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Those tough 'real-world' conditions can quickly reveal a car's weaknesses and strengths, especially if you throw some suburban hills into the equation.
So any car which returns less than 8 litres per 100km in city traffic grabs my attention, particularly with fuel prices again heading in the wrong direction.
I'm not talking about a pint-size car or one with a small engine for which you would expect fuel consumption to be reasonable.
What we are looking at is a mid-size, solidly built European import in Renault's Megane, except this one is a diesel.
After a week of trips to the supermarket, the nursery, the hardware store and commuting to work, the typical duties expected of a family car; the Megane's onboard computer dipped to 7.5 litres per 100km. To put that in cash terms, it's less than $20 for a week's running. Throw in some country travel and the average fuel consumption level would be even better.
Now, the Megane is not the most fuel-efficient car in the market but it gives a good indication of how affordable a diesel can be without having to sacrifice any luxuries, performance or handling.
Petrol-engined Megane prices start at $24,990 after Renault shaved up to $3500 across the model range in April. The diesel arrived in August, with the base Expression priced from $27,990 (manual); the higher-spec diesel Privilege version costs $35,990 (auto only). That's value-for-money buying.
What you get
You may remember the corny TV ads from Renault showing an executive being chauffeured in the Megane. Then the suit made the driver stop so he could take over the wheel because driving the Megane is so much fun. Hmmmm.
It isn't a limo, by a long stretch, but it does have some good prestige features. At the Privilege level you get leather upholstery, cruise control with a handy speed limiter, rear parking sensors, auto switch-on headlights, air conditioning and an average quality six-stack audio system and fog lamps. That's a better kit than some cars that cost substantially more.
There's also a lot of clever user-friendly storage bins, which the Europeans are good at, as well as sun shades, which pull up from inside the rear doors and a glove box, which can be chilled from the air conditioning system.
Another bit of clever design is the flap to the fuel inlet which incorporates the fuel cap . . . so you don't get your hands dirty. Flip the flap and the cap opens with the door. Neat.
There are weird design features, such as a U-shaped handbrake lever which, although looking odd works well, especially if you don't have much strength in your wrist.
This car comes with one of those flat, plastic keyless keys (think of an oversized credit card) that you slot into a hole in the dash and then push a starter button. It's all rather complicated when turning a conventional key does the same thing, although this plastic card will fit in your wallet or purse.
Previous Meganes have a five-star rating and there is no reason this one won't be a star performer as well. There's plenty of standard fare with six air bags, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, seat belts with pretensioners and load limiters plus rain-sensing wipers.
The boot is enormous for a car this size. The styling is pleasant but not exactly head-turning and the cabin takes a little time to feel at home with, although it works a treat: there's plenty of leg and head room, good vision and the layout of controls, once you get to know where they are, works well.
Under the bonnet
Power comes from a 1.9-litre, four-cylinder direct turbo diesel. Power is a modest 96kW at 4000rpm, although a hefty 300Nm of torque makes up for it, peaking at 2000rpm; but there's a catch.
You can take your pick from a six-speed manual or four-speed auto, which will be the popular choice. However, the auto box robs it of torque (down to 260Nm), so if you want the added performance of the manual you have to drop down to the Expression level of specification. The Privilege comes as an auto only in this country, which is a pity.
Acceleration isn't brilliant but remember this is a diesel. Zero to 100km/h is a leisurely 9.1 seconds.
On the road
In a word, it's classy. Once you get used to the diesel's idiosyncrasies this mid-sized sedan provides quite a rewarding and surprisingly comfortable, stable drive but don't think of it as a sporty car. It isn't.
It can be described as sprightly thanks to its oodles of torque from low down in the rev range.
An impressive 7.5L/100km, city driving. Renault's official figure is 6.8L/100km for the auto.
Yes, the Megane is quirky; the French go about designing their cars like no one else; and yes, when I first got in I found it uninspiring with little in the way of “wow” factor. However, the Megane is a car that grows on you.
It takes time to become familiar with its controls and the way it works. By the end of the week familiarity had taken over. I loved it.