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Although many consider the Volkswagen Golf GTI to be the car that kicked off the hot hatch genre in the 1970s, you could argue that Renault has spent many a year perfecting the breed. The French firm has done rather well in our Car of the Year awards in the past, and the Renault Megane RS 280 Cup is the latest in a long line of spiced-up shopping trollies.
But time (and the Honda Civic Type R) pushed the previous Megane RS down the pecking order, something this latest version is aiming to rectify. Although the engine is down from 2.0 litres to 1.8 litres, power is up by 5bhp to 276bhp, giving a sub-6.0sec 0-62mph time.
But it isn’t just a case of same old, same old. Not only can you now have a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, but every Megane RS also gets four-wheel steering as standard. This not only reduces the turning circle but also boosts agility at relatively low speeds.
If that doesn’t sound exciting enough, there’s also the option of a Cup Chassis pack. For a reasonable £1500, you get a mechanical limited-slip differential that boosts traction out of tight corners, stiffer suspension and red brake calipers to prove how hardcore you are.
Although we’ve already driven the Cup abroad, that was only around a smooth and well-surfaced racetrack. The question is, how does it fare on a craggy British B-road?
2018 Renault Megane RS 280 Cup on the road
Although on paper the Cup looks pretty punchy, you might be a little disappointed the first time you give it some welly. Not only does it have less power than the likes of the Civic Type R, but the engine is also quite peaky, needing a fair few revs to start pulling hard.
But it’s well worth putting the effort in. Not only is the Megane quick enough, but it also makes a throaty rasp that’s a lot more appealing than the Type R’s rather subdued sound. Sure, the Ford Focus RS and Hyundai i30N sound far more outrageous, but the Megane (especially in Race mode) still gives you an enjoyable soundtrack.
Our test car came with the standard six-speed manual gearbox, which is one of the better ‘boxes in the class. Although it can’t match the Type R’s near-perfect shift, the short throw and absence of slack are preferable to what you’d find in the Volkswagen Golf R and BMW M140i.
Of course, straight-line performance is all very well and good, but we’d argue that how a hot hatch corners is even more important. How the Megane behaves depends a lot on the driving mode you have it in. While it doesn't have adjustable dampers, the different modes still change the intensity of the exhaust, sensitivity of the accelerator, weight of the steering and crucially, how the rear steering behaves.
With the Megane in its most aggressive Race setting, its rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the fronts at up to 62mph, around twice what you’d normally expect from a car with four-wheel steering. In English, that means the Megane doesn’t just feel keen to turn in; it seems to pivot around the gearstick. Indeed, we can’t think of a front-wheel-drive car that resists slipping wide at the front quite so well.
It might feel almost unstable at first, but you soon learn that the RS is most definitely on your side and isn’t going to spit you off the road into a ditch. Once you get back on the throttle, the limited-slip diff proves to be much more aggressive than the Civic Type R’s. Instead of gently tugging you in the direction you want, you’re hauled through corners with all the subtlety of a slap around the chops.
Indeed, despite weighing more than the Civic and being down on power, the Megane is barely any slower across a particularly challenging stretch of road. But while the Civic feels like a precision instrument, the Megane feels akin to slicing a carrot with a chainsaw. That’s not to say it isn’t effective or indeed fun, but it’s certainly a lot more physically demanding.
In situations where the Civic will gently tighten its line under braking and then provide enough traction on the exit without corrupting the steering too much, the Megane seems to enter corners slightly sideways before pulling its nose hard into the apex of the corner with the steering wheel writhing in your hands. But despite this, there isn’t quite as much information filtering up from the front wheels as you got on the previous Megane RS. Don’t get us wrong: it’s still one of the best in its class. It just can’t beat its astonishingly good predecessor.
Indeed, on the road the Megane is something of a handful. Throw a few bumps and cambers into its path and the nose dances from verge to central white line. As for the ride, it’s not downright uncomfortable, but it is exceedingly firm. Thankfully, excellent damping prevents it from ever feeling bouncy or crashy.
2018 Renault Megane RS 280 Cup interior
The good news is that the Megane gets the basics right with pedals that line up nicely with the seat and steering wheel, a decent range of adjustment and a well-placed rest for your clutch foot. We just wish the seat went down a touch lower. You’ll also find plenty of red and (exceedingly dodgy) carbonfibre-effect trim, plus some alloy pedals to remind yourself that you’re in a sporty little number. Crucially, the seats are very supportive, holding you in place tightly no matter how hard you corner.
Infotainment is taken care of by a portrait-oriented infotainment system that may not be the best system out there but is still significantly better than the Civic's. Even so, the Civic and indeed the Skoda Octavia vRS are both better at carrying people and cargo. If you want more detail, you’ll find it in our four-point review here.
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