Renault Megane RS Cup
After a false start with last year’s Megane RS, the retuned Cup version delivers a high-performance driving experience with far less compromise
What we liked
>> Seriously fast for the brave
>> Solid built quality
>> Muscular looks
Not so much
>> Rear bench seat is uncomfortable
>> Complicated interior design
>> Wind noise at speed
Released in September 2004, the Megane Renault Sport 225 proved to be a powerful, well-engineered and highly specified performance hatch. It has also failed to step up to the mark as a truly engaging drivers’ car. Why?
The RS 225 has the goods on paper, but major shortfalls appear in the final tuning process. Lifeless steering, abrupt braking, poor chassis tune and electronic management are the main culprits. The RS 225 is merely good, but not the shining halo vehicle Renault Sport hoped would light enthusiast fire.
Twelve months later, the Megane Renault Sport Cup promises a more hard-core experience. It clearly aims to amend the 225’s compromises and includes a number of key enhancements intended to provide a more spirited sporting experience. No doubt the critically acclaimed Clio Renault Sport Cup has helped define where the goalposts are.
”Cup” is Renault Sport’s designation reserved for sharp-end models most closely aligned to motorsport roots. The Aussie version is the same global model as sold in other world markets and is only available in one specification – this helps keep the local price down. At $42,990, it’s good value considering it’s quite a specialist car with high levels of appointments. (The RS 225, $42,990 at launch, has since been discounted to $39,990).
The RS Cup is currently available only as a five-door hatch in Australia, although Renault boss Rudi Koenig says that Europe’s sexier but less practical three-door hatch version will be available by special order when the Megane II range has its facelift in the first half of 2006.
Purpose-built by Renault Sport at its performance vehicles factory in Dieppe, France, the RS Cup’s core engineering and features are largely unchanged from RS 225. The Nissan-Renault manufacturing alliance affords the RS Cup a surprisingly solid build quality, and body rigidity is increased to promote improved handling. It’s quite a different beast from your bread-and-butter Megane models.
The distinctively chiselled body features a wide-aperture front bar, distinctive twin-exhaust outlet in the rear bar and discrete hatch spoiler.
The most obvious change is the larger and lighter (by 1.5 kilograms each) charcoal-coloured 18-inch alloy wheels (up one inch from the RS 225’s silver alloy rims) and low ride height gives the optical illusion that RS Cup is wider than the RS 225. It’s a more muscular ”boy racer” look that yells its sporting intent, with a firm tip of the hat towards Renault Sport motor racing roots.
RS Cup’s most distinctive improvements are not the innovative double-axis front suspension, speed-sensitive electronic power steering system, race-bred Brembo brakes or the array of electronic driver aide smarts – all of which feature in the RS 225 model. Instead there’s a slew of finer changes to affect dynamic handling through recalibration, re-engineering or, in the case of Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), removal of the system entirely.
Almost every change chases two agendas: to improve driver feedback, and to provide a sharper and more capable performance experience. Much of the focus is on cornering prowess, making the RS Cup livelier and more controllable close to its limits. The new electric power steering system has less assistance at high road speed, while a new metal steering column adds a level of feedback through the wheel desperately lacking in the RS 225. Also, the ESP system that commands chassis stability has been tuned for less inhibition.
Add significantly tauter suspension (25 percent front and a whopping 77 percent rear spring stiffness increases) together with new lower-profile Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres, and much effort has been injected to improve communications between the driver and the road surface.
RS Cup also gets an impressive list of standard equipment for its pricetag, including tricky automatic Xenon lights, rain-sensing automatic windshield wipers, improved six-CD stereo system and cruise control.
Inside, RS Cup’s complicated design of surface shapes and materials is offset by simple minimalist controls. It’s distinctively European in flavour. It’s a little at odds with itself, mixing class with overt
racer-isms: half-leather/half-fabric on the heavily bolstered front buckets; garish orange seat belts to match the trim stitching; decidedly un-sporty steering wheel with beaut alloy sports pedals.
One minor letdown is some poor fit and finish under close inspection, especially with the plastics. A bigger gripe is the rear 60/40 split-fold seat: it’s as flat as an ironing board, has intrusive head restraints, and is less comfortable than appearance suggests.
The RS Cup nicely balances the Jekyll ’n’ Hyde character now requisite in modern performance cars: an ideal balance between weighty input effort when you’re running hot, and lightweight ease-of-use when you’re not. The steering goes feather-light at low speeds, the two-litre turbo engine has V8-like tractability without a hint of lag, so it’s beaut around town.
Bar some A-pillar wind noise, RS Cup is smooth and reasonably quiet at speed, while the exhaust is audible enough when the tacho needle races towards the redline. For all its hard-charging focus, the European-focused suspension tune is acceptably supple over poor Aussie back roads considering the firm suspension tune, and feels less fatiguing on long-distance drives than many Japanese performance rivals.
