There’s no better way to get to know a high-performance car than to drive it hard through a challenging series of twists and turns – in pouring rain. And it was bucketing down so hard that I struggled to see the first corner when I drove the new Renault Mégane RS Cup recently.
The occasion was last weekend’s Knysna Hillclimb, a 2km flat-out dash up the serpentine road that links Knysna to the eyrie that is the Simola Hotel and Golf Estate. The annual event attracts a huge field of fast and furious machinery, and this year gained the sponsorship support of Renault South Africa.
The company used the opportunity to launch its latest performance flagships to the motoring media. The occasion included a 300km ride and drive route taking in the best of the region’s mountain passes, as well as a few runs up Simola Hill as part of a “friendly” media challenge.
However, I wanted to sample the adrenaline, the testosterone, the friendly (but no less intense) rivalry and the sheer excitement of competing in the main hill climb event – and I managed to persuade Renault to hand me the keys to a new Mégane RS for that very purpose.
In Renault parlance, RS is short for Renault Sport – a reference to the motorsport division of Renault France. Renault Sport Technologies isn’t only responsible for the brand’s motorsport participation, but also develops selected performance variants based on standard, road-going Renault models.
One gets the feeling that the standard Mégane Coupé was designed with a motorsport agenda from the start: It features racy lines, a low-slung stance, a slanted roofline and a healthy dose of attitude. And once it wears the RS badge, those styling essentials have been further emphasised.
The Mégane RS Cup retains the two-door coupé configuration, but it looks infinitely more aggressive. It carries itself like a pugilist, thanks to the way huge alloys fill the flared wheel arches, and its low, crouching attitude.
Indeed, the French coupé packs a pretty mean punch. A two-litre turbocharged petrol engine delivers 184kW of maximum power to the front wheels via a standard six-speed manual gearbox. The torque peak is 340Nm.
Those stats place the Mégane RS among the fastest hot hatches on the local market. And the factory performance figures prove it: zero to 100km/h takes only 6,1 seconds. The quarter-mile dash is despatched in 14,1 seconds. And it covers 1,000m from rest in just 25,7 seconds.
But hang on – the Mégane RS Cup has another, near-identical stablemate. There’s no specific badging, and it shares the RS Cup’s crouching, purposeful stance. But as it turns out, there are a few subtle visible differences. And the Sport, as it’s known, also has a vastly different personality.
Most obvious are the wheels: The Cup gets massive 19-inch forged alloys, while the Sport makes do with slightly humbler 18-inch versions. A closer look at the big front disc brakes and Brembo callipers reveals that the Cup discs are grooved, while the Sport version’s are smooth.
Inside, the Cup offers its occupants lightweight Recaro racing seats, while the Sport is kitted out with bulked-up, more conventional bucket seats. They don’t look as nice, but are the more comfortable option on long trips. And they are electrically adjustable too.
Less obvious, but arguably the biggest differentiating factor between the Renault twins is the suspension. The Cup gets a lower, stiffer, hardcore set-up that treats poor road surfaces with contempt, and doesn’t care about compromising ride comfort in the process. A limited slip differential aids traction out of corners, but adds more steering effort.
By comparison, the Sport is the easier car to live with, thanks to slightly more forgiving settings. It’s not soft by any means, but the suspension offers greater damping scope, allowing the hot hatch to iron out the worst bumps and dips. And there’s no LS diff to exercise those biceps.
Staying with the technical stuff for the moment, both twins employ what Renault calls the RS Performance Hub, a front suspension configuration with an independent steering axis that overcomes the handicaps that powerful front-wheel drive cars usually suffer from, self-steering through tight corners and torque steer.
In practice, it means you can push harder and deeper into corners, carrying more speed into the apex without the nose pushing wide – and then accelerate out of the tight with ample traction to prevent wheelspin and a shimmying front end.
In the case of the Cup, the LS diff adds further grip, so that you can get on the gas even earlier – but in reality, that talent will only really be appreciated on the track, or when you’re pushing way beyond the levels normally associated with road use.
And, of course, that’s exactly what I’m about to do right now.
This, and following photos: Renault RS Sport
The Hillclimb route is just short of two kilometres long. It starts with a long, smooth sweep to the right, then chases up the hill into turn two, a treacherous, off-camber left corner that’s always sharper and trickier than expected. And the skid marks prove it.
