There's an assumption, clearly, that most is best when it comes to performance cars, and specifically hot hatches. The car with the additional equipment, power, performance and chassis tech has to be worth the premium - doesn't it? Sales would appear to back the logic up, too: so few 265hp Leon Cupras were sold that the model was dropped, and unsurprisingly the 270hp 308 GTI massively outsold the 250hp version.
With this pair, however, there's reason to think differently. They are, for the avoidance of any doubt, a Renault Sport Megane 280 with the Sport chassis, and a Hyundai i30 N (i.e. a non-Performance version). Why might they be preferable to their jazzier, firmer, pricier siblings? In the Renault's case, it's that nagging suspicion that, however much Cup or Trophy or Chalice is thrown at it, the Megane IV will never deliver the same raw, visceral entertainment as the old Meganes - so why bother attempting to? Instead this Sport offers an alternative, a more road-biased, accommodating hot hatch; who's to say that Renault Sport can't deliver on a slightly altered remit?
As for the Hyundai, while the i30 N Performance was almost shockingly good for a first hot hatch effort, it wasn't without flaw. The rambunctiousness that oozed out of every pore of the N, from its unyielding N-mode ride quality to the ceaseless exhaust din, could feel a little contrived, perhaps a tad gratuitous, at points. By attempting to emulate other hot hatches and deliver something memorable, the Performance could feel ever so slightly overwrought; prior experience of this 250hp model has suggested a car that, while less belligerent, might deliver a more rounded and enjoyable drive as a result.
We begin in much the same vein as the last Megane v i30 tête-à-tête did, trundling down the M4 in the Renault. And while the same fundamental grievances exist in Sport as in Trophy - a dim-witted infotainment system and an awkwardly sited manual being the two most immediately obvious - there's no doubting the additional pliancy makes it more pleasant motorway company. The revised springs, dampers, bars and bump stops of the Cup are said to make its chassis 10 per cent stiffer than the Sport; combine that with the smaller 18-inch wheels (which are available with the Cup chassis, a combination we've not tested yet) and the effect isn't far off a transformation. There's a suppleness and fluidity that eludes the Cup, which can become a little wearing if we're brutally honest. The more so when it's not as good a Renault Sport Megane Cup to drive as an old Renault Sport Megane Cup was...
As a Sport, though, it's a much easier Megane to rub along with, one more comfortable in this new, more mature Renault Sport skin. The driving position is fantastic, the car still looks superb on the smaller wheels, there's now no need to avoid speedbumps and it cruises with plush, subdued refinement. Perhaps there is something in the Megane growing up a bit.
For road work, this is a better chassis than the Cup. Because while there are very rare occasions that the front misses the ruthless tenacity of a locking differential, there are far more when that Renault Sport chassis nous can be appreciated with this less punishing setup, the suspension's uncanny ability to deliver poise, comfort and control really something to experience and enjoy. There's no adaptively damped alternative in this sector - i30 N included - that delivers such an expertly-judged balance of tacked-down damping authority with limber, sweet ride quality. It's really nicely done.
It means there's a more subtle brand of Renault Sport entertainment to be enjoyed on the road, one no longer chomping at the bit but rather goading you along with friendly enthusiasm and rare quality. Truth be told, the rest of the package never quite encourages the former approach anyway; the engine is strong enough without being any more than that and the steering is almost as mute as it was once loquacious, though the quality here underneath is tangible. It doesn't quite feel like the Megane toybox has quite created a gem just yet, certain dynamic elements remaining nicer to interact with than others for now.
So what of the i30? Again, toning down the furious (and the fast, in this case, as the non-Performance has 25hp less) has created a more likeable hot hatch. And yes, this is PistonHeads, don't worry. But where the Performance could feel a little fractious, the diff sometimes tying the front end in knots on bumpy roads and the toughest suspension mode borderline intolerable, the 250's less frenzied gait makes proceedings rather more pleasant. When Performance was compared with Leon Cupra, Nic opined: "Certainly you'll want to avoid the N mode, that - on British roads - immediately curdles the fun with the kind of try-hard chassis tune that virtually forfeits decent road manners on standard 19-inch alloys." On the 18-inch wheels of this car (and different tyres, too, this car using a Michelin Super Sport and the 275 a Pirelli P Zero) there are no such problems, the i30 stiffer without being unyielding, softer without being in any way vague.
