Ageing hatchback gets a novel hybrid system to see out its twilight years

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With the launch of the pure-electric Renault Zoe in 2012, Renault was one of the first brands to create a credible EV for the European market. In the ensuing years, things remained quiet around electrification at Renault while other manufacturers launched hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fully electric models.

And now, as the current Mégane is due to be replaced by an all-electric successor and EVs are generally gaining ground, Renault has launched a plug-in hybrid version of the recently facelifted outgoing model. In fact, the brand has rapidly pivoted from hybrid sceptic to hybrid believer, as it adds E-Tech hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions to the line-ups of most of its models.

Those two big exhaust pipes on the RS Line don’t require particularly close inspection to reveal they are completely fake. A single downturned pipe is hiding behind the bumper. The diffuser isn’t fooling anyone, either.

It has also turned into a defender of the hybrid, with the firm’s leadership recently telling Autocar that the European Commission’s proposed ban on hybrids in 2035 may come too soon, particularly for the cheaper end of the market that Renault subsidiary Dacia operates in. As the facelifted Mégane undergoes our road test, the question is whether the technology is worth defending.

Renault must certainly think so, because the E-Tech plug-in hybrid is now the only Mégane you can buy. The full Mégane range received a facelift in 2020 that brought some subtle styling tweaks and a much-needed overhaul of the infotainment, but the petrol and diesel versions proved short-lived, with all except the plug-in hybrid removed from sale earlier this year.

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The current-shape Mégane is likely to disappear not too long after its pure-electric successor arrives, but the E-Tech powertrain is set to become a mainstay of the Renault – and perhaps Dacia – line-up, so it’s worth taking a closer look.

The Mégane line-up at a glance

Not too long ago, Renault offered the Mégane with a range of petrol and diesel engines, and automatic and manual gearboxes, but the plug-in hybrid is now the only option.

You don’t get much more choice of trim level. There is the base Iconic and RS Line, the latter adding bigger wheels, sporty styling, automatic emergency braking, a larger touchscreen, adaptive cruise control, automatic parking, a leather steering wheel and the options of heated leather seats and the eCall emergency call system.



2 Renault Megane E Tech PHEV road test 2021 hero side

If nothing else, the concept of the E-Tech powertrain, whether in full hybrid or plug-in hybrid form, is an interesting one. With battery-electric vehicles, we may be heading into an era of mechanical uniformity, but hybrids are providing room for engineers to come up with novel concepts. With its clutchless, unsynchronised four-speed automatic gearbox, Renault’s might be the most novel of them all.

The Mégane is a plug-in hybrid, but the conventional hybrid powertrain found in the Clio and new Arkana E-Tech is essentially the same save for a smaller battery and a less powerful electric motor. All use a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine paired with one big electric motor and one smaller unit acting as a starter-generator.

First introduced in 2016, the C-shaped LED headlights still look fresh, to the point that a version of them can be found on the Mégane’s electric successor. The RS Line bodykit rather oversells this car’s sportiness but visually suits it.

As the gearbox is clutchless, the engine cannot be decoupled – only put in neutral – so the car always sets off on electric power to get around the fact that a petrol engine cannot operate from zero RPM. To ensure there is always enough battery to do so, the engine can run the generator while in neutral. Once the car is up to speed, the engine can be engaged to any of the four ratios of the automatic gearbox, and to make sure there is no unseemly grinding of gears, the starter-generator adjusts the engine and input shaft’s RPM to match.

To change gears after that, the engine is put in neutral, and the starter motor will again match the revs to smoothly engage the next gear, in a similar way to how you might limp a manual car with failed clutch hydraulics to a garage. There are just four gear ratios, but this transmission has the unusual ability where the engine can use any of the four gear ratios to drive through, while the big electric motor can use only two of them. That means, in a sense, that the gearbox can be in two gears at the same time – one for the engine and one for the electric drive motor.

In practice, the system claims a few benefits. First, it is relatively compact and low cost, to the point that Renault has hinted it may also appear in future Dacias. Renault will also tell you that it feels more natural and allows for more driving engagement than, say, a CVT.

