£70k or so buys you a lot of track car these days. For that, you could get your pick of the Caterham line-up, an Ariel Atom, a Vuhl 05, perhaps a Porsche Cayman GT4. Or a Renault hatchback.
Yes, in its fanciest form with the optional carbonfibre wheels and front carbon-ceramic brakes specced, the Renaultsport Megane Trophy-R really will set you back £72,140. If you were sipping tea while reading that last sentence and managed to avoid spitting it all over your screen, well done you. The previous Trophy-R - the 275 - wasn’t exactly cheap, but the price between this and the standard Trophy is especially huge this time around.
This is a worry as if you strip away the spendy carbon trinkets, you’re left with something which doesn’t seem like it’s going to be all that different, save for the wallet-imploding price. You don’t get any more power, nor do you get a radically altered chassis. Had Renault gone batshit and made something similar to the old V6 Clios, I might have understood giving this car a five-figure price tag that starts with a seven. Over in the states, Honda will sell you a fully-fledged Civic Type R TC racing car for around that much, for Pete’s sake.
A car cannot be judged by what’s on paper alone, of course, so that’s why both the Trophy and the Trophy-R are sitting in front of me, slowly warming up and waiting to prove their worth. We need a baseline, so it’s the Liquid Yellow RS300 Trophy I head for first.
Conditions at Curborough Sprint Course today are best described as… shit, frankly. It’s cold, dark and wet. Not something that would usually faze a hot hatch too much, and yet the Trophy is making a meal out of transmitting its 296bhp output to the tarmac.
A combination of a grabby mechanical limited-slip differential and a muscular mid-range means the front end is all over the place. And on my way around each corner, the all-wheel steering is adding an unwelcome feeling of unpredictability to proceedings.
A few laps in, however, and I’m gelling with the Trophy. With a more considerate right foot and a greater sense of what the ‘4Control’ rear-steer system is trying to achieve, I’m getting quicker and starting to enjoy myself.
The all-wheel mega hatches of the world may be dicking around with obscene 400bhp outputs now, but there’s a real joy to driving a more engaging front-driven car with circa 300bhp. More than enough power to seem quick, but not enough to feel excessive on the road nor this tight handling course. As the icing on the cake, the pedals are damn near perfectly spaced for heel-and-toe fun.
Switching to the Arctic White, stickered-up Trophy-R (the decals are optional, but you just would, wouldn’t you?) my expectations aren’t lofty. Can it really be that different?
The answer is a hearty hell yes. It feels as separate from the Trophy as the Trophy feels to the ‘warm’ Megane GT. It’s a completely different ball game, and within a few corners of my out lap, it feels as though I’ve stepped into a lightly watered-down touring car.
The Trophy, with its standard-fit Cup chassis, is already firm, but the R is firmer still. The stiffer setup introduced by the adjustable Ohlins dampers gives the steering more life, and the front end an even greater sense of pointiness. This is a much more serious car. And a much lighter one - a total of 130kg has been shed, partly thanks to the carbonfibre bonnet, carbon rear diffuser and the fabulously supportive Sabelt seats. As a result, three-tenths have been lopped off the 0-62mph sprint, giving a new figure of 5.4 seconds.
With the Akrapovic titanium exhaust (which chops off another 7kg) growling away behind me and the rear seat delete (-25kg) making the back of the car like an echo chamber, the soundtrack is much more interesting too.
One of the most crucial changes is one of the things that has been taken away - 4Control. Neither the Megane RS 280 Sport, 280 Cup nor RS 300 have convinced me that the tech is worth having. And my suspicions of it being a gimmick seem to be confirmed by the fact that Renaultsport engineers decided the Trophy-R was better off without it.
Around the Nordschleife - this car was all about breaking the front-wheel drive Nurburgring record, don’t forget - the benefits of rear-steer wouldn’t have been great enough to counteract the weight of the system. With it binned, 32kg is saved.
The Trophy-R is all the better for the omission of the tech - it’s a much more predictable car now. And it’ll still do plenty at the rear axle; oversteer antics are a well-timed lift away, but such is the aggressive nature of the car, you do need to be ready to respond with opposite lock very, very quickly.
The tyres are the same Renault-bespoke Bridgestone S007 model as the Trophy - unlike the old 275 Trophy R, this one doesn’t have semi-slicks. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because as with the standard Trophy, getting all the power in the wet down remains an issue. If anything, it’s even trickier here due to the firmer attitude at play.
Making up for this shortcoming is the brake feel. The middle pedal is still a little over-servoed, but there’s so much more feedback coming through. Curborough’s short straight doesn’t give a proper chance to test the full might of the 390mm carbon-ceramic rotors - grasped by four-piston calipers - that’s something to try another day. Even braking from a modest-ish 80mph, though, the Trophy-R is lively - wiggling around as I prepare to start each lap.
Out on the road, the Trophy-R is - much like the standard Trophy - quite unforgiving when it comes to the ride. But as a track special, the firm setup seems more acceptable, and there’s more finesse to the damping. It’s as thrilling off the track as it is on it, with the lower speeds giving a better opportunity to enjoy all that glorious feedback the steering and chassis gives you. It’s a full-on thing wherever you drive it, but the rewards are worth your perseverance.
Driving these two back to back, you really can see where the extra money has gone. But £72,000 is still a figure that I, and no doubt many others, can’t quite accept. The lure of the alternatives - the ones we have mentioned and the ones we haven’t - is just too strong. Exceptional though the Trophy-R is, it is still a front-wheel drive hatchback. Wouldn’t you want something with a more special starting point, a higher cylinder count and the torque sent to a different axle for that kind of dough? Even in its £51,140 ‘base’ spec, it’s a lot to swallow.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what I or befuddled onlookers think - this is a limited-run special of only 500, and Renault has already found homes for the 30 £72k cars it’s building with both the carbon wheels and brakes. Even considering my reservations about the Trophy-R, I completely understand why.