It’s easy to forget the Renaultsport Megane amidst a manufacturer mega-hatch arms race. For starters, the Civic Type R just trounced the RS’ front-wheel drive Nurburgring record, albeit in a pre-production car with a sodding great roll cage installed. And then, just when we were getting used to the idea of a £30,000 hot hatch lapping the Nordschleife quicker than recent releases from Ferrari and Porsche, Ford came along and pretty much said ‘FWD? LOLZ!’ with an all-wheel drive drift missile for the same price. Seat meanwhile made some mild changes to its Leon Cupra in a desperate attempt to appear relevant.
But in the Renault corner? Well, the regular Megane was replaced, and not long after, Renault revealed the cut-price Megane Cup-S, seemingly akin to a stock clearance special to shift a few more cars while the RS boffins cooked up this successor.
So, despite no 300bhp+ power outputs or fancy all-wheel drive drift button shenanigans, is it worth bothering with? Having brought one together with our ‘own’ Honda Civic Type R longtermer, it’s time to find out.
My first impressions? My, doesn’t that Renault look understated - pretty, even - next to the Honda with its festooning of wings and downright odd proportions. The older car here is the more sophisticated one, and as its £23,995 starting price undercuts the Type R’s base price by a whopping £6000, it’s by far the cheapest. Or it should’ve been…
Thanks to a load of options including a £2500 Akrapovic titanium exhaust (fruity, but not worth the cash), £2000 Ohlins Road and Track Dampers (worth the cash) and £1300 Recaro bucket seats (undecided), the Cup-S you see here costs £33,555. More than our top-spec ‘GT’ Type R’s £32,300 asking price, which is as expensive as you can make the Civic. The same can’t be said for the Megane - if you’re feeling frivolous enough you can punt the Renault over £35,000.
But that’s enough focus on price. Because firstly the boggo Cup-S is reasonably equipped, so it’s still a bargain if you go easy on the options. And secondly, what’s more important here is the way these two drive. So first up, let’s assess the Civic.
I’m well aware of what the Type R is like when you’re pressing on, but a brief stint in the Megane highlights its traits. And its driving personality matches the way it looks: it’s an unsubtle, sledgehammer of a thing to pilot, keen to bludgeon its way through any road you stick in front of it. The late Muhammad Ali’s mantra was to ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’, an ideal that could be applied in the world of cars. But I suspect the Type R would rather stamp on the nearest butterfly and skip straight to the stinging part. Then kick your grandmother in the face for good measure.
+R mode is - as I’ve explained before - too firm for the road, but even with it off the suspension is stiff, so on some surfaces the Civic starts to feel nervous and skip about. For the most part though, you can expect extraordinary front-end grip, and a feeling of being dragged out of every corner as you stamp on the throttle as hard as you dare. Body roll is barely perceptible, so perhaps that uncompromisingly hard suspension isn’t such a bad thing.
It’s a similar story of brutishness with the power delivery: unlike pretty much every other modern turbo engine I’ve sampled lately, the Type R’s 2.0-litre unit feels decidedly boosty. It doesn’t hide its turbocharged nature: there’s a complete lack of activity before 3000rpm - despite VTEC being deployed here to boost low-end torque - a savage burst of power thereafter, and a very audible chuff from the wastegate every time you back off the throttle.
With the Honda ticking itself cool and the Renault’s stupid credit card-shaped key fob in my hand, it’s time for a refresher course in the ways of Renaultsport. And lordy, I’d forgotten just how brilliant these RS Meganes are. It’s a car that sends reams of glorious feedback through the steering to your fingertips, and through the chassis to your arse. It means that very quickly, you find yourself pushing to the limits of what the Cup-S can do, because you have the confidence of feeling exactly how it’s interacting with the tarmac.
Pretty soon, I’m starting to wash wide. It’s clear the Civic has a lot more front-end grip and has a stiffer set-up, but that doesn’t matter. Those pricey Ohlins dampers give the Renault a level of finesse you don’t find in the Honda, and once you mix the feedback into the equation, you have a much more delicate car that’s amazingly entertaining to drive. And that’s before you factor in what the rear is up to.
Both under braking and backing off at the right moment, you feel the rear wanting to move forward, and that extra level or wiggly-arsed-adjustability just isn’t something you get in the Civic.
Something else you don’t get is a linear(ish) power delivery. Yes, there’s a strong mid-range, but there’s none of the lag or the boosty nature of the Honda’s engine: just a crisp delivery and a much more satisfying, growly induction noise. What’s more, despite a power deficit - 271bhp to the Civic’s 306bhp - it’s barely slower, completing the benchmark 0-62mph sprint just a tenth slower in 5.9 seconds.
Certainly sounds like advantage Megane thus far, but it’s not all going the way of the Gallic contender. The gear change is perfectly fine, but no more than that: the Civic’s shift is shorter and has a spectacularly satisfying mechanical action, and what’s more you don’t get the same God-awful beep the Renault lets out every time you reach the red line. If I owned one of these, the first thing I’d do is find the right fuse to rip out and shut that thing the hell up.
As I’m slowing down to pull in and start Snapchatting, I pay a little more attention to my surroundings, and quickly miss the Civic’s quirky and solid cabin. The Megane’s interior is much more dull, feels a lot more flimsy, and the optional Recaro seats just aren’t as supportive as the Honda’s standard chairs. The instrument binnacle is particularly depressing; injecting a little more pizazz wouldn’t have been that hard, surely?
But I don’t care, I love the Megane. It feels amazing to drive, I prefer the… oh, hang on, it won’t start. A momentary blip, surely? That’s what I’m hoping, but I’ve just locked it, unlocked it and tried again, but nada. Another attempt, and nothing. All I get is a little ‘donk’ from under the bonnet as I hit the starter button. Now, it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from a single breakdown, but it really doesn’t help certain car stereotypes that the Japanese machine is still A-OK, and the French car has thrown a hissy fit and is refusing to play ball…
Fast forward a week, and the Cup-S has just been dropped back on my drive, having gone back to Renault over the weekend. Despite the recovery man’s insistence that the issue was either a broken starter motor or a bad connection, it turned out to be a simple blown fuse. Thankfully an easy fix, which means it’s back in my hands to enjoy a little more.
And that’s the key with this car: enjoyment. It can’t do what the Honda does, which is astonish you with its absurd front-end grip, rabid power delivery and searing cross-country pace. The Honda feels like it’s moved the game on much further (with the Focus RS probably moving it further still, but unlike my colleagues I’m yet to have a shot in one), but the simple fact is I find the Renault more fun to drive, and I suspect a lot of petrolheads out there would happily lose a bit of ability for that.
I prefer having all that extra feedback, I prefer its wiggly arse, and I prefer its more linear power delivery. No other car in this class feels quite so tactile, so we just have to pray that the next one pulls off the same trick.