Second, it is very flexible. Because the engine and the large electric motor can be decoupled from each other in order for either to drive the car by itself, the Mégane can function as a series or parallel hybrid, or as an EV. In other words, in town it can drive electrically with the engine either turned off or acting as a generator. Alternatively, both can work together; or the electric motor can be decoupled on the motorway for the engine to drive the car alone, which is more efficient at higher speed.


9 Renault Megane E Tech PHEV road test 2021 cabin

With its updated infotainment system and brand-new hybrid powertrain, where the Mégane most shows its age is in the interior. It wasn’t a class leader when we first tested it in 2016, meriting just three stars, and while updates have prevented it from slipping down too much further since, they can only do so much.

For instance, a facelift can’t do anything at all about the car’s packaging, and the fact that the Mégane simply doesn’t make enough of the space within its wheelbase available to passengers. Despite being the same size as most hatchback rivals, it doesn’t feel as roomy inside, with downright poor rear leg room for adults. That’s made disproportionately worse with a tall driver, with the front footwells being oddly shallow on the side of the accelerator pedal, and so pushing both pedals and driver back inside the wheelbase, causing something of an awkward driving position for taller people in particular.

Physical climate control buttons and knobs are very welcome, as is the lane departure warning button. The touch-sensitive volume control is less successful.

The boot is a little larger than its direct hybrid rivals, at 292 litres, though that is still down on regular hatchbacks since the battery robs some space. It also suffers from a fairly high load lip, and the rear seats will not quite fold flat. There is an additional 16-litre compartment under the boot floor for cable storage, but that is the only underfloor space available. If you do need more room, Renault does offer a Sport Tourer estate.

With more recent models such as the Renault Captur and Renault Clio, Renault has shown evidence of higher standards for perceived quality, but the Mégane looks a tad drab, with big slabs of rubberised dashboard broken up only by a sliver of unconvincing ‘carbonfibre’. The mood lighting is a neat touch; the matt surfaces in the centre console feel solid enough; and the important touchpoints are covered in leather, but the lower dashboard is still made of coarse plastics. Interior storage includes a decent-size centre armrest, two cupholders and a tray for your phone (but no wireless charging).

One benefit of the car’s antiquated dashboard design is that there are plenty of buttons: for the climate control, heated seats if fitted, lane departure warning and EV driving mode. Just a physical volume control is missing, though the driver does get the traditional Renault media controls behind the steering wheel. They’re easy to mock, as they wouldn’t look out of place on a 1997 Laguna – but, with practice, they soon become remarkably user-friendly.

Infotainment and sat-nav

Renault has never quite managed to lead the market when it comes to infotainment technology, but the current iteration of its touchscreen set-up, called Easy Link, uses a 9.3in screen (or 7.0in on lower trims) and represents a massive improvement over the R-Link system in the pre-facelift Mégane.

The screen is big and clear and responds quickly enough; not quite like a smartphone, but better than some Volkswagen Group systems. The built-in navigation is powered by Google, so its directions are generally sensible and alternative routes are easy to choose, but the way it displays public chargers is confusing.

The problem is that there are no shortcut buttons other than a home button, so switching between the driving mode selection screen, the in-built navigation and media through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto takes quite a few taps. And that’s an issue, because with the portrait-oriented screen and no place to rest a hand, you sometimes need multiple stabs to hit the right button.


23 Renault Megane E Tech PHEV road test 2021 engine

Given this E-Tech hybrid system is one of the more intriguing pieces of automotive engineering that the volume car market has seen in recent years, it’s ironic that when driving the Mégane E-Tech, it is best not to think too much about what is going on in the engine compartment. That must have been Renault’s view as well, since there is no way to make the digital instrument cluster display a tachometer or a gear indicator, and nor is it possible to take control of gear selection yourself.

