Sometimes going with the not-so-obvious choice has its rewards. It’s like how Tom Cruise was originally lined-up to play the lead role in Iron Man, but changed his mind and so it was given to Robert Downey Junior who nailed it. Cars are a bit the same, especially small ones. People tend to go with the big sellers and overlook the less popular models. It means they could miss out on something just as good and maybe a bit more special – like perhaps the Renault Megane.
The new-generation Megane hatch arrives in Australia in September, but Renault snuck a couple of European left-hand drive models into the country for us to taste test. But have you ever eaten a chocolate bar from overseas and despite looking identical to the one you know well from Australia it tastes a bit different? Many imported vehicles have their ride, handling and features slightly adjusted to suit our tastes, climate and roads. This is what we had to keep in mind as we piloted the visiting Meganes around a test track in Victoria.
Perhaps more significant - in terms of our evaluation - is that being a foreign species we couldn’t take the cars outside the test facility (just in case they escaped and bred) so we don’t know how they feel on Australian roads, yet. Still we were able to get a decent impression of what the Aussie version of the car will be like when it arrives.
Two flavours of Megane hatch had been smuggled in for us to drive – the mid-spec GT Line and the top-of-the range GT. Both look similar with their tough body kits that’ll distinguish them from the rest of the line-up, but to tell them apart look for the dual exhaust tips on the GT and its mesh grille.
This fourth-generation Megane wears the new Renault ‘face’ with its C-shaped headlights and deeper grille. The previous generation was handsome and this new one is an even better looking creature - we first saw it in the metal at the Frankfurt Motorshow in 2015 and then drove the car in Europe. If you think it looks bigger than the last gen Megane, you’re right. This one is 39mm longer end-to-end, but its the extra 28mm in the wheelbase that means more room in the cabin. The third-gen car’s back seat was far from spacious, and Renault have addressed this with the new Megane, kind of… sitting behind my driving position my legs were hard up against the seat back. Sure I’m 191cm, but I don’t have this issue in a Toyota Corolla or Volkswagen Golf.
Limited legroom aside the seating in both the GT and GT-Line is outstanding. Up front there’s heavily bolstered sport seats which are super snug, although I wouldn’t want them to be any smaller and in the back there’s comfortable and supportive sculpted 60:40 split seats. Both specs have black and blue faux leather trim which looks the business. Boot space is generous with 384 litres.
The technology in the last Megane’s cockpit was falling behind its rivals, but it’s caught up now with a 7-inch touch screen and a new media system. The car we drove had the 8.7-inch screen which is fitted in a portrait orientation and lets the user ‘pinch and zoom’ when using satnav. A reversing camera will be standard on all Australian Meganes.
My initial impression was just how planted this car feels.
It’s more than looks that separate the two. The GT-Line has a 1.2-litre four cylinder petrol engine with a choice of six speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch auto, while the GT has 1.6-litre turbo-petrol four and only comes with a seven-speed double clitch auto. A 1.5-litre diesel will also come to Australia and is expected to go into the GT-Line car, too. Both cars are front-wheel drive.
The GT has sports tuned suspension, bigger brakes and four-wheel steering.
All of the above will apply to the Australian spec Meganes, too – but Renault couldn’t be more concrete about which other features would be on the cars when they arrive locally.
What they did say though was that the suspension would not differ greatly from the cars they’d smuggled in for us, although the tyres could be different.
And with this we drove the GT and GT-Line back-to-back through a range of exercises in an attempt to impress us. And… we were, very.
Taking the GT-Line first through the test track’s hill road my initial impression was just how planted this car feels – this Megane’s wheels are further apart giving it a wider footprint than the previous one.
Coming into a slippery, downhill corner there was a smidge of understeer (that’s when the car wants to keep going in a straight line because its travelling too quick to make the turn), but stability control stepped to get us through safely.
On the way back up the hill course the 1.2-litre engine was strong enough to make me ask my chaperone in the passenger seat if we were actually in the GT. The six-speed manual was easy to flick through and the clutch was just the right weight, while steering was reassuringly heavy in Sport mode and spot on.
Both cars showed off a ride that was comfortable and a quiet cabin.
Time for the GT, and again the same wide planted feel greeted me as we rolled to the start point for the downhill section. This time with more power and more growl (although the sound is synthetic and plumbed through the speakers) we shot down the same section. I hit Understeer Corner with the same speed and flowed through seamlessly – that’s four-wheel steering for you. Above 80km/h the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front. Below that speed they turn in the opposite direction. In both cases it means you’re not dragging the back of the car through the corner, it’s literally following you around.
Both cars were then taken out onto the Highway Loop – a fast track with a course chip bitumen surface. Here both cars showed off a ride that was comfortable and a quiet cabin. The big dips in the tarmac were sorted out beautifully, and we glided over the rough surface. That 1.6-litre is a beauty – where the 1.2 four runs out of steam at higher speed, the the bigger turboed engine punches on way above its weight class. The seven-speed dual clutch worked smoothly as I slapped the paddles - if only you could get the GT with a manual there'd be more connection with this great car.
While the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai i30 are the popular cars in the segment, the GT's direct rivals will be more performance-focused such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Peugeot 308 GT.
The fourth generation Megane has been awarded a maximum five star Euro NCAP safety rating, which is the European version of ANCAP and that should translate to the same score here.