Renault Megane Authentique
Its last contender - the 19 (1991-'96) - was sort of a Gaelic attempt at building a German car, and so character-free it seemed Renault had forgotten what it meant to be French.
Indeed, you have to go right back to the locally assembled 12 (1970-'80) to discover flair in a small-ish Renault.
Thankfully, the controversial Megane II (replacement for the Megane I, sold here only as a convertible) signals a return to form. These days, Renaults look striking and individual. They're realistically priced, equipped to the eyeballs, and brimming with surprise-and-delight. Not to mention world-beating crash safety. No wonder the Megane is now Europe's best-selling car.
But does it drive like a French car should - decisive and well-weighted at the helm, flowing and adjustable around corners, and capable of blotting almost every bump on the road? Sort of. The Megane's dynamic raison d'etre is definitely its relaxing ride. Unlike the firmly suspended 307, the Megane is reasonably plush, and manages to waft serenely over bumps that are both felt and heard in the Peugeot - even though Megane ultimately concedes the cushy-ride trophy to the Golf. Providing, that is, you're alone and city-bound.
Add some human ballast and a country road, and the Megane joins the Astra and Focus in offering the best combination of suppleness and damping control.
The big butt Renault can also lay claim to being a soft talker. Both tyre, wind, and suspension noise are all noticeable by their absence - especially in relation to shouters such as Elantra and Civic - although the Megane's eager engine doesn't quite fall into the same category.
While the Authentique's 1.6 isn't the quietest donk in existence, it has real spirit and determination on its side, and the noise it emits is never offensive. The 1.6 Megane isn't a ball of fire in flat-out fanging, but because it produces at least 90 percent of its maximum torque from 2000 to 5750rpm, driveability is excellent, and economy is damn impressive. Its intelligently geared five-speed gearbox isn't bad, either.
But the Megane can't match the front-runners here - 307, Focus, Astra, and 3 - for dynamics. The Renault grips strongly and has good body control, but it also has more understeer, and a less fluid transition to a nose-tightening tail drift than, say, the Pug. It's capable and comfortable, just not as rewarding as you'd like it to be.
Of greater concern is the Megane's electric steering. Despite a pleasant tilt/reach steering wheel and reasonably accurate response to driver inputs, the Megane's steering is the car's single most disappointing aspect. As with the majority of electric systems, it never feels natural, with variable weighting and not a whole lot of feel. You do adjust to it, but you can't help wishing the Megane steered more like its electro-hydraulic baby bro, the Clio.
But it partially makes amends through its smarty-pants interior. No, Megane doesn't have the rear-seat room you'd expect from such a long wheelbase (although it does have more knee/leg space than Pulsar and Golf), and boot space suffers in lieu of its J-Lo-esque booty, but headroom and under-thigh support are impressive.
Front seating is praiseworthy, too, with an excellent driving position and a quality seat, if not much side support. But it's stuff such as the bins under the front-door armrests that will hold five CDs each, or the easily located seat controls at the front of the cushion, that highlights Renault's attention to detail.
Then there's Megane's class-leading standard equipment, its safety credentials, and, well, its uniqueness. Nothing looks like this car. And nothing can match it for features. If only it had real driver involvement, then we'd swoon.
* Read more about the Renault Megane here.
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