It used to be assumed that the latest, sharpest version of the Renault Sport Megane would be the best-driving car in class. Perhaps they weren’t the prettiest, fastest or most cutting edge hot hatches around, but that didn’t matter - if how a car drives mattered to you above all else, you bought the RS.
Sure enough, when we put the ‘clearance special’ RS Megane Cup-S against an FK2 Type R a few years ago, we concluded we’d have the Frenchie, despite it being a far older design. But if we have a re-run with the all-new RS 300 Megane Trophy and the current FK8 Type R, is the result going to be the same?
The answer is anything but simple. While the Type R seems to have matured massively (well, looks aside) compared to the FK2, the hot Megane has stuck to a similar recipe. For instance, you still have to decide how firm you want the dampers to be on the configurator, rather than by pressing a button on the dashboard. You pick either the Sport or the more robust Cup chassis, or just go for the Trophy, which has the latter fitted whether you like it or not.
The differences between the Cup setup - which also chucks a Torsen limited-slip differential into the deal - and the base car are bigger than ever, turning the RS into what might just be the most uncompromising hot hatch around right now. It isn’t just the chassis stiffness you have to deal with when driving fast - there’s also the steering, which is bonkers fast off-centre, the diff, which is often quite grabby, and the torque steer. Yep, there’s plenty of that going on too.
The rear-wheel steering is something I’m still on the fence about. Unlike the naturally wiggly arse of the old Renault Sport Megane, it’s an intriguing rather than joyous sensation as it gives a little nudge at the rear during hard cornering. There’s no denying its effectiveness, whether you’re under 37mph and it’s turning the rear wheels in the opposite direction for more agility, or if you’re doing more than that and all four wheels are turning the same way to increase stability.
"It's extremely hard to pin down which car has the better front end - I reckon the Honda is ahead in this area, but not by much"
It’s a car that keeps you busy, the RS 300, but that’s not a bad thing at all, particularly as the powertrain is now up to snuff. As explained in our first drive review of the Trophy, the noisier exhaust, uplift in power and torque plus the new ball bearing turbo add the drama we found to be missing after trying out the RS 280 for the first time.
The 1.8-litre inline-four is eager, not too laggy, and more than capable of exciting whenever you put your foot down. The 296bhp unit will get you from 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds - an identical time to the Type R. At the top end it runs out of puff at 162mph, 7mph shy of the Honda.
Swapping to the Civic, it’s extremely hard to pin down which car has the better front end - I reckon the Honda is ahead in this area, but not by much. Both turn in sharply and confidently and have traction levels that, on the road at least, you’re rarely going to get to the end of. The difference is, the Type R allows you to drive as hard as the Trophy while demanding less of you.
The damping - an adaptive setup here - is as good at resisting lean as the Trophy’s standard-fit Cup setup, but in all modes does a better job of ironing out the road surface. The fancy Dual Axis Strut front suspension layout, meanwhile, all but kills off torque steer. Particularly impressive given that the Type R has the power bragging rights here by 20bhp.
After the muscular noise of the Renault’s engine and its firing squad-spec exhaust, the Honda’s engine note disappoints, although it does eventually emit a zingy ding if you go for the 7000rpm redline. On the move it does feel quicker, though, and more so than the modest power output might suggest.
It’s the easier car to shift, too. While the RS has a stiff, notchy bit in the middle of the change, the Type R lets you graciously slide between each cog with a swift, simple movement. And the gear knob itself is better - instead of a nasty, girthy piece of plastic like in the Trophy, the Honda has a good old fashioned aluminium ball that works so brilliantly you’ll forgive it for being painfully cold on a chilly day.
What’s particularly interesting is when you stop, park the two cars next to each other and study them for a little while, a personality switch occurs. The Type R may be tamer to drive, but to look at? It’s anything but restrained.
Yes, the Type R’s patently absurd rear wing and the other ungainly aero additions have a purpose, but in the place where the hot hatch feels most at home - a nice twisty road - you don’t exactly need negative lift, do you? Particularly when it results in something which looks, erm, challenging.
Aesthetically, the Renault is more like it. It does a better job of letting the world know it’s not a diesel C-segment runaround without looking like something that featured in Max Power 10 years ago, with its squat, purposeful stance.
A lot of it is down to the increase in width - the rear track has grown by 45mm and the front by a massive 65mm. The arches are flared to meet the edges of the wheels, which in this case are 19-inch rims with a lovely little splash of red. Compare that to the Civic, whose 20s seem to sit about an inch inside the car’s awkward plastic wheel arch extensions.
What I love about the Megane is the closer you look, the nicer it gets - there are so many cool details to enjoy, like the intricately-designed 19-inch wheels, the side gills and those cool RS logo-shaped fog lights. The Civic, on the other hand? Up close, it looks a little cheap.
Neither car is all that nice inside, but I think it’s the Renault that has the dubious honour of having the least appealing cabin. The bezel around the portrait infotainment screen is probably the worst bit, and most of the stuff you have to touch feels distinctly un-premium. And lovely though the optional Recaro seats are, they don’t hold you in as snuggly as the Type R’s chairs, which, I’m keen to point out, you don’t have to pay extra for.
The Honda comes out of this looking like the better car - it feels more solid, it goes just as quickly while making less fuss, and £34,050 (for a GT model) is as expensive as it gets. The Trophy may have a tempting £31,835 opening price, but our example was optioned to £36,085.
That doesn’t automatically mean I’d have the Honda, even if it’s the better all-round car. Much as I love the way it drives, I couldn’t live with the looks and would miss the more frantic nature of the Trophy. So it’s the RS for me, then? Actually, I’m not sure it would be either, as the harsh ride quickly becomes irritating during normal driving. Once again, I find myself yearning for a Hyundai i30 N, or perhaps a VW Golf GTI Performance Pack.
The real winner here is anyone wanting to buy a hot hatchback right now. Whatever you’re looking for, whether it’s a car that’s a more pleasant daily, something that’s uncompromising in its pursuit of pure thrills like the Trophy, or an unbelievably capable hatch with crazy touring car looks such as the Type R.
Is there a corner of the performance car market that’s stuffed quite so full of talent right now? I’m not so sure.