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Renault Megane RS v Honda Civic Type R v Hyundai i30N v Seat Leon Cupra R

A huge hot hatch showdown. Can the latest Megane RS reclaim class honours?

A moment of magic. That’s what you’re looking for. On the infrequent occasion one of the performance car world’s true heroes is replaced, your impartiality can’t help but falter a little, as you cross your fingers and toes, desperate for the first tangible evidence that it’s still special.

The Megane RenaultSport is one such car, yet after several hours on the road in the all-new RS 280, no moment has yet materialised. The old one left you under no illusions about how special it was. You folded yourself into a snug Recaro seat, bum right on the floor, and prodded it into life. It battered you about as soon as you pulled away, crying to be taken to a piece of road where it could show off just how supremely developed it was.

Yes, it could be construed as a bit hardcore, yet here was a car – despite its humble front-driven chassis – that could be drinking buddies with a Porsche 911 GT3. If you’re struggling with the anthropomorphism, then their drivers have certainly been drinking buddies, sharing a steak and beer in the Pistenklause after a day of battering the Nürburgring into submission in like-minded cars.

But the new one’s not giving me any of that. It still rides quite abruptly (we’ve got the tougher Cup version, traditionally The One You Want), but it’s more subdued, more grown-up. Its 276bhp is just 5bhp up on before, so it accelerates no quicker. And it’s just not as immediately loveable. The gearknob is aesthetically interesting but weird to hold, the unbranded sports seats look the part but don’t allow the perfect driving position, while the steering wheel has Alcantara in the places you won’t hold it. Presumably so it doesn’t gain any unsightly wear. The old Megane felt like an engineer’s car; this one appears to have had rather more input from the design team. That does make it a much nicer object than before, mind, and it’s so impactful in the metal.

Rivals all bought the old Megane RS and stripped it down to see where the magic lay

Looks won’t decide this test, though, which is a worry, given what’s waiting for it in Wales. The old Megane RS was so exceptional, rival marques all bought one and stripped it down to the core to see where the magic lay. Its influence courses through the competitors that have followed it, most notably the latest Honda Civic Type R, our reigning hot hatch champion. Alongside that, we’ve gathered the boisterous new kid on the block, Hyundai’s i30N, and the latest – perhaps greatest – version of the Seat Leon, the Cupra R. All have a four-cylinder petrol turbo driving their front wheels, via a six-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential (or electronics working to the same effect).

Yep, the Megane has retained a proper gearbox, though a paddleshifter is optional, and it’s been maturing elsewhere. Its sports exhaust emits the inevitable array of pops and bangs, but the sound is muted inside the car. In the centre of the dashboard there’s a new, portrait infotainment screen with track telemetry at one end of the scale, and a choice of which colour of the rainbow you’d like the interior ambient lighting at the other. Like all of the cars here, it has a whole suite of driving modes on offer, and unlike them, it remembers your choice when you switch the car off and restart it later, a glimmer of hope the engineers have still had their say.

It’s the only car here without adaptive suspension – you make your choice between Sport and Cup permanently, in the showroom – which might make you ponder the impact of having switchable modes. But its complex 4Control four-wheel steering has several levels of aggression, so there’s definitely use in flicking between Neutral, Sport and Race.

So, while it proved disappointingly sensible on the way towards the Welsh hills, once there it’s a matter of seconds before I prod it tentatively into Race and feel the car sharpen. Four-wheel steering is new in this class of car, and I’ll admit that with the rear wheels’ angle opposing the fronts’, it neatly shortens the typically horrendous hot-hatch turning circle (of which the Hyundai’s particularly guilty). No seven-point turns here.

Beyond that, it takes some getting used to. Turn into a corner and it feels absurdly eager, flicking the car in quicker than feels natural. Find a corner well-sighted enough to do so with some vigour, however, and that magic moment finally materialises, the rear axle abruptly following the front to allow a small, easily controlled slide. On bumpier surfaces you might pick the inside rear wheel clean up in the air, too, a proverbial tip of the hat to its dinkier, Clio RenaultSport forebears.

At higher speeds, the rear wheels steer the same way as the fronts, curtailing that eagerness and increasing stability, helping imbue the Megane with the countryside-devouring pace we’ve come to expect of a Premier League hot hatch. The old car managed it all without four-wheel steering, though. The tech has the potential to open up a whole new dynamic repertoire, but without being able to properly explore it via the safety of a race circuit, its complexity does seem to get in the way of good old-fashioned fun.

There’s no such confusion in the Hyundai. Here’s a hot hatch from the old school, with the friskiness of something lively from the Eighties if you dare to unshackle its electronic assistants on a wet or badly surfaced road. But with a frankly baffling 1,944 combinations of its ridiculously customisable driving modes, there’s a set-up for all tastes and talent levels. And in each and every one of them, this is a car with an infectious sense of humour.

