Motoring- Road Test: French for fun

Renault's highly successful hatchback Megane has had a Japanese facelift. You get more of everything, except good looks.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Something is back-to-front here. Nissan is now under Renault's control, so why does the front of the just-revamped Renault Megane look like a Nissan? Goodbye stern eyebrows, hello flared nostrils.

I expect we'll get used to it, because we'll see a lot of these oriental- looking Meganes with the almond-shaped headlights. The Megane range has been a monstrous success in the UK, the best-selling foreign-badged car and fifth-best seller overall last year.

True, 42.3 per cent of this success was down to the Scenic version, which is about to get its own new look and lose its Megane identity, but that still leaves plenty of hatchbacks and coupes, some cabriolets and a smattering of saloons.

There are sound reasons for the Megane's success. According to the Euro NCAP crash tests, which pitch the car into an offset, deformable barrier at 40mph, and then (using a different car, in case you were wondering) subject it to a 30mph side impact, the Renault is the safest car in its class. Then there is the fact that the new models have better engines and more equipment yet cost no more, and sometimes less.

One Megane snag, except in the top coupe and cabriolet versions, has been the lack of the 16-valve engines found in many rivals. The old eight- valvers did an adequate job, but they were unexciting to drive and seemed well off the technological pace.

Now there are three new 16-valve engines: a 95bhp 1.4 to replace the 90bhp 1.6; a more powerful 1.6 with 110bhp; and a 140bhp 2.0 with fuel- saving direct injection. The two old two-litre engines are axed (one with eight, one with 16 valves), but the two diesels continue, as does the eight-valve 1.4 with added economy.

It's a complex range, made more so by new trim and equipment levels. But as metallic paint is now the only option, choosing your Megane has become simpler.

The version I have been driving is the 1.6 16V Alize Sport hatchback, yours for pounds 13,900 including air conditioning (that's the Alize part) plus 15in alloy wheels, a leather-clad steering wheel, white dials, a rear spoiler, sporty seats and clear, sparkly, "double-optic" headlights (all of which go with the Sport part). Anti-lock brakes, front and side airbags are standard, as in all Meganes, and hatchbacks also get a trio of three- point rear seat belts.

There's a long list of other equipment, as well; it's hard to think of a rival as well endowed. This would be much use if it was a dull drive and therefore not worth buying. Fortunately, this isn't the case.

Before you discover this, though, there's the cabin to consider. Driving position? Odd, with the steering column mounted low so that when you hinge the wheel higher, it becomes too angled and far away. Finish? Plusher than before, with a softer feel to the fascia top and more evidence of cloth covering, but still a lot of hard plastic surfaces.

Neat details? The windscreen, made of heat-reflecting glass, has a pattern of light-shading dots dipping down between the sunvisors, and Renault's usual stereo controls, on a stalk behind the steering wheel, are still a brilliant piece of design. And something not so neat: when you move off, you discover that the Megane, for all its solid safety, has a rattly dashboard and too much wind noise around its front doors. This one did, anyway.

But it does go well. Controlled by an accelerator with a smooth but abnormally short movement, the 1.6 16V engine (already seen in the Laguna and a sporty Clio, incidentally) proves crisp and eager with lots of thrust from low revs.

It booms a bit at high engine speeds, but you don't normally need to find this out thanks to the easy, muscular power delivery. This Megane's suspension is also firmer than that of its predecessor, too, thanks equipment formerly fitted only to the two-litre derivatives.

The firmness doesn't spoil the French fluidity, though. The ride comfort is not perfect, because short, sharp bumps can induce a bang and a shake if they are bad enough. However, the Megane is otherwise supple without degenerating into squidginess and points keenly into corners.

Steering is smooth but precise, the cornering line tightens obediently if you decelerate, without making the Renault feel unstable, and driving becomes unexpectedly enjoyable until the tyres start to squeal. Which they do with embarrassing ease, for a car called Sport.

I like this Megane. I like its spirit, its tally of toys, the way it flaunts the shutlines of its doors as they transcribe a near-egg shape along the flanks. Some rivals better it here and there, but it's a good bet if you can't face a Focus.

Specifications

Renault Megane Sport Alize 1.6 16V

Price: pounds 13,900; engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 110bhp at 5,750rpm; transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive: performance: 121mph, 0-60 in 9.5sec, 35-40mpg

Rivals

Citroen Xsara 1.6 SX: pounds 13,465. Cheaper than this particular Megane, but offers less power and equipment. Quiet and smooth-riding, dull-looking.

Ford Focus 1.6 Ghia: pounds 14,350. Radical and roomy, the Focus is great to drive, well equipped and best in the class overall - however, not everyone likes the model's looks.

Peugeot 306 1.6 GLX: pounds 14,570. For a smooth ride and sporty handling the 306 is difficult to beat, but it's low on power and high on price.

Vauxhall Astra 1.6 16V CD: pounds 14,345. Latest Astra is fun to drive and spacious, but the interior is dowdy and less well-specified than the Megane's.

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 S: pounds 13,980. At this trim level, the Golf has much less equipment than the Renault. It scores on unrivalled quality and finish.

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