A lap time of 8min 07sec around the notorious Nürburgring circuit is enough to make even the most seasoned racing driver take notice. That those digits refer to the current lap record for front-wheel drive, standard production cars is quite astounding. And the record holder hails from France. DEON SCHOEMAN drives it.
Hot hatches aren’t what they used to be. Gone are the days when the definition of a pocket rocket was a family hatch with a more vigorous camshaft, wider wheels and go-faster stripes.
Today, the performance hatchback market is a do-or-die arena, where motor manufacturers battle for the attention of tech-savvy, speed-hungry petrolheads.
It really all started with Volkswagen’s Golf GTI, which set the early performance hatchback benchmarks, and still enjoys legendary status in hot hatch circles. But it’s long lost the top-dog status it once enjoyed.
Instead, the crown passes from challenger to challenger with almost monotonous regularity as humble hatchbacks are transformed into close-combat machines by wedging bigger engines into cramped engine bays, pumping up the power and reworking the suspension to boost cornering talent.
Among the modern day contenders, stand-out candidates have been the Ford Focus ST and its even faster RS derivative, the rapid but understated Opel Astra OPC, and the special-edition “R” versions of the Golf. And then there is Renault Sport.
Based in the French town of Dieppe, Renault Sport are the clever folk that look after Renault’s motorsport interests, including the marque’s Formula One engines, and some very rapid racing and rally cars, based on production models.
But Renault Sport also creates go-faster version of some of Renault’s road-going cars – and among those, the Mégane Renault Sport is the fastest of them all. It also happens to be a top contender in the hot hatch segment – and some would argue – the best.
The current Mégane Renault Sport (or RS for short) comes in Sport and more extreme Cup flavours, with the latter introducing hard-core niceties such as a mechanical limited slip diff, a lower and stiffer suspension and race-orientated stability control.
Add a 184kW 2.0-litre turbo engine into the mix, and you have a potent package that burns rubber better than most.
But as we’ve said, there’s no time for resting on your laurels in this arena. With a new-generation Golf GTI on the horizon, and the all-new Ford Focus STI also in the mix, the magicians in Dieppe must have thought it was time for some extra tweaks.
The result is the Renault Mégane RS Trophy – effectively a RS Cup with an engine that breathes better to produce an additional 11kW. Torque is up slightly too, and now stands at 360Nm. Additional mechanical upgrades include fatter, stiffer anti-roll bars, and bespoke (and sticky) Bridgestone RE040 tyres.
Of course, those under-the-skin changes go hand in hand with a number of visual distinctions, too. The spoked 19-inch wheels are finished in glossy black, and get red pinstripe detailing. The crimson theme is continued along the sill extensions, the rear diffuser and the front splitter, but succeeds in little more than making the car look unnecessarily garish.
The body kit has been altered slightly to provide improved aerodynamics, reduced lift and more downforce, and the result, while subtle, certainly adds further visual intent. Besides, the Mégane’s coupé shape is one of the most attractive in this genre, a talent carried over to the more muscular RS version.
Inside, Renault has created a cockpit that comes about as close to racing car’s “office” as normal road pilots could hope for. Pride of place goes to a pair of high-backed, lightweight bucket seats, clad in perforated leather and adorned with gaudy yellow seat belts.
The steering wheel is a compact, thick-rimmed design that feels just right. It frames a trio of analogue dials, with the 290km/h speedometer taking pride of place. To the left is the LCD display of the RS Monitor – a nifty device that can record quarter-mile sprint times, and display a host of key engine and performance parameters at the push of a button.
Big doors allow reasonable access to the rear seats, which offer more room than you’d expect, even though the car’s high waistline and narrow glass apertures make the space feel more claustrophobic than it really is.
So, at face value, the RS Trophy would seem to come equipped with everything on the Right Stuff list. But can it carry off the act in practice?
Given its mean-machine looks, the engine note could be gruffer and a bit angrier – but the combination of noise pollution legislation and turbocharging keeps the sonic effects refined, especially at idle.
The clutch has the extra bite you’d expect in a performance car, and despite the power assistance, the steering has a reassuring heft. You’d expect some turbo lag at pull-off, but the RS Trophy gets on with it from the word go and builds both power and speed with linear intent.
Driven with vigour, the gearshift has a slightly longer throw than expected, and lacks the tactile directness that should be part of the RS character, but it doesn’t get in the way of quick and precise cog swaps. The benchmark sprint to 100km/h can be despatched in six seconds flat if you’re proficient enough, and top speed is governed at 255km/h.
Other key stats for those bar-counter trump card sessions include a quarter-mile sprint despatched in 14sec, and a 0-1,000m sprint time of 25,4sec – impressive for a road car with a family hatchback heritage.
But the straight-line figures only tell part of the story. The real talent of the RS Trophy is the sheer dynamic exhilaration it delivers. On the move, it has that taut, slightly choppy ride that’s the mark of any self-respecting muscle car. The steering wheel shimmies and squirms as you cross uneven surfaces and the engine buzzes with anticipation.
Give it stick, and the car really comes alive. Acceleration is purposeful, with an urgency that underscores the rapid build-up of momentum. The revs rise rapidly and it’s just as well that there’s a shift light to remind one of the need to change gears before the limiter steps in.
Of course, the legal limit is reached long before one’s appetite for speed is sated, mainly because the Mégane makes it all so easy – and so much fun – to drive. That also goes for the way it attacks the twisties, showing off the sheer balance and composure that is at the very core of its appeal.
Indeed, it’s the way the RS Trophy applies its potential through the curves and corners of a mountain pass that impresses most: there’s no body roll to speak of, and the tyres grip with G-force inducing tenacity. At the very limit, there’s just enough slide to serve as a gentle warning that Newton’s laws of gravity remain valid, despite the car’s best efforts.
Indeed, the Mégane always feels a step or two ahead of the game, flattering the driver, and imparting a sense of superiority that can be immensely satisfying, especially if it’s a Golf or Focus left floundering in the Trophy’s wake.
In other words, for now, the Mégane RS Trophy is the top dog in this hotly contested category. Nothing else offers the same combination of muscle, chassis dynamics and sheer driving appeal.
Of course, the Trophy version is a limited edition. And with only 30 units on offer, finding one will be a bit like looking for hen’s teeth. But the good news is that the slightly plainer, less effusive Mégane RS Cup gets all the same upgrades, for less money.
Sounds like a good deal to me … DM
There is a 24 hour "LeMons" race where drivers must compete in cars that cost $500 or less.