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Mégane RS has a chassis of remarkable deftness and balance that gives the hot hatch unmistakable class-leading potential

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Few performance cars have been lavished with a more consistent flow of praise by hot hatchback aficionados than the Renault Mégane RS. This car has bossed the fast front-drive niche for most of its life, having appeared with that memorable ‘bustle-back’ styling in 2004 and promptly set new class benchmarks for driver involvement and handling poise.

But it’ll take something to reclaim that familiar old perch now, with the Honda Civic Type R having become a brilliant driver’s car in its own right and the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Seat Leon Cupra R and four-wheel-drive Ford Focus RS suddenly making competition in the segment seem little less fierce than what Renault’s been coming up against in Formula 1 of late.

The fast Mégane has been through an overhaul that would seem every bit as thorough and attentive, on paper, as that of any of its rivals

For that reason and others, you could call the launch of this third-generation Mégane RS (it’s also the performance version of the fourth-gen Mégane, confusingly) something of a watershed moment. Can the firm that brought us the flawed Renault Clio RS 200 rediscover its sparkling form of old? Does Dieppe still have whatever it was that made so many of its hot hatchbacks so good for so long, or is it lost forever? Has Renault’s Alpine A110 sports car, brilliant as it may be, swallowed up so much engineering talent that what could be considered Renault Sport’s most important product has been left undernourished? It’d be understandable. But forgivable? I’m not so sure.

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Some good news would definitely be welcome - and maybe we’re about to get some. Although it retains front-wheel drive, the fast Mégane has been through an overhaul that would seem every bit as thorough and attentive, on paper, as that of any of its rivals. This third-generation version has a new 1.8-litre turbocharged engine that's smaller and lighter than the old car’s 2.0-litre unit, delivering more power and torque than the Mégane 275 bowed out with – and which can be paired with a choice of six-speed manual or twin-clutch automatic gearboxes. Unlike in the Clio RS 220 Trophy, then, you needn’t be stuck with two pedals and two paddles if you don’t want them. Told you there was good news.

For suspension, the Mégane RS sticks with struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, but its front configuration has new geometry and retains Renault Sport’s PerfoHub technology, which reduces kingpin angle offset and therefore better resists torque and bump steer. The RS version rides 5mm lower than a Mégane GT and has axle tracks widened by 45mm up front and 30mm at the rear.

The car’s chassis features two key technical departures: a four-wheel steering system and a set of hydraulic suspension bump stops. This isn’t the first Renault Sport product to use the latter. Described by the company as "a damper within a damper", the hydraulic suspension bump stops are independent fluid-filled shock absorbers that sit on the lower end of the front and rear suspension struts. And while they’re commonly fitted to rally cars and the new Mégane uses them at all four corners, the current Clio RS uses them too (on the front axle only); Dieppe’s history with them stretches all the way back to the legendary Clio 182 Trophy of 2005.

Having experimented with adaptive dampers too, Renault’s conclusion was that it could achieve better dynamic performance by combining a good, well-tuned passive damper with a hydraulic bump stop than by spending the equivalent on an adaptive damper. Interesting. And it’s a claim that seems all the more credible coming from a firm with Renault Sport’s pedigree in chassis tuning than it might be if you heard it anywhere else.

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In more familiar vein, you can have the Mégane RS with a slightly softer ‘sport’ suspension tuning (partnered with an electronic brake-actuated torque vectoring system) or firmer ‘cup’ settings. With the latter, you also get a Torsen mechanical slippy diff configured for greater lock-up under power and less drag effect on a trailing throttle than the outgoing Mégane 275’s GKN slippy diff had. Enlarged 19in wheels fitted with Bridgestone tyres, and uprated lightweight brakes with aluminium hubs saving 1.8kg a corner, are options on ‘cup’ cars.

Prices start at £28,995, while a ‘trophy’ version – with 296bhp, 295lb ft, a standard cup chassis and all the must-have options included – is an open secret to join the range before the end of the year.

Taking the Megane RS to the limit on track

Renault gave us the opportunity to test both ‘sport’ and ‘cup’ suspension configurations on the Mégane RS 280’s launch, as well as both manual and EDC gearboxes – although our impressions on the manual ‘cup’ were confined to the limits of a track, so we’ll have to wait to discuss how the stiffer-suspended car rides on the road. We should make it plain up front, however, that the Mégane RS ‘sport’ has an amazingly supple and deft suspension set-up that works quite spectacularly well over bumps and bad surfaces. But more of that shortly.

The current Mégane’s cockpit makes for a decent departure point for a performance treatment, albeit one with some minor frustrations. The Mégane RS 280’s Alcantara sports seats are good and supportive, and the driving position they grant is also good by class standards: you don’t sit uncomfortably high and the controls are well-located in front of you. Renault Sport’s attempts at enriching the interior materials are mixed, though; the RS’s red-striped seatbelts and red trim accenting is bright and effective, but its part-Alcantara sport steering wheel has fairly ordinary-feeling leather where your hands rest on the grips (at quarter to three) and soft suede at six and 12 o’clock, where you seem to touch it less.

Equally odd are the car’s part-analogue, part-digital instruments, which consist of a square digital screen made up mainly of differently themed combinations of analogue rev counter and digital speedo. The system’s available screen space, however, is drastically curtailed by oversized analogue fuel level and water temperature gauges on either side of it. One bigger screen, with temperature and fuel information you could call up when needed (or at least scale to your preference), would have been a much more intelligent layout.

