Sure you could buy a new Wrangler, but there's another way.....
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£28,425 when new
The new Renault Megane RS! The old one was good, wasn’t it? One of the very best. This is one of those occasions where a true performance car hero has been replaced, which puts the weight of expectation on the new one. The new Renault Megane RS 280 is immediately a different proposition, though. Its forebear was the kindred spirit of a Porsche 911 GT3, with the focus on the person in the driving seat thanks to stiff suspension, cramped rear quarters and not much in the way of confusing tech or fancy media screens. Now it’s five-door only, with a choice of manual or paddleshift auto gearboxes and a slightly dizzying array of driving modes and on-board glitz. Pricey, then? It doesn’t look bad value for it, though; prices start at £27,495, meaning it undercuts every single direct rival if you can live without options. Add some of the stuff you will want, though, and it’ll head past £30,000.
Talk me through the tech. Its engine is similar to the one you’ll find in the Alpine A110, a 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, but with a bit more power here, producing 276bhp. That’s just 5bhp up on the old Megane, and with a similar 1.4 tons to carry, its 5.8sec 0-62mph time is no quicker. It’s front-wheel drive, like just about every other hot hatch, but has four-wheel steering, which is unique in this part of the market. Dubbed 4Control, it follows the same template as the systems in more senior performance cars: the angle of the rear wheels opposes the fronts at low speed, for more agility, but follows them at higher speeds, for more stability. When does it switch? That depends on which of the driving modes you’ve selected. You’ll only have the hyper-agile direction changes below 37mph most of the time, but flick to Race mode and it’ll eagerly flick you into corners right up to 62mph. Theoretically every single turn on your favourite B-road, then. Spec the Cup chassis – typically a no-brainer on fast Renaults – and you’ll get firmer suspension and a proper mechanical limited-slip differential on the front axle, just to tug you even more eagerly around corners. How does it all feel? The old car was special from the off; you felt the magic through your hands and bum the very first time you found a corner. It takes a lot longer for this car to plaster a smile across your face. Not least because the touch points aren’t perfect. Finding a comfy driving position is tricky, the pedals aren’t quite in the right place and the manual gearstick is oddly shaped and its shift a little notchy. We wonder if RenaultSport was going to make this paddleshift-only, but made a last-minute U-turn after all the flak the current Clio RS attracted. While the suspension of this Cup-equipped Megane is still firm, the overall sensation is of a softer, more grown up car. Renault must’ve taken a look at Golf GTI sales and wondered if a bit more liveability would help the RS out, something that’s certainly dulled its responses when you’re not driving at full pelt. If you’re looking for an everyday car for family duties that’s probably no bad thing at all. What about away from the school run? Find a sufficiently tight corner and the four-wheel steering gives the Megane reactions like nothing else with front-wheel drive. It’s unnerving at first, as it turns in so eagerly you might think there’s some outrageous oversteer occurring that you’ve little time to correct. Truth is, this car does slide more easily before, but once you’ve got your head around the way its various chassis tech works, it can be good fun. And very easy to manage. Once the rear wheels are working with the fronts, rather than against them, there’s the kind of supreme stability and grip that gives the current generation of hot hatches supercar-troubling pace on a challenging road. The more you dig into the Megane’s reserves, the more impressive it gets. As good as before, though? Sadly, it rarely feels as special as it used to. The steering never quite has the feel and response you crave, the gearshift doesn’t satisfy enough, and those driving modes really do take a bit of learning. There are four set modes (Comfort, Normal, Sport, Race) and one customisable mode (Perso), yet you can also fiddle with the preset modes, which are fixed in rivals. Tech getting in the way of good old-fashioned fun? Perhaps, though it does at least keep you in your previous selection when you restart the car after parking up, which is rare. Those modes might prove easier to fathom if the portrait touchscreen was a tad more intuitive; perhaps the biggest indictment of its flawed design is that when you plug your phone in to use Apple CarPlay, the display is a horizontal strip across the screen, akin to watching a YouTube video while still holding your phone upright. The verdict? All told, it’s difficult not to wonder if a Sport chassis RS with a paddleshift gearbox might be the better, more rounded car, one more comfortable in its own skin. The newly grown-up Megane feels wilfully different to the hardcore car it follows – maybe it’ll be at its best when it’s as far removed from its predecessor’s shadow as possible. There’s a huge amount of potential in this car, and flashes of brilliance remain. But for now, we can’t help but climb out feeling a little short-changed. 7/10 Images: Mark Riccioni