Renault returned to South Africa just before the new millennium after pulling out during the apartheid years. And my dad was among the early buyers. He bought a brand spanking new Mégane for the princely sum of R89 000 in 1999. At the time, the value it represented was unbeatable. It was equipped with goodies seen mostly on the high-end cars of the day. Steering-mounted audio controls, an onboard computer, a safety-belt reminder and a four-star EuroNCAP rating. In addition to a cassette player, there was a nifty CD-shuttle beneath the passenger seat. And a friendly beep to let you know you had forgotten your lights on. Excellent stuff. Except his story of ownership ended on a less happy note. By the time 90 000km had clicked onto the digital odometer, the mechanical maladies started to grow frequent and costly.
It eventually bade us farewell with an unceremonious transmission crunch. French automakers have never enjoyed a reputation for reliability. But this is something manufacturers like Renault have worked hard to change in recent years. Reassuringly lengthy warranties rolled out across the range, showing their advertising tagline ‘‘drive the change’’ could be more than just that. Recently, the revised Mégane arrived in the IgnitionLIVE test basement. The most salient changes are on the outside. The distinctive diamond emblem is the focal point of its new visage, which closely resembles that of the new Clio. Their marketing folks said last year that new Renault models would have faces that exude warmth and sensuality. And it is attractive indeed.
Things are less enthralling from behind as the rear remains largely unchanged. I was a huge fan of the bodacious backside of the second generation Mégane. This model is more Sienna Miller than Nicki Minaj. But different strokes for different folks as they say. Although the aesthetic revisions upfront are welcomed, it appears that Renault overlooked a crucial part of the package. That is the interior. Stacked against players like the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus it lags behind.
It looks dated, and from an ergonomic point of view, there is room for improvement. The R-Link digital interface, modelled on systems like iDrive from BMW and MMI from Audi, could be more intuitive and user-friendly. Change needs to be driven in these areas for it to be a true threat to the rivals in its field. Where it still excels though is in the area of dynamics. This current generation Mégane has always been a spirited and well-sorted mover, with the manic RS model undoubtedly its most flattering derivative. On test here is the GT version (162kW and 340Nm). It caters to buyers who want spicy performance without the extremity and impracticality of the balls- to-the-wall RS.
We can report that it is a happy compromise. Performance-hungry buyers will be pleased to know that it is fast. Renault claims a 0- 100km/h time of 7.3 seconds. But I have heard from fellow scribes that attaining numbers just under seven seconds is not impossible. Anyway, it feels properly punchy — perhaps less brutal than the RS. But the surge is still mighty enough to make you grin. Planting it flat in first and second gears reveals just a smidgen of torque-steer. Not enough to shove you into an oak tree, but enough to make things a little more exciting. The six-speed manual transmission is direct and the ride will not have you running to the chiropractor, as the RS does.
However, under hard driving, the purists will certainly note it lacks some of the poise possessed by certain peers — particularly that local top-seller hailing from Germany with the three letters on its rump. But I am not so sure you should strike it off the list because of that. Prepare for a plot twist. Renault has been extremely aggressive with the pricing of this GT model. It costs R339 900 — whether you pick the five-door or the sleek coupe. That undercuts the competition massively. If you want a Ford Focus ST with the equivalent level of specification, you would have to fork out R394 900. A basic Volkswagen Golf GTI starts at R407 800. Is the Renault as polished as the former two? Maybe not. But there are around 67 900 reasons why you might not be too concerned — if my maths is correct.
Engine: 1 998cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Power: 162kW at 6 500rpm
Torque: 340Nm at 3 500rpm
0-100km/h: 7.3 seconds
Top speed: 240km/h
Fuel consumption: 8.8l/100km
Pricing: R339 900