubbier steering wheel and an awkward gearstick. Before moving a metre, the Megane feels less innately sorted.
There may not be much in performance, though using the Megane's slightly balky gearbox and vague clutch is a square peg in a round hole against the Civic's transmission, which couldn't be any sweeter if you changed gears with a stick of Blackpool rock. They probably each carry similar cornering speed, but where the Civic steers with clarity and predictability, imparting great confidence straight away, the Megane darts and fizzes from bend to bend. Not necessarily a problem, but the spooky lightness and strange four-wheel steer behaviour makes it a difficult car to gauge sometimes. Rumours of the 4WS being dumped for the upcoming Trophy-R would substantiate this.
The brake pedal - operating what look like ostensibly similar Brembos - is very good in the Megane, yet lacking the final few per cent of immediacy and feel from the Honda. Maybe, just maybe, the throttle response of the Renault's 1.8 is a fraction more urgent than the Honda's 2.0 - certainly it suffers from less flywheel effect - but we're talking a marginal advantage. In all those key criteria looked for in a great driver's car, the cohesion and response of all the key controls, the Civic is better. Given how superlative the last Megane was in nailing those vital touch points, for this car to take a marginal regressive step is a mark against Renault.
That the Honda is the cheaper car here by £2,000 secures the Civic - you guessed it - yet another twin test victory. While a different prospect to previous Type Rs, less frenetic and with a less dogged devotion to a screaming engine, its boundless talent and supreme engineering make for a more appealing proposition than ever. It's enthralling enough to edge ahead of the Trophy in this test. Issues with the steering and slow speed ride dog the Megane in retrospect - and cloud the here-and-now moments when the car is very good indeed. Falling moderately short of Mr Invincible is hardly a poor result though, not when measurable headway has been made from the 280 Cup starting place. If nothing else, it gives us cause to be very eager indeed about the upcoming Trophy R which promises to be the kind of fine-tuned, lightweight and outright special hatchback that Dieppe has built an entire legacy on. If the 300 is a stepping stone to that high bar, then it's probably as good as it needs to be.
SPECIFICATION - RENAULT SPORT MEGANE 300 TROPHY
Engine: 1,798cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,400rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Top speed: 162mph
Weight: 1,494kg (to EU, with 75kg driver)
Price: £31,835 (price as standard; as tested £36,085 comprised of Liquid Yellow paint for £1,300, Bose Pack (Bose sound system with seven speakers, digital amp and sub, plus 8.7-inch touchscreen with R-Link 2), for £800, Front parking sensors and rear parking camera for £400, Visio system (Lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition and auto high beam) for £250 and Recaro Sports Pack (Renault Sport Recaro seats with red stitching and Alcantara) for £1,500)
HONDA CIVIC TYPE R GT
Engine: 1,996cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 320@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,500-4,500rpm
Top speed: 169mph
Weight: 1,451kg (with fluids and driver)
MPG: 36.7 (NEDC combined)
Price: £33,525 (price as standard; as tested £34,050, comprised of Sonic Grey Pearl paint for £525)