With the road straightening out, I had my opportunity. I knocked the Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy’s six-speed manual ‘box down a couple of gears stamped on the throttle pedal, and swept past the dawdling motorist that had been holding me back. The Akrapovic exhaust behind me spat out a fabulous ‘ratta-tat-tat’ as I lifted off.
My colleague - fellow CT staffer Darren Cassey - was now back in view in the Subaru WRX STI up ahead. I’d been sure that it was the STI that I’d be going home in, but this intoxicating stint in the Renault left me undecided once again. But just why did we bring these two cars together in the first place?
When blatting around in the new WRX STI for the first time recently, there was one thought that I couldn’t get out of my head. Despite the car’s commendable value, searing pace and ludicrous grip, there are hot hatches around that can do most of what the ‘Rex does for a similar price.
The obvious candidate for comparison would be the VW Golf R; it’s only a little bit more expensive, has the same sort of power, and is four-wheel drive. But I think the Subaru’s competition isn’t only limited to AWD. The latest crop of fast front-wheel drive hatches are looking like they’ll happily rain all over this JDM hero’s proverbial parade. So, have the makers of these bonkers hot hatches proved that an output approaching 300bhp can be successfully unleashed onto the tarmac through the front wheels only? That’s what the Renault is here for.
Sure, the Megane is a three-door hatch and the WRX STI is a four-door saloon, but if you want practical performance for under £30,000, both should be on your list of considerations. The Megane’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot kicks out 271bhp, not all that far away from the WRX STI’s 296bhp. Both are intended to be weapons-grade driver’s cars, and they’re separated by just £65. Time to see what’s what.
Megane RS 275: The Pros
The chassis. My god, the chassis. It really is superb. It’s so communicative that you always have 100 per cent confidence in it to drive hard, and the car’s mechanical limited-slip diff always works its magic, hurling you through corners with little in the way of understeer. Even if you do have the traction control on, it doesn’t have to intervene all that often, such is the grip on offer.
It’s also blessed with razor-sharp steering that lets you know exactly what the front wheels are doing, and a meaty set of stoppers - 340mm discs with four-pot callipers at the front, 290mm at the rear - which are more than up to the task of scrubbing off huge speeds before you take on the next bend.
The 2.0-litre engine’s an utter peach, and - unusually, for a turbo engine - it loves to be revved. The power delivery is fairly linear with no obvious dollop of power anywhere in the rev range, and the centre-exit Akrapovic exhaust offers a suitably burly growl with lots of pops and bangs.
Megane RS 275: The Cons
Cosseting. Comfortable. Soothing. All of these are words which you cannot use to describe the Megane’s ride. It’s absurdly hard. The Trophy comes with the Cup package as standard - a cost option on the Megane 265 - which as well as the brilliant LSD, comes with much stiffer suspension. It’s far too harsh for UK roads, with the slightest imperfection sending crippling shockwaves all through the car and into the base of your spine.
The inside’s a disappointment, too. You open the car’s impossibly long doors - a short person’s enemy - to reveal a fantastic set of Recaro bucket seats, but once you slide into them, you’re forced to look at a dull dashboard that’s littered with cheap-feeling plastics. The occasional splash of red and a because racecar Alcantara-clad steering wheel aren’t enough to enliven proceedings.
You expect more considering the price of this, which is my next bone of contention. The 275 is £1500 more expensive than a Cup chassis’d 265, and for this, you get the lovely Recaro seats, a 10bhp boost in power, an Akrapovic exhaust and the slightly naff Trophy graphics on the rear three-quarters. For a shade under £30k, that’s a considerable price tag, and that’s before you spec the optional Öhlins dampers (£2000) or Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 boots (£1000).
Tester #2: Darren Cassey
The bucket seats are huge and mirror the car’s potential, but I disagree with Matt about the interior. Yes, it’s uninspiring, but all the bits that matter for a ‘because racecar’ package are beautifully judged.
It’s fast, grip is phenomenal, and throughout the weekend I never managed to find the limit where gut wrenching turn-in gives way to buttock-clenching understeer. The LSD performs wonders to pull the nose round under acceleration, but, like Matt, I can’t get away from the harsh ride.
This is a car designed for track days, and despite its humble hatchback origins, it would grate as a daily driver. Rivets between resurfaced tarmac at 70mph on the motorway around London jolted through my body like I was at a wedding reception getting repeatedly punched by an annoying toddler who’s eaten too many Smarties.
But on the right road, driven hard, boy does it all make sense.
