Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Test Drive - RenaultSport Mégane 230 F1 Team R26

This week SuckSqueezeBangBlow test-drove the new hot Mégane… and had tremendous difficulty giving the keys back.

Renault have, in recent years, made rather a respectable name for themselves in developing their everyday hatchbacks into giant-slaying lunatics; whereas Peugeot used to be the go-to guys in the eighties & nineties for punchy, sure-footed hot hatches (think 205 GTi, 306 Rallye, 106 GTi…) they’ve become a bit flaccid of late, Renault picking up the baton with wild enthusiasm. The Clio 16v was the progenitor of their pocket rocket lineage that passed through the 172, mid-engined V6, 182 and 182 Cup to the current 197, but thankfully the Gallic technobods deigned to work their magic on the Clio’s big brother as well.

Now, when the Mégane’s second incarnation first surfaced the reaction was somewhat bipolar. Fans of Renault’s innovative design strategies praised the radical new direction, eschewing the lines of its comparatively curvaceous predecessor for bold, stark angularity. There were a lot of detractors too. It had a fat arse.

Never one to miss a trick, the marketing people swooped on this and used the chunky bottom as an advertising tool; ‘shake it!’ they cried, almost convincingly. Bless ‘em, it worked brilliantly and sales were strong. It was, however, hard to see how the company might turn this lumpen form into a genuinely entertaining sports car.

Thankfully, Renault being Renault, a performance range-topper was always on the cards and the RenaultSport Mégane 225 was launched in 2004. A laudable and impressive machine, it received excellent reviews for its engine, performance and driveability, but was criticised for the torque steer that is unfortunately inevitable to a certain degree when you combine a front wheel drive layout with a barking mad amount of power. Again, the boffins had an answer and in 2006 the 230 F1 Team R26 reared its pointy head...

…and what a car it is. The 2-litre 16v turbocharged engine is, put simply, phenomenal. Renault claim a 0-60 time of 6.2 seconds, and the astonishing thing is that there’s virtually no turbo lag at all. You just point it towards the horizon, put your foot down and have a nervous second-thought about the etiquette of depositing one’s waste on the seat of a borrowed car. The fabulous new limited-slip differential saves your arms from being wrenched lock to lock as you could expect from the 225; alright, the 230 does give your forearms a bit of a workout but you have to expect that when you’re throwing so much power through the front wheels. It wouldn’t be any fun if it was easy, would it? Renault even stitched a rally style deadahead marker on the steering wheel to demonstrate just how central it can keep itself. Well, that’s possibly not the real reason, but it’s an entertaining game to play.

The superbly effective LSD does more than prevent snapped wristbones. The handling on this car is simply astounding. Thanks to the Mégane’s Cup chassis with its thicker anti-roll bars and race-bred suspension (some say it’s too harsh and abrasive for road use; these people are wet jessies) and God’s-own diff, there is no understeer from the car whatsoever. None at all. Not a sausage. Enter any corner at any speed and you can feel the 235-section tyres burying themselves into the tarmac in an eager and constantly flabbergasting effort to keep you on your chosen line. The driver’s seat becomes your best friend at this point, as the cornering witchcraft is criminally addictive. The nature of the physics-defying process urges you to corner ever faster in a potentially suicidal yet hypnotically unstoppable quest to find the grip limit, and it’s here where the buckets come into their own; the Recaros are an inspired addition, gripping you just where you need it and preventing the horrific embarrassment of sitting on your passenger’s lap through the twisties. That they have dedicated harness eyelets speaks volumes about this machine’s purpose.

Hiding behind the gorgeous 18” lightweight alloys – masterpieces in themselves; their anthracite colour means they’ll never look dirty – is a braking system that lesser hatches could only dream of. Developed by Brembo, the front features 6-piston callipers clamping 304mm drilled & vented discs, and the stopping power they provide is ludicrously impressive. The monstrous blood-red callipers bite into the discs as if they hate them, speed being effortlessly sheared off in whacking great chunks as your kidneys – which had previously been forced out of the back of the seat – fling themselves forward and bounce off the chunky leather steering wheel. It’ll do this all day too; there’s no fade to speak of, just cold hard efficiency.

The six-speed gearbox is an absolute peach, short-throw snicking from cog to cog with the intent and purposeful feel that flows throughout the car. There have been criticisms that it’s too easy to slip from 2nd to 5th which would be horrifying if true, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all – in fact the gearbox acts as a metaphor for the car as a whole: everything is perfectly judged and exactly where you need it. This car epitomises reliable, controllable, predictable yet constantly surprising performance. Priced at £19,570 (or a bargain £17,995 for the 56-plate example on demo miles that I drove), it’s a lot of car for the cash. The handling is unrivalled in its class, the linear power delivery provides thrust through a surprisingly wide rev band but, most importantly, it feels worth every penny as you storm past the 5000rpm mark; the lightly whistling turbo and the subtly burbling twin exhausts morph into an ecstatic cacophony of raucous, tinny, sharp-edged malice. It’s impossible to describe – I urge you to experience it for yourself.

1 comment:

X2 said...

This really got m interested with Renault cars because I am not very familiar with them. Thanks for sharing this to me.

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