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Details, perhaps. Still, they matter – especially since details also initially prevent you from enjoying the driving experience of the paddle shift-equipped car. The positioning and action of the shift paddles for the Mégane RS 280’s EDC gearbox are – by my reckoning, at least – plainly at fault here. Oh dear, I know: same record. But having been criticised so strongly for the Clio RS 200’s cheap and flimsy-feeling paddles, it’s amazing that Renault Sport should have repeated almost exactly the same offence with that car’s new bigger brother.

The Mégane’s shift paddles have better haptic feel than that in the Clio; the ‘crushed cornflake’ action is notable by its absence. But they remain awkwardly placed on the car’s steering column (displaced upwards by Renault’s trusty old column-mounted audio remote control) so they’re a slight stretch for your fingertips every time you need to grab a gear. They also lack that solid, defined action that’d tell you beyond question when you’ve successfully selected the next gear. They feel light and woolly, so it’s easy to half-pull one, then tug it again just to be sure, only to find you’ve accidentally upshifted twice. Annoying.

The EDC gearbox itself does a respectable job of managing the car’s gear ratios and gives you something more like that close, instinctive control over the driving forces going into the car’s front wheels than the Clio RS 200’s 'box ever managed. It’s much quicker on the upshift than on its way down the box, though, and nothing like as smooth or judicious with its shift timing in D as the better 'flappy paddle' hot hatches you might compare it with.

The Mégane RS 280’s six-speed manual gearbox is a much simpler, more intuitive and more satisfying thing to interact with, thankfully. Shift quality is well-defined and the car’s pedals are sufficiently well placed that most drivers who want to will easily be able to heel-and-toe their way down the ratios. There’s no ‘synchro rev-match’ function that’ll do it for you – but I don’t mind. Can’t heel-and-toe? Then learn to drive properly, numpty.

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And what about that critical new mechanical oily bit that gearbox is connected to: the new Mégane RS engine? On this evidence, I’d say it’s strong enough; competitive with the prevailing standard for the average full-sized hot hatchback, certainly. But as a replacement for the old Mégane 275’s blown 2.0-litre engine, I’m not sure ‘better than average’ makes it worthy, actually. Because while the Mégane RS 280 has abundant real-world on-the-road performance, it’s not thanks to its engine. The motor’s torquey and free-ish-revving, but also sounds a bit ordinary, suffers a bit with iffy throttle response throughout the accelerator pedal travel and doesn’t breathe in and keep hauling with anything it could make the reign of the like the high-range urgency of a Civic Type R’s 2.0-litre engine. As hot hatchback engines go, it’s just alright.

Now, guess what’s better than alright? The chassis. Yup, better than alright. Balls to understatement – it’s sensational. The car steers faithfully, with useful weight and plenty of feel. But the deftness, suppleness and fluency of the ‘sport’-suspended car’s ride is outstanding on bumpy roads and is somehow set off against first-rate, progressive body control in a combination that no other hot hatchback in the class could match, I’d wager.

And better still are the Mégane RS 280’s true showstoppers: totally absorbing handling agility, brilliant cornering balance and a flair for playfulness that might even make a Civic Type R seem straight-laced. These were apparent in both versions of the car we tested, so it’s certainly not as if you have to buy the stiffer ‘cup’ version with the mechanical slippy diff to end up with a brilliant-handling car – although the slightly quicker responses and marginally better traction it grants are probably worth having.

But it’s the Mégane RS 280’s four-wheel steering system that seems to contribute most tellingly to its handling appeal and to greatest effect when you use Renault Sport’s ‘race’ driving mode, which raises the threshold speed at which it switches over from steering against the front wheels to steering in the same direction as them. In most four-wheel-steered passenger cars, this happens at around 30mph; in the Mégane RS 280 – and in ‘race’ mode, remember – you get a counter-steered rear axle all the way up to 62mph. And so the car turns in with amazing alacrity and carries big mid-corner speed effortlessly on a balanced throttle.

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On a trailing throttle, meanwhile, you’ll be amazed how easily you can just flick it into delicious little neutral-steered drifts, with the rear wheels effectively guiding the back of the car ever so delicately into the slide. That’s an incredibly enlivening influence on the driving experience of a front-driven performance car at fairly low speeds, when the bends you’re tackling are tight, clear and well-sighted. And when they’re fast, open and bordered by kerbs, the system makes the car’s handling super-planted and stable right when you want it to be.

How does the Megane RS compare to its rivals?

And where does that leave the Mégane RS 280? Pretty plainly, it’s staggeringly good in some ways, alright in others – and not without the odd frustration if you like a modern performance hatchback with two pedals. In this form, it wouldn’t cut it for me next to better, slicker and more complete twin-clutch options from the Volkswagen Group stable.

But as a manual, and I dare say in whichever suspension tune best suits the usage you have in mind for it, the Mégane RS 280 has the makings of a genuinely outstanding driver’s car. Not an entirely flawless one, true enough. But how much will a slightly ordinary engine and some curious fixtures and fittings really matter to a devoted petrolhead, I wonder?

The Mégane RS 280’s clever, agile, balanced and insanely ‘chuckable’ handling plainly makes it a very special prospect, and if it impresses us as much on British roads as it has on Spanish ones, Honda Civic Type R as our hot hatchback class champion very short indeed.

For now, watch this space. Perhaps Renault Sport didn’t let all its best engineers don those new-season Alpine polo shirts, after all.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Renault Megane RS (2017-2022) First drives