The cars we loved.
In the world of the small hatchback, Europe is king. Every few months or so a new star rises out of the bunch with
the performance and versatility of much larger cars. Most of these cars are of course not available in America. Our
bias towards any hatchback tends to regulate them to bargain bin or entry-level status. The few performance hatches we share with our European counterparts like the VW Golf GTi tend to be diluted compared to their European versions. Speaking of the Golf GTi, it has been a favorite on both sides of the Atlantic with its class leading ergonomics and a dynamic road holding abilities. In America the GTi’s leadership is more clear-cut where hot hatches are concerned. In Europe not so much.
The GTi’s delicate supremacy is being challenged in the form of the French made Renault Megane RenaultSport 250. In America we generally associate Renault with the Alliance and Le Car from the 80’s. The Encore GTA from 1987 was the last performance oriented Renault to be sold here. It was potentially a great car, but suffered from some reliability issues. Renault left the US in 1989 and has not looked back. In Europe, the brand was free of its relationship with Chrysler and endured if not flurished in Europe. In 1995 the Megane line of cars was introduced and not too long after an RS variant followed. The Mégane R26.R (the previous version of the RS) was voted ‘Sporting Car of the Year’ in France in 2007 and 2008.
For Renault, the hot hatch entries of choice have been the Clio and the slightly larger Mégane. The Mégane is a small family car platform available in a wide range of body styles including sedan, coupe, convertible and wagon. The Mégane seems to appeal to every need as it firmly anchors the middle of Renault’s line of European cars. There’s even a small van based on the platform for the ultimate in utility. For the performance enthusiast, a version of the Mégane is available from Renault’s performance arm called Renaultsport. The Mégane Renaultsport or RS comes in two versions; 250 Sport and 250 Cup models.250 have a MacPherson strut front and what seems like a throwback: a torson beam rear. The Cup is more hard-core with a stiffer suspension tuning inspired from Renault’s racing program. The Cup also features a limited-slip differential, otherwise there is little difference save for the few cosmetic options exclusive to the Cup. The heart of both the Sport and Cup is a 2.0 L 16V turbocharged engine.
Producing 250hp (hince the name RS 250), the unique twin scroll design of the turbo allows for responsive power at low revs. 80% of the Mégane 250’s power is available from 1,900rpm, giving any version of the RS V8 like initial thrust. In addition to accelerating to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds, the can scoot up to a top speed of 155mph. Mégane RS stops just as well with disc brakes all around with Brembo calibers up front. A six speed manual is the preferred method of controlling power delivery to the front wheels while the aggressively extended wheel arches house 18 or optional 19″ wheels. Equally impressive is that this package does not exact a toll on fuel efficiency when driven with restraint. Factory gas milage is stated at a combined rating of 33 mpg.
The RS is not likely to be driven too conservatively, as it’s exterior invites hard-driving and race tuned suspension expects it. While not as over the top as the bitchin’ Focus or WRX, the RS does stand out with its ground hugging stance and mean looking front end. In fact the front end “mouth” looks like a demonic version of the Mazda happy face seen on the 3 and 2. As a kind of angry looking Pichu, it looks more Japanese than French. Either way, it’s a face only a Transformer loving teen could love. The RS makes few concessions to being all things to all people like a Golf might be, but it does contain a purposeful interior with high-end performance bits like aluminum peddles, Recaro racing type seats and a Renault Sport steering wheel with thumb sport grips. The hard-core look also translates to a harsher ride in cars with the Cup chassis compared to the standard Mégane GT or even 250 Sport models. There are a few concessions to real world practicality. Being a esentially a hatchback also means there is a degree of usefulness to the storage space in back, although the sloping rear limits any hope of too roomy a cargo area.
Renault did not invent the hothatch, but after years of watching VW, Alfa, Ford, Honda and others refine the category, it has stepped up with a class leading performance offering. A 2010 comparison test in Britian’s Car magazine confirmed the upward assent of the Mégane, placing ahead of Alfa’s Giulietta and equaling the Golf GTi. Americans may never see this car on Main Street, but we are likely to see interesting products influenced by the Megane from Ford (Focus RS) and the Fiat Group (Alfa Giulietta) in this category. We can only hope that they have caught up to the RS 250 by the time they do arrive on our shores.