THE “under new management” sign has been hung out at Renault Australia. In the third relaunch of the French brand in Australia in recent years, new boss Justin Hocevar promises new models, a 400 per cent increase in financial investment from the parent company and a “fresh” management team.
The former Mini boss also brings with him a couple of his former Mini colleagues, immediately jumping into the deep end with the Australian International Motor Show, annual budget reviews, a national dealer meeting and the media launch of four new models – Megane Hatch, Megane RS250, Megane Coupe-Cabriolet and Fluence sedan, a joint venture with Nissan.
“These are the basis of the recovery of our brand in Australia,” Hocevar says. “Renault has been underestimated for too long in Australia.” According to the latest sales figures, the company is “underestimated” by about 30 per cent.
Hocevar says the new models arrive with “more equipment, but not inflated price tags”, simplified two-trim variants (Dynamique and Privilege) and charming Euro styling. Renault has announced a drive-away price of $25,990 for the Megane Hatch Dynamique manual listed at $22,990. The CVT auto adds $2000.
Compare that with the 2003 launch of the Megane which started at $31,990 for the two-litre Dynamique with five-speed manual. The entry model 1.6-litre model was $25,990.
Renault spokesman Sylvain Martin-Villa says the new Megane Hatch comes with “a lot of standard equipment” not included on the original model such as six airbags, cruise control, ESP, hands-free key card and music-streaming Bluetooth which is standard in all the new models.
The top-spec Privilege adds leather upholstery and trim, sunroof, sat nav, rear parking sensors and is listed at $29,990.
The Coupe-Cabriolet comes in Dynamique only, with sat nav, heated seats and a folding glass roof from $45,990.
The Mégane Renault Sport 250, which features in the latest Need for Speed computer game, arrives in Cup from $41,990 and Trophée from $46,990, adding Recaro seats, remote key, tyre pressure monitor and 19-inch alloys.
The Fluence sedan will sell for the drive-away price of $25,990 for the Dynamique manual. It is listed at $22,990, the CVT is an extra $2000 and the top-spec Privilege with CVT and sat nav is listed at $29,990.
The Megane Hatch, Coupe-Cabriolet and Fluence share the two-litre four-cylinder engine with power figures of 103kW (102kW in the Megane Dynamique manual) and 195Nm of torque, married to a six-speed manual or a six-step CVT, although the Coupe-Cabriolet is CVT only.
The RS250 also features the two-litre engine, but turbocharged to 184kW/340Nm mated to a six-speed manual transmission with a limited-slip differential. It also comes with Brembo brakes, lowered and stiffer Cup suspension and a performance data monitor that displays lap times, engine performance, G force and more.
There are no diesel Meganes available at launch. “Diesel doesn’t fit our philosophy,” Hocevar says. “Customers want high-revving engines and we don’t want to dilute the business case at the moment with diesel.” He says the high demand in Europe for diesel would create supply problems here. “The Australian diesel market is increasing, but it’s still not high,” he says. However, Hocevar says a diesel Megane will arrive in the next 12 months when the new double-clutch gearbox is available.
“These are still not conservative designs,” Hocevar says. However, the Megane Hatch has gone on a diet and finally loses its controversial flabby bottom. “It’s a less polarizing design,” Hocevar admits.
The hatch now looks more like a Peugeot 308 hatch. CC is marked by a glass sunroof and a boat-like rear end. Renault claims the roof goes in 22 seconds, but it takes about five seconds more and must be done while stationary.
The RS250 looks better from the rear with its massive diffuser and centralised single exhaust pipe that should please the hot hatch fans. Inside, it’s a little gaudy with yellow seatbelts, seat stitching and tacho.
The new Fluence is an elegant small sedan with a generous 4.6m body length and 2.7m wheelbase creating a lot of space for five people. Inside, it is identical to the Megane, except for a larger rear seat, more legroom and, of course, a boot.
All new models have a long list of safety features such as six airbags, automatic headlight and wipers, ESP, ABS, emergency braking assist and on the CC there is rollover protection.
There are also energy-absorbing bumpers to protect pedestrians.
With four cars to get through in one day at the national launch in country Victoria, it was difficult to gain detailed impressions. However, the Megane Hatch distinguished itself as quiet and comfortable with solid road manners and the ability to boogie when the roads get a little twisty.
It’s always had sporty front-wheel-drive handling characteristics, but now with a little less understeer and torque steer. It also handles the sudden jolts in road surfaces a little better. The CVT makes the engine scream when pushed and you are better advised to use the six-step selector for shuffling through the “gears”.
Inside is a pleasant environment with plenty of soft touch surfaces, especially where you rest your elbows. However, the seats are short in the base and the winding mechanical adjustment is archaic. The switches and controls are typically quirky like most French cars such as the audio controls on a stalk hidden behind the steering wheel. Surprisingly there is no passing indicator function that flashes two or three times. Front-seat passengers will enjoy the high “command” position and the sense of space.
The Fluence makes the Megane almost seem harsh. It is eerily quiet, refined and rides with the composure of a much bigger car. Steering is ultra-light at low speed for easy parking and firms up as speed gathers with a nice weight and feel. While the CVT still makes the engine scream, it is fainter in the Megane. Inside, it is identical to the Megane, except for stacks of leg room front and back.
In Coupe format, the CC has more structural integrity than most folding hard tops. It handles without drama and there are no groans or creaks from the roof joins. The glass roof only has a gauze cover which is not enough to shield passengers against the sun’s harmful rays, glare and heat.
The top goes down when stationary in 27 seconds, not the claimed 22. Once down, the dashboard and steering vibrate and the weight of the folding roof with its heavy glass in the boot makes the front light and the steering vague.
We experienced the RS250 only on the Broadford motorcycle track, a challenging, undulating circuit with off-camber and blind corners. Hocevar says “this is how it should be driven”. The RS250 joins the recently released Clio Sport 200 Gordinio edition in Renault’s venerable sport stable that goes all the way up to Mark Webber’s work car. “This is not just stick-on badges, but ground-up reworking,” says Hocevar.
On the track, even hard-core sports machines can feel soft. Here the RS250 feels sloppy, the brakes soft, the steering vague and it’s simply too quiet until it’s hitting the rev limiter. It would probably be quite good on the open road where the bumps can unsettle more highly strung hot hatches. At least the LSD ensures there is little wheel spin, while there is virtually no torque steer.
Renault has hit the spot with pricing, features, styling and refinement. Megane Hatch is now a much more approachable design and the Fluence should win some customers in the growing small-to-medium sedan category.
There has always been a market for Renault Sport products, but the RS250 will win few converts, even though it looks the part. It remains to be seen whether the company can restore some faith in this quality Euro marquee.
New Renault models
Mégane Hatch: Dynamique man. $22,990 ($25,990 drive away), Dynamique CVT $24,990, Privilege CVT $29,990
Megane Coupe-Cabriolet: $45,990
Megane RS250 Cup: $41,990
Megane RS250 Cup Trophee: $46,990
Fluence: Dynamique man. $22,990 ($25,990 drive away), Dynamique CVT $24,990, Privilege CVT $29,990