The Mégane performs respectably enough for its 158bhp. It was possible to beat the quoted 0-62 time of 9.4sec by four tenths, though it does depend on the battery’s state of charge. It only partially delivers on Renault’s promise of a “dynamic and enjoyable driving experience”, however. The engine is very quiet under normal use and all ratios of the four-speed gearbox feel very long, so you get neither the instant and uninterrupted punch of a pure EV, nor much of a sense of an engine climbing through the rev range as you accelerate.

Extending the Mégane revealed brake and tyre shortcomings but also welcome signs of mischievousness, though it ran out of puff sooner than the sporty billing implied.

Driven hard, the powertrain feels a little asthmatic, with the petrol engine getting quite noisy. Renault claims the gearbox technology has been inspired by Formula 1, but it certainly doesn’t deliver shift speeds worthy of the comparison, taking its time to match the revs and creating a noticeable interruption to acceleration.

More importantly for a family hatchback, perhaps, the system doesn’t suffer with that same elastic feeling you can have with Toyota’s hybrid powertrains, and in normal driving does its work smoothly and quietly, with adequate power available and linear if slightly soft response from the throttle. Under lighter loads, you don’t feel the gearchanges when they come, as the large electric motor has enough power to compensate for the engine being out of action for a moment.

The E-Tech system also manages to combine its various powertrains with no jolting or hesitation when one hands over to the other. 

EV mode can be engaged using a clearly labelled button on the centre console, and we managed to cover 27 miles on a full charge before the engine cut back in, just three miles off the quoted figure. With just 64bhp to call on, electric progress is hardly brisk, but it’s fine for town driving and, because it has two gear ratios at its disposal, the Mégane is capable of maintaining motorway speeds easily enough, even if that is clearly not its natural environment.

The car may not let you control the gears, but there is at least some control over the battery charge. If you put a destination in the navigation, it will use that to manage and optimise your battery usage. Alternatively, you can turn on E-Save mode, which holds the battery’s state of charge. The automatic gear selector also offers a B mode, which ups regenerative braking on a trailing throttle.


23 Renault Megane E Tech PHEV road test 2021 on road nose

Despite the RS Line looks and the extremely aggressive sport seats in our test car, the Mégane E-Tech isn’t out to convince you that it’s some electrified hot hatchback. With its compliant suspension and 50-aspect tyres on 17in wheels (16in alloys with even taller tyres are standard on Iconic trim), it has a relaxed gait that remains reasonably composed over uneven Tarmac. However, being a hatchback with a low centre of gravity, it gets away with its soft suspension better than a similarly sprung crossover SUV might.

The steering could be quicker, at almost three turns lock to lock, but it responds in a linear and predictable fashion. What’s more, there is a strangely playful chassis hiding underneath. Even though Renault does not let you turn off the stability control, the Mégane showed the clear beginnings of lift-off oversteer at Millbrook before its electronic stability control systems intervened.

I appreciate a driver’s seat with good lateral support as much as anyone, but on a modestly tyred hybrid Mégane, the RS Line buckets are overkill.

Even on the road, it will noticeably tighten its line on a closed throttle. This translates to keen turn-in and quite an enjoyable chassis balance. Unfortunately, grip is ultimately modest, particularly in the wet, owing to the ContiEcoContact tyres. Some slightly better tyres would have been welcome to go with the other sporty addenda on the RS Line.

Likewise, it’s a mixed bag with the brakes. In our testing, they performed similarly to the Mégane’s competitors, but the issue lies with feedback. To give consistent pedal feel as the system blends regenerative and friction brakes, Renault has chosen a purely ‘by-wire’ set-up. That in itself does not have to be a bad thing, but the E-Tech’s brake pedal is permanently soft and overly sensitive, to the point that you can easily press the pedal to the floor when stopped and quickly hit the pedal stop when stopping in an emergency: a disconcerting sensation.

Comfort and isolation

The Mégane’s soft suspension set-up and tall tyres make for a very comfortable ride that’s not excessively floaty. Potholes produce an audible thump but disturb the ride far less than in other cars, while good noise insulation helps to make the Mégane one of the more comfortable choices in the hatchback segment: it’s a few decibels quieter at all speeds than its direct rivals despite some wind whistle around the mirrors.

