Renault has grabbed the headlines this year with a range of radical cars launched at the top end of its range. Seeking to change customers' perceptions of the brand and move up market, Renault has been applauded for the risks taken in putting striking designs like the Avantime and Vel Satis into production.
Changing people's views of Renault is far more important with these vehicles than making money, and they will continue to be a rare sight on our roads while they are sold with limited volume aspirations.
However, Renault has also adopted the riskier strategy of translating the outlandish aspects of these designs into its lower-medium hatchback, the Megane.
With five million variants of the previous Meganes sold worldwide, Renault is expecting to exceed this total by another 500,000 units with the striking new model. There will be seven different versions in total of the new Megane, most of which will be on sale by the end of 2003.
The three-door Sport Hatch and five-door hatchback are already on sale, but in 2003 we will see a four-door saloon, an estate called a Sport Tourer, and then five-seat and seven-seat Scenic versions. Sun worshippers will also be able to buy a cabriolet by 2004, with a folding hard roof.
Taking the current models (three-door and five-door), Renault believes there will be a 50/50 split between retail sales and fleet, with a fleet bias on five-door models (12,500 units next year in retail and 13,500 in fleet). Of the total 5,000 Sport Hatch three-door versions, Renault believes UK fleets will account for 2,000 units next year compared with 3,000 in retail.
Meanwhile total diesel sales for the five-door will be 24%, compared with 17% for the Sport Hatch.
Renault is aware that there is significant work to be done if it is to get close to diesel sales of rivals like the Peugeot 307 and Volkswagen Golf.
With one of the most modern ranges of common rail diesel engines available, it is keen to punch its weight in the fleet sector and will introduce two further diesel engines for the Megane range during 2003. A 100bhp 1.9dCi will slot between the 80bhp 1.5dCi and the 120bhp 1.9dCi. In due course there will also be a 140bhp 1.9dCi, meaning the Megane will be joining the diesel hot-hatch brigade along with the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Audi A3, and from 2003 the Alfa 147.
There will also be a 200bhp-plus Renaultsport Megane, with enough power to compete with the SEAT Leon Cupra R, Honda Civic Type R, Vauxhall Astra GSi and Ford Focus RS.
However, the biggest seller is expected to be the 1.6 Dynamique, priced at £12,500 on the road, offering CO2 emissions of 163g/km in manual guise and 41.5mpg on the combined cycle.
Renault believes Dynamique models will make up 55% of sales in the UK and comparing the models with rivals spec-for-spec, the French car seems good value.
Unlike most rivals, standard equipment stretches to electric windows all round, automatic headlamps, six airbags, alloy wheels, ABS, emergency braking assistance, a trip computer, alarm and CD player. Like most rivals, it also has air conditioning and remote central locking with deadlocking.
Options can be added either separately or in 'packs' which combine 'comfort', 'luxury', 'handling' and 'climate' items for less than the total cost of the individual options.
Renault is also offering 'hands free' entry and start (optional on all models but standard on Privilege) although drivers will still have to pull the door handle and press the start button. It means that, Megane drivers, rather like Mercedes-Benz S-class drivers will only have to have their Renault Card about their person for the car to sense their approach and unlock itself.
The Renault Card does not even have to go in the slot on the centre console to start the car.
Another analogy that can be drawn between Renault and Mercedes-Benz is that the Laguna and C-class have both achieved the maximum five-star Euro NCAP rating for occupant protection.
Renault says it has taken all the lessons it has learned from Euro NCAP and Laguna when designing the safety features of the Megane. The car will be tested by the end of the year, and Renault hopes it can repeat the success of the Laguna and become the first five-star lower-medium car.
However, only competitive leasing rates will ensure the car is included on fleet choice lists.
If the Megane can do the same with the Focus as the Laguna has done with the Mondeo – and virtually match residual value predictions model for model – then its success seems guaranteed.