And rather good fun, more importantly. If the Megane experience is a more high-brow hot hatch, one to appreciate the subtleties of hydraulic bump stops and chassis fine tuning, the Hyundai is a car to drive like your first, a flurry of shift lights, gearchanges and misbehaviour. If the Renault conjures up a nod of respectful appreciation, the i30 elicits the sort of juvenile grin typically reserved for smaller hot hatches and the driving habits of your younger years.
Despite the enormous raft of drive modes still available, simplifying the i30 N recipe has improved it - the 30kg weight saving will have helped too, the smaller wheels and lack of LSD largely responsible for that. There's less resistance to the way it drives, its steering a little crisper in its response and the ride more lucid without sacrificing a great deal in terms of composure. There's patently quality here, too, as doing away with the LSD hasn't created an undrivable, torque-steering monster. Yet with the same level of eagerness and tenacious enthusiasm to be driven really hard as the flagship, there seems little lost in stepping down the i30 range.
Little, maybe, but certainly something. Whether due to that tireless dynamic nature (that makes you want to drive the car hard) or this specific example, 250hp did feel to be working quite hard against 1,400kg. The Theta 2.0-litre is industrious rather than inspirational at the best of times, and leans more towards the former characteristic here more than ever.
That doesn't prevent the non-Performance being the best i30 N yet; with the full roster of horsepower it would be a good chunk better than the range topper, though it's still preferable as a 250hp car. By being less feisty but more co-operative and rewarding to drive, it proves power isn't everything in a hot hatch. At this money it deserves a great deal more recognition that it currently receives.
The Megane? Really good, actually. Honest. Look, if you want a car like an old Megane, buy an old Megane; this car isn't like that, and there's never going to be a hot hatch like it again. Fact is the market didn't want that sort of car enough, and this less-focussed replacement had to happen. It's accurate to say, moreover, that there are areas of the Megane that are tangibly better than the i30: traction, grip, damping, stability and performance all surpass its direct rival, with added cherries like the driving position, styling and sense of occasion garnished liberally on top. What the i30 offers in retort is the sort of easy-access, easy-going entertainment that ultimately eludes the quite serious Renault.
Without wishing to conclude in a wishy-washy fashion, personal taste will ultimately dictate the buying decision as much as the talent gap. The i30 N offers quite a traditional take on the hot hatch formula: it's (fairly) fast, it's fun, it's really good value. It isn't the last word in finesse or sophistication, though it doesn't suffer inordinately for it - and is likely to appeal to as many for that reason as it deters. More so even than the Performance flagship, this i30 N is a car that's simple to understand and even easier to really enjoy driving.
The Megane though is the objectively superior car, with a broader array of talent. The trouble will be whether that appeals to prospective buyers, it no longer being the firebrand hot hatch that earned Renault Sport its enviable reputation - nor the consummate all-rounder represented by cars like the Golf GTI. Difficulty in pigeonholing the car shouldn't reflect badly, however, on a hot hatch blessed with an excellent chassis as well as sufficient quality elsewhere to just about complement it properly. For something not yet considered the real deal - Renault Sport always delivering the very best versions a few years after launch - there's plenty to appreciate and admire in this Megane Sport. Whether its subtle charms will be enough to lure buyers from more enticing alternatives, however, remains to be seen.
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: £27,835 (as standard; price as tested £29,835, comprised of Metallic paint (Flame Red) for £650, Alcantara steering wheel for £250, Bose pack (8.7-inch portrait touchscreen with R-Link2, Bose sound system with 7 speakers, a digital amp and subwoofer) and Renault Sport Monitor for £300)
SPECIFICATION - HYUNDAI I30N
Engine: 1,998cc four-cylinder turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 250@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 260@1,500-4,700rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Price: £25,995 (as standard; price as tested TBC)
Photos: Dafydd Wood