WRX STI: The Pros
If you want to stand out, the STI is for you. It’s a car that’s instantly recognisable - to petrolheads and non-car enthusiasts alike - as a Scooby. OK, if you take away that massive wing which fills your rear-view mirror, that cavernous bonnet intake and the aggressive bits of trim, you’d be left with a very generic shape, but who cares when it looks so damn effective with all that stuff attached?
While the chassis may not be as communicative as the Megane’s - it’s a little vague, and there’s more body roll than you’d expect when you’re really pressing on - it’s even grippier. Whatever you throw at the STI, its all-wheel drive chassis takes it and shrugs, as if to say ‘yeah, and?’ This is a car you can drive with savage aggression - whatever the road conditions - without ever running out of grip.
To cap it all off, the steering’s flipping quick (on-par with a 991 Porsche 911 Carrera S for responsiveness, and with fewer turns lock-to-lock, in fact). The brakes are nice and strong, too, allowing for a little bit of back-end adjustability on corner entries if you really hoof it, as with the Megane.
WRX STI: The Cons
While the FWD Megane doesn’t have a very nice interior, it’s like a luxury penthouse suite compared to the horror show that is the STI’s cockpit. It’s as though it’s been designed by four or five different people who never swapped notes. There are lashings of fake carbonfibre plastic bits, some rather blunt edges (just look at the shape of that centre console), and three different display screens, all of which have different fonts. Sit someone with OCD in here, and they’d implode. The materials all feel pretty cheap, as well. Not good.
Next up is the exhaust. Looks impressive enough with four decent-sized tail pipes, but why on earth is it so quiet? With all kinds of clever active exhaust technology being employed by manufacturers these days, a stock exhaust is more than capable of being utterly rude when you want it to be, and whisper quiet when you don’t want your neighbours to think that World War III has broken out when you leave for work in the morning. Subaru, take note.
The engine that’s whispering through those tailpipes isn’t perfect either. There’s some rather old fashioned turbo lag, meaning pretty much nothing happens before 3000rpm. Some will like that, as the big lump of power after 3000rpm makes the power delivery seem a little more exciting. But it also makes the 2.5-litre boxer-four feel awfully behind the times in a world of cutting-edge engines with trick twin-scroll turbochargers, like on the Megane.
Another area the engine falls short on is economy - it’s dreadful. You’ll struggle to get 30mpg on the most gentle of motorway runs, and if you thrash it even just a little, you’ll get way below 20. I once clocked an average of 16mpg in one of these after a spirited(ish) drive.
Tester #2: Darren Cassey
The Scooby is an imposing car. It has the lairy exterior styling and the sheer numbers to embarrass the Megane. The interior is an immediate let-down, with info screens that are more outdated than my ancient Casio wristwatch. The wheel is chunky but the cheap plastics make it quite unpleasant to hold.
But then you plant your foot and you simply stop caring. On the brittle, broken country roads on which we conducted this Saturday afternoon blast, the WRX was right at home. Once you get past the fact that the steering communicates less than a moody teenager and learn to trust that the permanent AWD will find a way to make things stick, progress is terrifyingly fast.
The pedals are brilliantly positioned, making heel and toe downshifts easy even for my clumpy clogs. The sheer pace of the thing is giggle-inducing, and after spending the week getting beaten up by the RS, the Rex’s ride feels perfectly judged.
After we’d finished driving these powerful back-road weapons, we genuinely struggled to decide which we’d rather go home in. The Megane almost claimed the prize, but it was undone by that shockingly hard suspension. It was getting too much even by the end of my short time with the car; Darren ended up spending a week with the RS, and got rather tired of having his backbone smashed to dust every time he drove to the supermarket.
With that massive wing the WRX STI appeals to your inner hooligan
It’s a shame as it’s the better feeling, more communicative of the pair. It also proves that the next WRX STI needs to up its game if it wants to flatten these front-driving megahatches that are now snapping at its heels. It’s just impossible to ignore the sheer pace and capability of the STI, which for £28,995 seems like an utter bargain, despite the car’s woeful interior and drinking problem. With that massive wing it also appeals to your inner hooligan.
For these reasons, it is the WRX STI that wins out of this pair. But that victory comes with a caveat. We both came away agreeing that if it were our hard-earned £29k, we’d pass over both the Subaru and the Renault, and go for the Seat Leon Cupra 280. With its tidy VAG interior and smoother suspension, it’s much easier to live with. And then there’s its witchcraft-spec front diff that is a force to be reckoned with.
If pure driving thrills are your top priority, however, and if you can cope with all the flaws, both the WRX STI and the Megane will deliver the goods.