Behind the wheel
THE front end styling of the Megane shows a family resemblance with the Clio and the Laguna, although its rear end has more in common with the more radical Avantime and Vel Satis. Some people might take time to get used to the shape, but for me it works in aesthetic terms. The Megane's styling is as radical as the Focus was four years ago, and we all know how familiar the Focus seems now.
The interior is quite plain by comparison, but ergonomically speaking this is good news. All the controls are within easy reach, the centre console is cleanly designed and the slush-moulded dashboard has a satisfactory tactile quality, as do the grab handles on the doors and various other surfaces with which people are likely to come into contact.
Unique features include an 'aircraft-style' handbrake, but having never seen an aircraft handbrake I am unqualified to draw comparisons. However, it seems to take up far less space than a conventional handbrake and behind it sits a generous storage box. I doubt such a practical compartment could have been designed if a conventional handbrake was used.
On the subject of storage, the Megane's curvaceous rear has sacrificed some boot volume. At 330 litres with the rear seats in place, the Megane's boot is 20 litres smaller than the outgoing model. Although it still matches the Volkswagen Golf for volume the tailgate aperture does seem a little too narrow to load long and awkward shaped items easily, such as golf clubs, and this is something you might want to try for yourself.
Despite its unique shape, passengers are well catered for with generous headroom and adequate legroom.
The only engine unavailable for test on the press launch was the 16-valve 1.4-litre, and it will be joined in the range by a less powerful eight-valve version next year, which should bring the entry price for the Megane down to the £10,000 mark. However, we covered more than 300 miles in 2.0-litre petrol and 1.9dCi models, along with shorter routes in the 1.6 and 1.5dCi.
The 2.0-litre model has a closer ratio six-speed gearbox than the 1.9dCi, and feels more sporty. The petrol engine is refined under normal driving but has a satisfying roar when pushed hard before changing up through the gears. Longer-legged gearing has been favoured in the 1.9dCi to make the most of the ample torque and return excellent fuel consumption.
Renault has been doing an excellent job recently of insulating diesel 'clatter' and the installation in the new Megane is the best yet. It helps that the 1.9dCi is one of the best diesel engines on sale and is supremely quiet on the move.
The Megane 1.9dCi has devastating mid-range urge and in a straight fight with a Golf TDI 130 would not be far behind.
Driving the 1.5dCi was slightly different. With almost 80bhp on offer it doesn't have the speed of the 1.9dCi, but with more than 60mpg theoretically possible, it is not without merit. Its performance is also more than adequate in the mid-range.
The petrol-powered 1.6, which is likely to be the biggest seller, is quite pokey with its 113bhp variable valve timing engine and with similar fuel consumption and emissions to the 16-valve 1.4, and only £500 difference in list price, many people will prefer the more powerful unit.
The Megane seems to ride and handle as well as the Ford Focus, which is praise indeed. There is a noticeable absence of bumps through the cabin on below-par roads, while it handles corners without fuss and with limited body roll. The electronic power steering takes some getting used to, but the brakes have excellent stopping power and feel.
RENAULT has built a car that for most people feels just as good to drive as the mighty Ford Focus, but with generous standard equipment lists, seems to offer better value than most of its rivals. In my view the radical looks are a bonus – remember how different we thought the Focus looked four years ago.
|Renault Megane fact file|
|1.4||1.6||2.0||1.5dCi 80||1.9dCi 120|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||97/6,000||113/6,000||134/5,500||79/4,000||118/4,000|
|Max torque (ib-ft/rpm):||97/3,750||112/4,200||141/3,750||136/2,000||199/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||114||119 (auto: 113)||124 (auto: n/a)||106||122|
|0-62mph (sec):||12.5||10.9 (auto: 12.8)||9.2 (auto: n/a)||14.3||10.5|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||41.5||41.5 (auto: n/a)||35.3 (auto: 33.6)||61.4||52.3|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||162||163 (auto: n/a)||191 (auto:201)||120||143|
|FUel tank capacity (l/gal):||60/13|
|Transmission:||5-sp manual, 6-sp manual and 4-sp auto options|
|Service intervals (miles):||18,000|
|Prices (OTR):||£10,500 - £15,500|