The RS Cup shares the same passive safety equipment and six-airbag arrangement – including the innovative anti-submarining bag for driver and front passenger – that has helped net Megane II range’s five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. Front seat belts use double load-limiters and pre-tensioners.
Like RS 225, RS Cup has phenomenal stopping power thanks to motor sport-engineered Italian Brembo front brakes (finished in classy silver) using Bosch 8.0 ABS. But where the RS 225 suffered from annoying and sometimes dangerous ”brick wall” touchiness, the Cup’s stopping power is much improved thanks to enlarging the master cylinder (from 23.8mm to 25.4mm) and removal of the Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD).
The pedal feel is easy and progressive for low-speed use, but requires firm force for much improved driver control, with phenomenal deceleration in high-speed and sports-driving situations. Top marks.
The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is now less inhibitive and calibrated with a higher threshold to allow more chassis movement for better driver enjoyment. Sounds more dangerous, but it’s not. Predictability means safety. When you combine this ESP with all other RS Cup performance enhancements, the chassis feels very naturally balanced near its limits.
Under the bonnet it’s a case of nothing broken, nothing fixed.
Unlike many of its $40-something Japanese rivals, RS Cup’s 2.0-litre 16-valve turbocharged four-cylinder engine piles on its 165 kilowatts with an almost seamless delivery with no discernable turbo lag. There’s an almost V8-like urge with supreme low-rpm tractability (Renault claims that 90 percent of a peak 300Nm torque figure is available from 2000rpm right through to redline). There always seems to be stonk on tap, whenever you need it.
The Nissan-engineered six-speed manual gearbox as used in the RS 225 feels robust and is tightly gated, although the shifter is quite tall and the throw is a little long. Clutch feel is nicely progressive. RS Cup isn’t equipped with a front limited-slip differential, and many will argue it wouldn’t need it, provided suspension and handling tune is spot on.
Stakes are getting higher by the moment in the low-$40k sporting car market. There is an ever-growing slew of competitors, and a power and performance yardstick that continues to be pushed to ever-loftier heights. It’s here that major criterion are driver focused: fun factor, dynamics and sheer athletic ability rather than door count, size, packaging or luxury levels.
For close to its $42,990 asking price, RS Cup’s hottest competitors are Honda Integra Type S, Subaru’s new 2.5-litre Impreza WRX, Golf Gti, MINI Cooper S Chilli, Toyota Celica ZR and Mazda MX-5 in its crosshairs.
But it’s not that simple. RS Cup has a unique amalgam of features that carves its own inimitable niche and appeal, so it’s a tough car to pigeonhole. None of the above offers such huge turbo power blended with boutique build, five-door hatch practicality, polarising European flair, immense roadholding and menacing looks. Golf Gti comes closest in terms of punch and packaging. That said, RS Cup is perhaps more realistically a mid-point between Integra Type S and Impreza WRX for driver appeal.
For sheer dynamic ability and, Renault hopes, enthusiast appeal, RS Cup is perhaps more akin to the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo XI or Impreza STi, both around $15k more expensive. Then, of course, there’s the now legendary Clio Renault Sport Cup. At a mere $34,490, the smaller sibling has surely stolen a few hearts — and wallets — away from RS Megane purchases.
ON THE ROAD
Renault claims an RS 225 will sprint 0-100km in 6.5 seconds and cover a standing 400-metre lunge in 14.6 seconds. With identical power and 1360kg kerb weight, RS Cup feels right on the money. But what these numbers don’t reveal and what’s been much improved, however, is the whole point of RS Cup’s alterations: high speed cornering.
Where the RS 225 always had great urge and supreme roadholding, and could carry high road speeds, the RS Cup’s front end feels more secure and planted to the bitumen. Steering is not razor sharp off centre, but it’s nice and weighty with noticeably better feedback. The nose tracks a sure line and responds to steering inputs well, allowing a good level of adjustment to the driving line. Even with the far stiffer rear suspension, the RS Cup’s tail is difficult to unsettle, and trail-braking (easing the brakes to tuck the nose into a bend) is nice and predictable. As mentioned earlier, stopping power is truly incredible.
RS Cup always seems to push into typical front-drive understeer if you force the issue, and when the newly tuned ESP intervenes it allows a good margin of chassis movement before it starts tugging gently at both ends of the car.
With improved corner entry and mid corner poise, RS Cup puts the power down out of a bend better than before, although with so much power and no LSD, wheelspin in inevitable. Thankfully, there are no discernable torque-steer issues.
It’s all very drama-free, which is important considering how much speed the RS Cup can carry. Renault Sport’s gun Megane is now very fast, but without the white knuckles and clenched teeth. In some disciplines – particularly braking and roadholding – it betters its direct competitors and could match the exalted Lancer Evo IX and Impreza STi for sheer capability.
RS Cup definitely has the ability to play ball, but will it capture enthusiasts’ hearts? Renault certainly hopes so.