Slightly older British sports are now the price of a hot hatch. Here's how to own one...
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That ginormous diamond tells me this is a Renault. Correct. It’s the new Renault Megane, no less, the fourth generation of a car that’s been with us for a full 20 years now. Don’t worry, that makes us feel old too. Well over six million have sold since 1995, and the original was Europe’s best-selling car for years. But the bulk of the Megane’s success came in its first two generations, and the most recent model hasn’t been anything like as popular. To fix this, Megane Mk4 is bigger and more technology-packed than ever, being spun from the same box of bits that underpins the larger Espace people carrier and Talisman saloon. On sale now in the UK, prices start at £16,600. It looks nicer than before.
Yup. The Megane takes a lot of its styling inspiration from the handsome Talisman, particularly in its front and rear LED light designs. Both sets of lights are always on, too, to ensure the Megane is distinctive during daylight. To these eyes, at least, it looks great, and a world away from its dowdy predecessor. There’s lots of other technology that’s filtered down, too. Keeping apace with rivals, there’s now a full suite of active safety stuff on offer - crash avoidance, lane keeping, that sort of thing - as well as self-parking, TFT dials, a colour head-up display, ‘Multi-Sense’ adjustable driving modes and a large touchscreen to control it all through. It launches with a dizzying ten drivetrains - including the 202bhp GT hot hatch - and a diesel-hybrid will come in the near future. What won’t arrive anytime soon is a coupe, cabriolet or three-door. The Megane will only be sold as a five-door hatchback or estate, Renault claiming buyers of small coupes and cabrios have all flocked to more fashionable crossovers. So what’s it like? It feels a more quality product than any of its forebears. There are even massaging seats. Its most lavish, 8.7-inch portrait touchscreen is about as good as anything you’ll find elsewhere, mixing easy-to-use graphics with novelty features, such as an app to engage the passengers in games of I-Spy. Really. The fit and finish are closer than ever to VW group standards, but while the materials immediately around you are quite plush, the interior’s core structure is still made of cheap feeling plastic. It’s not a big problem, but there’s still a gap between this and the best cars in the class. What about to drive? With a soft and comfortable ride, it feels composed in a nicely French way. On the Portuguese roads we first experienced this new Megane on, it was never flustered, but more broken British back roads present a firmer challenge. The Megane’s low-speed ride can be a jittery when there are bumpy surfaces beneath, but it smoothes out at speed, and all told, this is an effortless car to drive. What it isn’t is especially fun or satisfying, especially in light of the agility of a Ford Focus, Mazda 3 or Seat Leon. It’s grippy and balanced, but there’s no surprise superstar buried within more sedately powered trim levels. We trust Renault Sport’s makeover will unearth a good hot hatch from it though.
The Megane’s assistance systems all work quite subtly, shorn of the beeps and bongs you might find elsewhere. The TFT instrument panel features a little distance warning to display how many seconds you are from the car in front, for instance, rather than flashing or chiming incessantly should you stray too close. We’ve sampled two diesel engines. The 108bhp 1.5-litre dCi 110 is impressively hushed at speed, but does make the Megane – a larger car than it’s ever been – feel a wee bit underendowed. Overtaking requires some foresight. The 128bhp 1.6 dCi 130 is much more like it; strong and punchy, and actually quite refined if you don’t stray too far beyond 4,000rpm. Better to change gear nice and early, aiming to get closer to its claimed 70.6mpg than its ten-second 0-62mph time. You mentioned a Renault Sport version… There will indeed be one, though not until 2018. Renault engineers promise us it will retain the raw character still evident in the Megane 275 Cup-S, which means it should have a manual gearbox as standard, with the inevitable paddleshift optional. Good. It may not be the most fun hatch in its current trim, but there’s clearly an able chassis underpinning the Megane, and with the suspension ramped up towards fun rather than comfort, the new RS has every chance of remaining in the uppermost part of the hot hatch Premier League. So where in the table does the regular Megane finish? The stuffed-to-the-gunwales cars we’ve sampled feel pretty good: none of the new Megane’s tech may be particularly original, but it’s all drawn together cohesively, and quality levels are notably up on before. But the Megane competes in a very busy class: Include crossovers and you’re looking at around 30 rivals it has to compete with. It’s not good enough for a place on the podium; while the Focus and Golf may be a few years old now, they remain the cars to beat for entertainment and quality, respectively. This Megane’s smart looks and abundant tech do help set it apart, though. For many, those will be strong enough reasons to overlook the ground it loses to rivals elsewhere.
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It’s the car that Top Gear staffers tend to recommend when asked ‘what should I buy?’ more often than anything else.