I was 21 when I bought a several-year-old Clio 182 Trophy, build number 490 of 500, and covered more than 40,000 miles over the following three years on its trick Sachs dampers. I replaced it with a Megane R26, another limited edition Renaultsport model which, thanks to the addition of a turbocharger, was a different kettle of fish pace-wise to the diminutive Clio but equally capable when the roads got twisty.
Both cars though, as well the numerous Clios and Meganes that followed, contained Renaultsport’s ultra-special DNA so the new car, which is now five-door only, has its work cut out to deliver the same thrill-a-minute experience.
They’ve always been affordable, putting things like steering feel and a sorted chassis before headline-grabbing power outputs and quality interiors. If you’re into driving nonsense-free cars without much in the way to dilute your experience, Renaultsport has always resonated with enthusiasts and the RS 280 gets off to a flyer purely because of how it looks.
Its eye-catching design has that typical French flair - the front and rear lights are gorgeous, the flared arches evoke memories of muscular Renaultsports of the past and while it isn’t as ‘out there’ as the Honda Civic Type R (what is?) it’s better looking through my eyes. It’s accentuated somewhat by this test car’s Volcano Orange paintwork, which is a £1,300 option. That might seem a lot but all thoughts of its price will evaporate into insignificance as soon as you see its metallic fleck pop in direct sunlight.
Open the driver’s door and you’re met with lashings of alcantara, the suede-like racy material that’s commonplace on most fast cars these days, and an iPad-like touchscreen system which works well. Get settled and the RS-badged seat immediately feels right; it clasps your sides, it sits low and looks the part. In front is a part-alcantara, part-leather steering wheel with a 12 o’clock marker which feels nice in your hands, and to the left is the standard six-speed manual. A semi-auto, paddleshift-operated gearbox is an option for those strange people who think hot hatches shouldn’t be involving.
Prod the start button and the 1.8-litre engine fires into life with a nice thrum. Select ‘Sport’ or ‘Race’ and the noise grows, but with either selected the Megane’s ride becomes noticeably stiffer. That’s not a problem in my opinion - hot hatches, especially wearing the proud Renaultsport badge, have always had a harder edge than their rivals and while it can feel harsh on some surfaces, it’s perfectly acceptable in a car of this type.
The new Megane’s party piece is the way in which it steers. In most cars your steering inputs control only the front wheels, but the RS 280 has a trick four-wheel steer system hitherto found in cars without six-figure price tags. Below 37mph, or below 62mph if the car’s in its ‘Race’ mode, the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the fronts. This helps the nose dart into corners much more keenly, negotiating tight corners with ease. It also gives the car an incredibly good turning circle for its size - a genuinely useful addition when you’re in a tight spot.
Venture towards higher speeds and the rears slightly angle themselves parallel with the front wheels, effectively lengthening the wheelbase for stability purposes, and at first it’s quite hard to get your head around as you know something new is happening underneath you. The front end’s turn-in is nothing short of phenomenal. It gives the car a unique feel, it’s alert to the slightest of inputs through the steering wheel and enables absurd cornering ability.
While the RS 280 is potent, developing 276bhp, it falls short of rivals such as the 316bhp Type R, 296bhp Seat Leon Cupra and the 345bhp Ford Focus RS which all hover around the £30,000 Megane’s price, give or take a few quid. While some competitors for the hot hatch crown have gone four-wheel-drive, forsaking involvement in favour of 0-60mph times, Renaultsport’s engineering wizards have opted to remain with front-wheel-drive and while the decision isn’t a bad one, the front tyres do scrabble for traction under load and the power does result in a large amount of torque steer, so you do have to be alert.
I’ve always been a firm believer that performance cars without absurd amounts of power should have manual gearboxes, but strangely the Megane’s just doesn’t deliver. It’s too notchy, my left arm struggled to get into a comfortable position and although it got better as the days went by, overall it’s a real let down and isn’t a patch on the Civic Type R’s six-speeder. The lever’s shape is weird, quite frankly, and although its action can’t match the Honda, a roll-topped lever would help reduce the disappointment so it should be an easy after-market fix.
It’s a bittersweet package, then. There’s undeniable magic and while the combination of its hyper-alert front end and subsequent handling prowess is sensational, ultimately the Type R is the better car to drive. However, it’s important to remember that Renaultsport has always been like this - the first version of a new model is never the pinnacle and there’s already the Megane 300 Trophy, as well as a two-seat Trophy R version, for us to lap up. However, the RS 280, despite a few foibles, remains a properly brilliant hot hatch. It’s brimming with magic, but there’s room for improvement.
Over to you, beloved Renaultsport…