Thursday, 20 March 2008

Test Drive - Renault Megane CC

Upon hearing the name ‘Venus de Milo’, what immediately springs to your mind? The statue’s discovery in 1820 on the Aegean island of Milos, perhaps? The story of the mismatched plinth that incorrectly dated it to the time of Praxiteles? No, it’s the fact that she doesn’t have any arms. I’d wager that if Venus had a full set of limbs and were to be lined up with a selection of other Greek statues of the classical age, most people would have a job picking her out. The imperfections, unforeseen during the gestatory design phase, are frequently the things that become definitive. Look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa; a beautiful building, certainly, but it wouldn’t be as famous if it wasn’t a bit wonky. The drummer from Def Leppard is another example – mediocre sticksman loses arm; subsequently becomes celebrated for soldiering on. Or how about Mary, Queen of Scots? Tragic life, yes, but all the more memorable for that unfortunate beheading business.

I’ve had a couple of cars that follow this pattern. One was a ’93 mkII Vauxhall Astra convertible, the other a ’90 mkIV Ford Escort XR3i cabriolet. (I’m not trying to imply that these are beautiful cars [or, indeed, accomplished drummers], simply that they’ve had a little accident that means they’re notable for a significant inferiority.) You see, neither of these cars was originally designed to be a drop-top – the manufacturers simply took their bog standard hatchbacks, lopped the roofs off and marketed them as sporty/fun/summery things. This led to all sorts of problems. Sure, at the age of 21 I was ecstatic to be able to pull up at the traffic lights, decapitate the motor at the flick of a switch and cruise off with the wind flowing through my chestnut mane, but the pleasure was horribly fleeting. You see, a roof is quite an important part of a car, and hacking it off destroys any torsional rigidity that could be enjoyed in the original tin top. Imagine you’re holding an empty Utterly Butterly tub – you grab either end and twist it across the diagonal axes that run from corner to corner. Now remove the lid and do it again. Worrying, eh? Everything gets dangerously floppy.

Fortunately for the 21-year-old in all of us, Renault have an entire laboratory of folk whose sole job it is to play with empty cartons of greasy butter substitute. They flex and they manhandle, they glue on some structural cross-bracing and they twist again, like they did last summer. The fruits of this research have been poured wholesale into the chassis of the Mégane CC… because, folks, this is not just a bog standard hatchback that’s had its pillars severed by a garlic-tinged angle grinder. Oh no. This thing is clever. This was designed to be roofless from the off.

It’s mostly Mégane - it has the same face, the same engines and running gear, the same interiors; it’s just longer. And the handsome roof, seemingly made entirely of glass, can fold itself into the boot, of course.

Somewhat unexpectedly, it’s a joy to drive. Naturally there’s important posing to be done – the physics of how the car lowers its windows, opens the boot the wrong way, folds the roof into it and calmly closes itself (as if it knows it’s being naughty and is trying to act natural) is genuinely impressive to watch, and all at the touch of one button – but this is no boulevard cruiser. Find yourself a bumpy French country lane, point it at the horizon and shout ‘Fetch!’, you’ll see what I mean. It’s implausibly rigid.

The most significant bugbear of an open-top car is scuttle shake. This is basically the physical manifestation of all of that torsional rigidity you’ve lost, where you find the car shimmying and dancing like bound Chinese feet on hot coals. It’s a feeling, an unpleasant awareness, of how much of the car is missing. Triumph Spitfires suffer horribly with it, as do ragtop Saab 900s, Peugeot 205s, Jaguar XJ-Ss and countless others. In the Mégane Coupé-Cabriolet, however, it’s almost entirely absent. With Renault’s saucy 136bhp 2.0 16-valver under the bonnet with an expertly-judged six-speeder hanging off the back of it, this is a very good thing.

It would be easy to endlessly wax lyrical about the positive attributes of the CC – the firm yet supple ride, the near-German level of build quality, the fabulous gearbox, the eager acceleration, the brutal brakes – but none of that will be of much interest to the average CC buyer. It’s pretty, it’s really bloody good at everything it’s supposed to do, and it carries an air of exclusivity that belies the surprisingly competitive pricing… an added benefit of which is that if you pull up alongside an SLK, the Merc driver will secretly be very envious that nobody seems to hate you.

All in all, it’s a brilliant car. But can you imagine what it would be like if the RenaultSport development team got hold of it? Mixing the panache of the CC with the purposeful suspension, LSD and turbo’d engine of the Mégane 230 F1 Team R26 would be the perfect combination of style and substance. Still, the parts are interchangeable… you could always build one yourself. The admirably stiff shell would certainly take the abuse.

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