On first acquaintance, you could accuse it of being a bit contrived; this i30N Performance, the top-spec version, gets an utterly juvenile sports exhaust that the cynical might describe as ‘a bit much’. The upshift lights and illuminated rev-counter (which hikes up the red line as the engine warms) are also very nerdy. It takes two corners to throw all your worries about that stuff out the window, though. Here’s a car that shimmies around and lets you get stuck in at thoroughly legal speeds, a too-rare occurrence as carmakers chase increasingly high power outputs. It’s no coincidence that the i30N is the least powerful car here, and it’s far from the least fun.

It’s a whole 45bhp off the pace of the Civic Type R, in fact, and climbing into the Honda is like climbing into a different class of car. Perhaps unbelievably for something that looks so cartoonish, it feels very professional. The gearstick is no bigger than is necessary, and operates the tautest, most efficient shift here, while the transmission’s rev-matching function only blips the throttle when you need it, avoiding the embarrassing blare of noise as you shift the Hyundai into first in a supermarket car park. There’s no frivolous crackling from the Honda’s exhaust, either, making it unique in this group.

The i30 is a hot hatch from the old school, with the friskiness of something from the Eighties

Then there’s the way it rides. Its suspension is utterly bewitching, with a Comfort mode that really does do comfort, allowing the wildest-looking car here to fit easiest into everyday life, frustrating touchscreen and ludicrous lack of a fifth seatbelt aside. The Type R’s driving modes are fixed – if you want the sharper engine and firmer suspension, you must have the heavy steering – which seems short-sighted in this company, but also makes getting in and just driving a damn sight easier. On the winding, bumpy roads we’re on, its pace is utterly crushing, even the toughest, R+ mode allowing it to soak everything up. The downside is little of the i30N or Megane’s adjustability or interaction, but the gob-smacking pace really does make up for it. It’s mesmerisingly capable.

Mind you, the Leon Cupra R manages to feel every bit as exciting. There’s always been a sense of hierarchy among VW Group hot hatches, with Seats and Skodas pegged back. Not here, though; this is everything turned up to its most extreme, and far beyond any current Golf, which is why we’ve not brought one. A potential first in the world of hot hatch group tests…

Its familiar 2.0-litre turbo engine has breached the 300bhp mark, while there are more heavily cambered wheels wearing extreme cup tyres. The taste levels have arguably nosedived, though, with the limited-run Cupra R only coming in grey or black, allied to oodles of copper and carbon detailing. As the owner of a gold-wheeled Clio Williams, this may seem a hypocritical thing for me to take issue with, but seeing the Leon finally freed in such a divisive spec is hard to swallow.

A run through third gear makes up for it. Flipping heck, this car is quick. None of the engines in this test are duffers, but it’s the Seat’s that’s most scintillating. Drive an old turbo car and the feeling of its boost arriving is like the big drop on your favourite rollercoaster, the barely-under-control feeling of being blasted through your surroundings. The Leon delivers just that, only without the archaic lag beforehand.

While it doesn’t have a mechanical diff, its electronics do a good enough job of mimicking one, and it’s implausibly good at collecting all that power together and ensuring you don’t exit corners with handfuls of scrabbling wheelspin. Those tyres even manage OK on damp roads. It’s an intoxicating car to get stuck into, with a playful rear axle when you really go for it.

It ultimately hobbles itself by being sold out, a mere 24 having come to the UK. The R is a proper thriller, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated by the VW Group only letting the Cupra engineers off the leash for a severely limited run. Imagine if the Leon had been this good its whole life. Let’s hope the final car to wear Cupra as a suffix (rather than a harder-to-fathom prefix) is a tantalising taste of things to come and not a hardcore finale.

The Megane, meanwhile, remains an enigma, even after 500 miles of mixed – often hard – driving in Wales. It’ll undoubtedly be much simpler to live with than before, and on tricky roads it still exhibits the world-class body control we know and love from RenaultSport. It’s a similar story to the lukewarm Clio it follows: its predecessor’s purity has been replaced by extra complexity, making it less fun to work hard than it should be. If history teaches us anything, though, it’s that the Megane RS incrementally improves throughout its life, and a near-300bhp Megane Trophy isn’t far away.

But for now, Hyundai beats Renault. Perhaps even Honda, depending on what you want from a hot hatch. The i30N gets that some of us just want to have a laugh, freed from worrying about being as quick as possible. The car is still immensely capable, but in this group it has lower, easier to exploit limits, and no matter your mood, there’s not a single drive that couldn’t be livened up with a double press of its chequered flag button to trigger your favourite set-up. All alongside the best value price tag and most exhaustive warranty here.

Yet it must concede victory to the Type R, simply one of the most accomplished hot hatches of all time. It’s in danger of seeming a bit too serious; glance down at the speedo on an enjoyable stretch of road and you’ll be going at least 10mph quicker than in the i30N. Yet while the Hyundai has a breadth of driving modes to titillate your current level of talent, the Honda encourages you to up your own game so you can really do it justice, and it’d take years to tire of it. There’s a depth that’s absent in its rivals here, but familiar from – you guessed it – the old Megane. From its peerless gearchange to its exemplary damping, moments of magic in the Civic are never far away.

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