It would be significantly more comfortable still with a better driving position. The seat itself is a curious choice. In the RS Line, Renault fits the same bucket seats as in the full-fat Mégane RS. The excellent lateral support is of little relevance in the E-Tech, but the aggressive bolsters make getting in and out unnecessarily difficult. The lack of adjustable lumbar support isn’t an issue because there is plenty to begin with, but a tilting function for the cushion is an unfortunate omission given how close the pedals are. Because of this, the side bolster actually comes in handy as ad-hoc thigh support.

Assisted driving notes

It’s tempting to give the Mégane a generous score for assisted driving, simply by virtue of the system not being annoying or distracting.

In another sense, though, this is another area where the Mégane shows its age: a lot of systems such as cross-traffic alert and, most significantly, lane keeping assistance with semi-autonomous driving and automatic speed limit adjustment are simply not available.

What is there works well, however. The adaptive cruise control is not the smoothest in traffic but doesn’t easily get confused by other cars and confidently speeds up and slows down. The lane departure warning can be adjusted for sensitivity, and we experienced no false activations from the collision alert and autonomous emergency braking.

Traditionalists will love the Mégane, but a modern family hatchback really should offer more than it does.


1 Renault Megane E Tech PHEV road test 2021 hero front

Buying any Mégane of this generation has meant accepting some compromises. That was true when this generation was launched in 2016, and is even more so today. By and large, the list price reflects that – when compared with other plug-in hybrids, at least. Renault has recently taken all regular petrol and diesel Méganes off sale, leaving just this PHEV. Batteries and electric motors cost money, so if you’re just after a family hatchback and a plug-in hybrid doesn’t work for you, it leaves the Mégane as an expensive proposition even compared with a regular hybrid like the Toyota Corolla.

Compared with the plug-in hybrid versions of the Volkswagen Golf and Seat Leon, however, the Mégane is a few thousand pounds cheaper spec for spec; but it’s roughly the same price as a better-equipped Kia Xceed PHEV. On PCP finance, all are almost exactly the same, although Renault is offering a 0% APR deal that makes the Mégane significantly cheaper.

Mégane is predicted to lose more of its value in year one than rivals including the Kia Xceed and Skoda Octavia iV, but that levels off towards years three and four

Renault provides a five-year, 100,000-mile general warranty on the car, as well as eight years on the battery. Fuel consumption figures are a tricky subject with plug-in hybrids, as they are wholly dependent on your mileage in EV mode. A 27-mile range provides decent scope to maximise that, but when you run out, you can expect ‘range extended’ cruising economy in the low 50s. Note that the car cannot rapid charge, so a full charge from empty typically takes the best part of three hours.



25 Renault Megane E Tech PHEV road test 2021 static

Even though the current Renault Mégane isn’t long for this world, with an EV successor waiting in the wings, Renault has fitted it with its new and unusual E-Tech plug-in hybrid drivetrain, and has given it a limited dose of extra appeal.

The hybrid system is a very appropriate companion for the Mégane’s laid-back chassis. It is smooth and flexible, providing just a touch more dynamism than some hybrid drivetrains as well as the potential for great economy. Just don’t expect too much of Renault’s ‘inspired by F1’ marketing to come true when you flex the accelerator pedal.

Spec advice? These days, the Mégane works better as a value proposition, so if you can live without adaptive cruise control, the base Iconic trim makes the most sense.

However, it’s impossible to get away from the fact that this modern drivetrain has been wrapped up in a pretty old package. An updated infotainment system mitigates things somewhat, while the Mégane’s old-tech layout and feel bring with it certain benefits; but the car’s dated and cramped interior, absent active safety features and so-so comfort and handling prevent it from competing with the best of the competition.

Depending on the financial deals that are available, the Mégane might still be a savvy buy, but there is no question that more rounded, practical and modern hatchbacks are available.


Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.