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Renault Megane R26

Renault knows how to build rapid, driver-friendly cars - just ask Fernando Alonso. After a couple of false starts, the latest sporty Mégane is a winner.

Model: Renault Megane R26
Price: £19,570
Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbocharger, 230bhp at 5,500rpm, 229lb ft at 3,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 147mph, 0-62 in 6.2sec, 33.2mpg official average
CO2: 200g/km

Haven't we been here before? A very powerful hot hatchback with front-wheel drive, a limited-slip differential, and a mission to be the top choice for those of us who still love driving?

A couple of weeks ago, it was the Mazda 3 MPS, which proved a curiously uninvolving drive and so missed the point. There was something of the problem found in the first Renault Mégane 225, a car too civilised - gagged, if you like - to be really exciting.

Since that Mégane there have been other versions of Renaultsport's medium-size fast hatchback, most notably the Trophy (a good step in the right direction) and latterly the limited-edition 225 F1 Team. OK, it was in effect a Trophy with a fancy paint-job, but it had a soul.

So, what's new about the livid yellow car you see here? The length of its name, for a start: Mégane Renaultsport 230 F1 Team R26. The excuse for its existence is Renault's victory in this year's F1 championships. More significant is that the Renaultsport engineers (one of whom, like me, keeps a Peugeot 205 GTI as a hot-hatch reference point), have continued their quest to make the Mégane a real driver's car. There was never much doubt that they knew what was needed; the problem was how to do it with modern chassis systems.

As the name suggests, engine power is up from 225 to 230 bhp. Its CO2 emissions have fallen enough to drop it into the next-lower tax band, from 207g/km to 200. Two things bring on the extra energy: a small rise in the turbocharger's boost pressure and a less restrictive silencer that makes more audible this engine's characterful throb between 2,200 and 2,800rpm, giving it an aural signature lacking in many of today's cars.

This throb, and the surge of energy felt the instant you press the accelerator, set the mood for the drive. I'm heading for the Ardèche Gorge in the south of France, a fabulous road with short straights linked by every shape of bend, where I shall discover the effect of the changes to the ultimate Mégane's suspension and steering.

The Mégane range has undergone a facelift which, among other things, brought in a new electric power-steering system. The so-called Cup suspension system - the extra-sporty one - has its own steering settings with less artificial self-centring and less aggressive assistance when turning. Getting the subtleties of assistance right is a challenge, helped here by more powerful electronic processors.

The effect is to make the steering feel more fluid, more consistent, more natural. In the very first Méganes, you had no idea what was going on under the tyres; if you ran into wet leaves or ice the steering felt the same. It was unnerving. The latest Méganes are much better, but the R26 takes things to a new level, with different spring and damper settings and a rear anti-roll bar added.

All these changes, together with the 235/40 R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres, help tip this Mégane from mere competence to the free flight of brilliance. But here we must bring in the final, crucial ingredient - that limited-slip differential.

Made by the Japanese arm of the British company GKN Driveline, it ensures that at least a third of available engine torque is sent to the front wheel with less traction. This ensures that the maximum 229lb ft of torque isn't spun away on a bend by the inside front wheel in a haze of tyre smoke, so both wheels can give of their best in pulling and steering the R26.

Like the Mazda 3 MPS, the R26 gives a little sideways tug at the front when you accelerate suddenly. Unlike the Mazda, though, the Renault doesn't seek to distance you from the experience as though you're playing a video game. Nor does it scrabble this way and that, sniffing out cambers and verges like a manic spaniel or a Vauxhall Astra VXR, thanks to the optimum geometry of its front suspension. It's the perfect balance between these extremes, and huge fun on a road like the one along the gorge.

Brake hard; big Brembo brakes firm underfoot, tireless in their task. Turn; feel how little the R26 leans, how tautly it changes direction. Accelerate; feel the power flow to the road, nose pulling to the exit with no desire to wash wide. Too fast into the next bend? Brake more deeply into it, feel the tail go light and tighten the line, but controllably, no danger of a slide. Then up the next straight, the engine's full-bodied thrust letting you choose whether or not to take it towards the rev limit. It's happy either way.

It's fantastic fun, this Mégane that finally makes it to the top of the hot-hatch pantheon. The six forward gear ratios are just right for a spirited drive or an easy cruise; the R26's traffic manners are impeccable; it even rides quite well over bumps.

I'm standing back after one of the best drives I've ever had, contemplating the R26. The front wings are plastic, and the right-hand one has gone soft with the residual heat. You don't have to have the scattered-squares graphics, but I like them. There's a numbered plaque by the handbrake, too - "my" car is No 3 - although this isn't a limited-edition car.

I'm trying to think of a better mid-size hot hatchback available now than this, and I can't. I said the Renaultsport engineers know exactly what it takes to make such a car, and here, in the R26, is the proof.

The rivals

Vauxhall Astra VXR £19,120

Terrific idea - handling by Lotus, 240bhp turbo, eye-catching styling - but the VXR can feel fractious and hyperactive.

Mazda 3 MPS £18,995

The fastest and most powerful front-wheel-drive hot hatchback of them all, yet it's a curiously unexciting drive.

VW Golf GTI from £20,360

Expensive, but matches your mood like no other. Its 200bhp turbo offers ample pace. Too much road noise, though.