Even though the 21st Century is well underway, recent events have a somewhat ominous, century-ending vibe. All signs point to the internal combustion engine, which we have known and loved our entire lives, maybe reaching its end. At the same time, it appears that the hot hatchback, a class of car that we have long admired, is also getting close to its lights-out moment. Here in America, Volkswagen’s GTI and Golf R as well as the Mazda 3 are still carrying the banner, long may they live. Ford, GM and numerous others have already abruptly left the segment. How long, though, can that last? The hot hatch and its nimble ways increasingly seem bound for history’s trash heap with the recent cancellation of Hyundai’s Veloster N and the increasing tendency of automakers to offer (and people to buy) high-riding cars, even electric ones, weighing as much as quad cab duallies. Which makes us unhappy, as should be obvious to readers of a publication other than Road & Auto-Pilot.
The desire to test drive the newest Mégane RS, a contemporary French interpretation of the hot hatch that has thrilled members of the European Fourth Estate through two previous iterations (though it’s actually part of the lineup of the fourth generation Mégane, first introduced in 1996), may have been the reason we found ourselves contacting Renault’s press office prior to a recent trip to France. What might be novel, important, and French about the RS given Renault’s dedication to comprehensive electrification—as evidenced by the forthcoming E-Tech Mégane, an electric soft-road SUV paired with corporate cousin Nissan’s Ariya?
A brief ode to the hot hatch concept is in order before we even get to the new component. All the features that the world once praised are now available in a manageable package: five seats, superior and easily accessible load-carrying capacity, quick acceleration, superior ride and handling. For many people, the hot hatch continues to be the most enjoyable and practical way to travel most of the world’s paved roads most of the time. Don’t be misled by advertising copywriters who are paid on behalf of their profit-seeking customers to make you believe otherwise. Only time will tell whether Renault will continue to believe that it is developing a hot, electric Mégane hatch or if they will join the rest of them in looking upward with larger wheels and tires and command position seating for seven.
The 1.8-liter turbocharged four that won us over in the mid-engined Alpine A110 has been added to the basic B-sized hatchback Mégane formula in today’s RS (as in Renault Sport). It has recently been revved up to deliver 300 horsepower and 251 lb-ft of torque, and it effortlessly powers the front wheels through a six-speed EDC (efficient dual clutch) automatic transmission that can be paddle-shifted. (A less expensive option is a six-speed manual.) While we stuck with the standard setting for highway driving, the elevated shift points and intoxicating popping and farting of the exhaust in Sport mode made it, at least for this driver, the preferred default when tracing back roads on our way south from Paris to the Mediterranean coast for a week’s vacation. Three drive modes deliver increasing levels of performance and noise. When driven aggressively, sixty miles per hour can be reached in less than six seconds, and the peak speed is capped at 155 mph, which is more than enough for any road conditions we might face, especially after we arrive at our destination. Despite our gluttony, how quickly does a baguette, mussel, or tarte aux abricots need to get home?
The RS’ iridescent orange finish and its lowered and pumped stance stood out more than one might have expected on French roads, drawing many longing glances in town squares and autoroute rest areas, suggesting that these keen onlookers knew they were observing something special in a world of increasingly bland cars and surprisingly few car color choices. The RS’s new four-wheel steering capability, which few people outside the car may be aware of, made it stand out even more on country lanes. The RS puts its ample power down without sacrificing much in the way of ride comfort, reminding us that comfortable suspensions have long been a French strength. Hydraulic suspension bump stops, in which secondary shock absorbers back up the front and rear suspension struts, and an optional limited-slip diff are said to negate torque steer.
Although twice daily slow, tentative climbs up the narrow hillside track and switchbacks leading to our rental accommodation managed to elicit frying clutch smells and occasionally what I understood to be (my French, alas, is tres mal) dashboard nanny warnings about frying clutch overload, steering was direct and reasonably communicative. The lack of a seventh gear initially bothered me somewhat as well, but only because we’ve been accustomed to cogs in recent years. All-black sport seats covered in an alcantara-like material cosset comfortably, and commendable dash graphics, usable infotainment features, plastics that don’t rattle over rough terrain (on this test car, at least, some 10,000 miles into its life), and air conditioning that blew cold even in the near-100 degree summer heat all served as reminders that French cars have undergone generations of improvement that we Americans are woefully unaware of.
Overall, a useful and entertaining vehicle that I would be happy to call my own. Given the underlying pragmatism of the design and the enjoyable driving partner it dresses, I think I could live with the aesthetics, which tends to the bland and unobtrusive with the slightest suggestion of classical French idiosyncrasy in the huge Renault logo that carves into the hood.
In the end, we prefer our hatchbacks to be little and spicy, much like our chili. The Mégane is both of these by contemporary standards. Please don’t depart from us.
Through Jamie Kitman
I wrote to Patrick Le Quément, a former Renault design chief who is now a yacht designer, toward the end of my trip to get his informed opinion on the most recent Mégane’s design. He had a lot to say about the vehicle’s design history: “I have been responsible for 3 generations of Mégane, the first was a pleasant, don’t rock the boat (!) modern design that was linked to the ’60s and ’70s. The Mégane II, which I blatantly referred to as a “Landmark design,” is by far my favorite. Along with a Shelby Mustang, the Mégane II RS was one of my favorite company vehicles, but that’s a different story. What I liked about the Mégane II RS version was that it was understated; aside from the lowered body, attitude, and wheels that filled “them wheel arches,” there was no need for false air scoops, dental braces, or anything else in the falsesies shopping bag that our styling world is capable of regurgitating. Carlos Ghosn, our sensitive leader supremo, guided the design of the third generation, and it was just another slick, “Who designed that car?” that blended into the surroundings and never caused anyone any heartburn. There was one coupé that made a last-minute stand against the ever-so-nice brigade as an exception. The Mégane RS coupé was really hot. Then the fourth generation appeared, which is said to have been created by the UN. By that time, I had left. I’ll conclude my testimony now, your honor, and go back to my Monaco concept boat, which draws its design cues from the slick profile of a manta ray.
He ought to know, after all. However, there is no accounting for taste, as the French proverb “Des goûts et des couleurs” (roughly, “tastes and colors”) puts it.
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