Blurring the topless boundary

ROAD TEST Renault Megane

Convertible, cabriolet, roadster ... what does it all mean? When is an open-top car one of these and not another? Well, Renault's new Megane Cabriolet does nothing to ease the confusion, not least because its most interesting version is called a Megane Cabriolet 16V Roadster.

The new Renault is not, strictly speaking, a cabriolet because a cabriolet is meant to have some superstructure left in place when the roof is folded down. It's really a convertible. And the roadster part?

A roadster is a racy open two-seater, and this is where the Megane gets rather intriguing. That's because you can buy it with a "Roadbox" to slot in place of the rear seat, painted in the colour of the bodywork and sporting a pair of racy-looking fairings which smooth the shapes of the front seats' headrests into the rear deck, via the hood cover. Result: a two-seater sports car, of sorts, with a very big boot and an extra access hatch that is automatically wired into the central-locking system.

Never has the boundary between hatchback-based convertible and sports car been so blurred. Except that unlike convertible versions of Golfs and Escorts, for example, the Renault - built, like those two rivals, by the German specialist body-builder Karmann - is based on a short coupe instead of a regular-length hatchback. This is possible because the Megane range is rather broader than that of most mainstream cars; its core hatchback model is supplemented not only by the coupe and the new convertible, but also by a saloon and the Scenic MPV.

Never before has one understructure spawned such a wide variety of variants. They all have the same dashboard, too, give or take a few details.

We're looking at an innovative car from an innovative family, then. But is it any good? It is, largely.

You can have it with a gentle 1.6-litre engine, but the 2.0-litre, 150bhp 16-valve unit makes it much more fun. This is a strong-pulling, free-revving motor able to tug the Megane along in fine sports car style, never mind that, unlike traditional sports cars, this one is tugged by its front wheels. But then, so are the Alfa Spider and the Fiat Barchetta, and so was the now-deceased Lotus Elan. But those boundaries are blurring again.There is a flaw in the sports car mirror, though. Renault claims the roofless Megane is as rigid as one with a roof, but it doesn't feel that way. Bumps generate a structural shudder of a type rare in true sports cars but common in convertibles, and the steering feels as though it's taking up slack before getting on with the job of pointing the car into a bend. Nor are the major controls honed for driving pleasure; the clutch is abrupt, and the brakes stand the Megane on its nose if you so much as tickle the pedal.

The convertible part is good, though. The hood - electric in the 2.0 - looks very neat when in place, fitting snugly round the side windows' tidy curves, and it folds away automatically under a hinged cover whose twin fairings echo the shape of the rear seat's headrests or blend into the Roadbox, depending on your Renault's chosen role. There's a price to pay for the hood's disappearing trick, because the rear window has to be made of flexible plastic. This means that there is scope for scratches and no demisting facility, but it's a price worth paying for the sleek looks and an unobstructed view aft.

Prices start at pounds 15,340 for the 1.6 version with do-it-yourself hood erection, through to pounds 21,515 for a 2.0 with the Roadbox and an "Executive Pack", which includes leather trim, air-conditioning and a CD player. Strangely, there isn't a single price for the Roadbox, Renault preferring instead to list the cars so equipped as distinct models. Do the sums, though, and it amounts to pounds 785 for a basic 1.6 and pounds 875 for a 2.0.

Judged as a convertible, the Megane scores through versatility and the cutest looks in the class. Judged as a sports car, it doesn't quite make the grade. Full marks to Renault for personality-splitting originality, though.

RENAULT MEGANE CABRIOLET 16v

Price (on the road): pounds 19,040 without Roadbox. Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 150bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 134mph, 0-60 in 8.5 sec. Fuel consumption: 25-30mpg.

Rivals

Alfa Romeo Spider, pounds 23,033: More of a sports car, though front-wheel- drive like the Renault. Similar pace and structural flexibility, easier to drive smoothly, gorgeous looks, strictly a two-seater. Styled by Pininfarina.

Peugeot 306 Cabriolet, pounds 20,125: Longer than the Renault,

not as fast but more satisfying on a twisty road. Extra pounds 1,115 buys the Roadster version, which has a removable hardtop as well as the regular hood. Styled and built by Pininfarina.

Vauxhall Astra 1.8 16V Convertible, pounds 18,640: Based on an Astra saloon, and nearing the end of its life now that the solid-roofed Astra range is about to be replaced. Roomier than the Renault, but stodgy to drive. Built by Bertone.

Volkswagen Golf Cabrio Avantgarde, pounds 18,950: Has the 115bhp engine from the Golf GTI, and the stiffest, most shudder-free structure of any hatchback- based convertible. With the hood up, you could just as well be in a GTI. Built by Karmann.

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