Survive that turn, and the rest becomes a simple as threading a needle: left, right, left, right, with the wheels just kissing the kerbs at every apex, and steering clear of the occasional gravel patch that can see you come unstuck and flung against the mountainside if you’re not careful.
Because the climb represents extreme use, I’ve chosen a Mégane RS Cup version as my steed. I’m hoping the LS diff will allow vital extra traction out of the tight, and that the fatter rubber will add a greater margin for error. After all, I’m no racing driver – and errors there will be.
As it turns out, traction is not the problem. With less than 2km to cover, the make or break of the hill climb is at the start. Too much wheelspin and the car will bog down, with not enough bite to harness all those horses champing at the bit under the bonnet. Too little throttle and initial progress is too slow.
A compromised start affects the entire run. And while the Mégane is spectacular around corners, linking a neutral attitude through the twists and turns to prodigious grip and loads of power, I’m just not getting to the first corner fast enough.
It gets worse. After Saturday’s practice runs, Sunday is grey, cloudy – and wet. The rain comes bucketing down, drenching Simola hill, and making the experienced crews change to wet weather rubber. Of course, the Renault is on standard, high-performance Continental road tyres.
If the start was tricky before, it’s downright impossible in the rain. But the Renault’s inherent ease of use, it’s unequivocal feedback and the ability to adjust the throttle map to be more or less responsive, depending on conditions, all start to count in my favour.
The road is wet on my first run, and turn two induces a substantial dose of oversteer that has the rear stepping out wide. But the steering is quick and accurate, and it only takes a quick flick of the wrists to bring the car back in line. There’s more grip than expected and I’m beginning to think that this Mégane RS could be a real contender against some exotics if the rain persists.
And it does. After the second qualifying run, the mist has joined proceedings, compromising visibility through the last 300m or so. And small rivers have started running across the tar, increasing the risk of aquaplaning and inducing huge roosters of spray.
The organisers decide to run a do-or-die, one-run final. They’re worried that the fog will smother the entire hill climb route, forcing a premature end to proceedings. The pits become a hive of activity as everyone dashes for their cars.
In the relative calm of the Mégane RS cockpit, I can feel my pulse racing as I approach the start line. The margin between hero and zero is a fine one, especially with the water now streaming down the track. A wetsuit would be the most suitable apparel right now!
But in the end, the Renault saves the day. For the first time since the weekend started, I get off the line with just the right amount of urge. Even in these conditions, the RS is a bullet, barrelling its way into and through that first, fast sweep and then surging – make that splashing – up the hill.
I try to leave the braking as late as I dare, then gear down for turn two, feeding in the throttle progressively and feeling the steering load up. We must be at the very limit of adhesion – the rear is squirming, and I can feel the tyres struggling. Is this where the fun will finally end?
Then we’re through, the road straightens out, the big Contis regain their bite, and the Mégane’s turbo power is put to the best possible use. Even the fog at the top poses no problem, and I cross the finish line with a Cheshire-cat smile.
Of course, my participation was more fun than serious endeavour. Of course, I entered simply to sample what the real competitors out there experience. And indeed, it presented the perfect opportunity to push the Mégane RS to the limit in an unusual, competitive environment.
Even so, I’m proud of a result that places us ahead of an Audi R8, an Audi RS4, a Mitsubishi Evo, a Ford GT40, and a brace of Porsches. Not bad for a standard, showroom-spec hot hatchback.
The Mégane RS Cup is about as close to a race car as any street-legal, standard road car in the hatchback sector is likely to get. It’s closest rival is the Ford Focus RS, a car already out of production. To drive it is to smell the rubber, feel the rush, of being in a pukkah racing machine.
But for everyday driving, I’d probably prefer its more amicable twin. The RS Sport isn’t as hard core, as edgy, as uncompromising as the Cup. Cane it on a track, and it will be almost as quick, but a lot more forgiving. And in normal use, it’s easily the more enjoyable car to pilot.
Unless, of course, I could park both Mégane RS cars in my garage. DM
Renault Mégane RS Cup
In-line four cylinder, 1 998 cc, turbocharged
184 kW at 5 500 rpm
340 Nm @ 3 800 rpm
250 km/h (governed)
8,3 litres/100 km (combined cycle)
Cup: R399 900
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