2006 Renault Sport Megane
– Unique exterior styling
– Very powerful engine
– Good comfort-handling balance
– Interior control placements
– Understeers at the limit
– Grabby brakes
Renault has only recently started to attack the Middle East market with any amount of alacrity, watching from the sidelines as French country-mates Peugeot gained market share and Citroen lost it. Renault never did have the right products to make any headway in this Japanese-dominated market, other than the cool Renault 19 a decade ago. French cars also seem to attract a certain upscale-wannabe niche of people who want a European ride but cannot afford a BMW. Now back in the region with a new range of products, the company is pushing hard to make inroads within this Europhile crowd, and no car is pushing harder than the turbocharged Sport Megane pocket rocket.
The Sport Megane is a beefed-up version of the ordinary Megane hatchback, which itself is quite a looker, with an abruptly vertical rear window and curvy lines mingling with sharp edges. The Sport further improves the look with unique colour-coded bumpers, big 18-inch rims and dual exhaust tips sticking out through the rear bumper. The Sport Megane comes in either three-door or five-door hatchback forms, each of which has different side-window styling. The three-door car we got for our short two-day test was black on the outside and black on the inside. We didn’t really give the interior a thorough look like we usually do for every other test car because we were too busy flogging the damn thing. What we can tell you is the seats are quite cushy, nicely stitched and well-bolstered, while the rear seating is tight legroom-wise but can actually fit average-sized people with good headroom, since the three-door model is pretty much as long as the five-door model, but with two less doors. Access to the rear seat is a painful experience even for the nimblest of people. All interior materials we did touch felt like quality stuff. Other features include a bunch of front and side airbags, and available options like a CD changer and a panoramic sunroof that our test car didn’t have.
The interior is not flawless though, but only in terms of design rather than workmanship. We had trouble figuring out how to adjust the manual driver’s seat, and finding the location of half the general controls, because both follow some placement convention that is totally foreign to us. We would’ve thought that’s how the French do it, but even more-French-than-France-itself Peugeot follows the same rules as the Japanese regarding these things. For instance, levers for the seat back are stuffed under the seat, the electric door mirror adjustment knob is right on the window sill and the starter button for the ignition is in the lower part of the centre console, which is also the location of the slot where you stuff the ignition-remote-card-thingamajig into, to activate the starter button. We did not have the car long enough to bother learning how to programme the CD stereo, although we did figure out how to turn it on, and it sounded good enough if not turned all the way up. No fancy navigation screen in this baby, and we can’t seem to remember whether its cup-holders were any good. The a/c did have its own little digital display, but it struggled to cool us down in the summer afternoon heat. We forgot to check how much luggage space there is out back as we never bothered lifting the rear hatch.
We didn’t spend too long fidgeting with the interior accessories because the drive is what this car is all about. Fitted with a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder mill mated with a six-speed manual, this version of the Megane is ready to rock with 225 hp and 300 Nm of torque. For those keeping score, that’s 25 more horses and a gazillion more torque than a Honda Civic Type-R. The grunty engine is still surprisingly refined given it’s from a continent that gave us Peugeot’s rattling fours and Audi’s clattering FSI powerplants. We never did realise we were playing with a turbo, as we could not feel any turbo lag or the kick when boost came on, since the characteristic whoosh of a turbo is all but eliminated here. The shifter and clutch combination is also one of the best we’ve come across in a sports car–easy on the arm and gentle on the foot, which is definitely not the norm with these types of cars, such as the truck-like gearbox in the Mini Cooper S and the Peugeot 206 RC. The motor, while energetic under full throttle, is not annoyingly noisy at highway speeds while cruising in fifth gear, and the sixth gear almost seems useless. We clicked off some fast 0-100 kph times of around 6.5 seconds with the Megane, though we surely could’ve done better if we had more time to practice managing the front wheelspin. Ample passing power is available even in fourth gear, so downshifting excessively during overtaking isn’t needed. The car theoretically tops out at 236 kph, which we definitely did not try to verify. Fuel economy is about the same as that of a small V6, but then again, you do get the power of a small V6.
Cornering grip is better than good, but we expected that when we saw the low ground clearance and the beefy 225/40 rubbers wrapping the 18-inch alloys. The car corners harder than most people will ever have the guts to try out, but when push comes to shove, the front-wheel-drive chassis understeers aggressively at the limit, and it is very difficult to induce oversteer either by left-foot braking using the tiny pedals or by pulling the weak handbrake. It does corner very flatly, and even though a Mini Cooper S can outmanoeuvre it any day of the week, the Megane is a bigger car that can actually fit more than two people comfortably. Complaining about the Megane Sport’s handling is like complaining that an F-15 fighter jet cannot go into space. The suspension is also almost as compliant as that of a typical luxury sports sedan, and the ride much more comfortable than that in a Peugeot 206 RC. High speed stability is excellent, and we did 160 kph runs without any issues. The car also offers fairly quiet cruising at speeds up to 100 kph, and the steering is nicely weighted but still easy to wind around during parking.
The Brembo brakes are immensely powerful, but they have a grabby feel thanks partially to a light brake pedal. Slight applications may result in jerky stops in traffic. But then again, a typical owner might get used to this over a month’s time and learn to compensate. ABS, stability control and brake assist are all standard equipment.
The Sport Megane is an intensely fun automobile that can actually be used every day to go to work or even to go on long drives with friends. It combines practicality with sportiness without compromising on comfort. It is also priced similar to much slower cars like the BMW 120i and the Audi A3 2.0, both of which offer nothing extra in terms of luxury over the Megane, so it is easy to decide which car to go for. A big thumbs-up to the French for this one.