Renault's Megane Promises to Shake Up Market

Europe is in the grip of Megane fever, a very infectious epidemic that started in France and is spreading like wildfire. Megane is Renault's new replacement for the venerable R19.

A rash of different Megane models are on their way and no established Escort-sized contender is safe.

In Britain the outbreak begins this month, when the stylish two-door coupe and five-door hatchback models go on sale. Then over the next two years, the Megane will really take hold as a sedan, a cabriolet, a conventional estate car and a mini MPV known as the "Scenic." In the end there will be a total of six body styles to blanket the lower medium sector and seriously shake up a complacent opposition.

It's the hatchback that Renault predicts will be most popular, and it should chalk up between 28,000 and 30,000 sales in the first year in the U.K., thanks in part to a hungry fleet market. The five-door range kicks off with the RN 1.4 and is capped by the RXE 2.0, but it's the middling RT 1.6 tested here that is expected to attract the most buyers.

It features an all-new, eight-valve engine developing a competitive 6/KW (90bhp), only slightly less than the outgoing 19's larger 1.8 mega-liter unit. It's responsive, and gutsy enough to make this Megane fun, but it doesn't feel quite as lively as some rivals.

Hard driving demands plenty of gear shifts, but the five-speed gearbox has a quick, slick and well-defined change that makes this more of a pleasure than a chore.

First impressions, formed on some very ramshackle Spanish roads, suggest that the Megane offers ride comfort to match leaders in this field, such as the Peugot's exemplary 306. It feels a little firm at low speeds, but always impressively absorbent and impeccably controlled.

The chassis went on to win even more acclaim over a smoother and fabulously twisty mountain route. For a mid-range family car, the Megane handles superbly, flowing neatly from bend to bend with wholehearted grip. Substantially weighted power steering provides cornering confidence, as do the strong and progressive-feeling brakes.

The Megane is equally well-adjusted to long-haul motorway journeys. As always, engine refinement is first rate and there's barely a trace of wind and road noise.

Time should fly by when you're relaxing in the comfortable cabin, whose five ample seats are all served by full three-point belts. Leg and head room is decent throughout, and there's a big trunk that should easily swallow belongings for five passengers.

Both the rear-seat backs and bases are split and can fold down to enlarge it if need be.

The driving position should find favor with the majority of drivers and can be fine-tuned because the seat and steering wheel are height-adjustable. But some taller drivers may find the wheel sits too low even at its highest setting. It needs a wider range of adjustment.

The highlight of the cabin is the voluptuously curved, Laguna-style dashboard. It looks and feels great and incorporates sensibly positioned, large switchgear and easily legible dials.

There's a newly designed integral stereo, which is linked to a digital information display mounted usefully high up on the facia top. Renault's famed stalk-mounted stereo controls also make an appearance, in a redesigned form.

Equipment for the 1.6 RT includes a driver's airbag, power steering, an electric sunroof, central locking and an engine immobilizer. You have to pay extra for an "electrics pack" to gain electrically operated front windows and mirrors, and more still for an alarm.

As all Meganes are built using the same platform and mechanicals, it's now a surprise to find the Coupe is a similar driving experience. It's available in 1.6- and 2.0-liter guises, which cost exactly the same as their hatchback counterparts, and there's also a 16-valve flagship using a modified version of the Clio Williams' 150 bhp 2.0-liter engine.

Renault believes the eight-valve 2.0-liter will be the biggest contributor to the sales it hopes to make in the first year.

Its engine is strong and responsive, yet refined, and with stiffer suspension it feels even more surefooted without sacrificing ride quality unduly.

Inside, the coupe and hatchback are very similar, but there's only room enough for two people in the back and it's a bit more of a squeeze. The trunk is smaller too, though still perfectly adequate.

Megane fever will strike people looking for a stylish, highly comfortable car with great road manners and excellent handling. And with so many body styles coming our way, we reckon its effects could be devastating.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.