With the exception of the fire-spitting Ford Focus RS, which was never available in South Africa, there hasn't been a real hardcore "big" hot hatch for some time. These days, it is the smaller, more agile and less "corporate suit" models such as Peugeot 206 GTi 180, Mini Cooper S, and Renault's own Clio Sport that allow the spirit of the original "boy racers" to live on. But here, in the shape of the muscular 165kW Renault Megane Sport, we have a car that promises to shatter the perception that a big hatch can no longer be rip-roaringly good fun.

The Megane Sport was not created by merely dropping a bigger engine under the bonnet. It is a significantly re-engineered car built at the Dieppe factory, where all the Renault Sport models are manufactured.

But let's start with the dramatic visuals.South Africa only gets the 3 door variant, and this further helps to differentiate the car from the rest of the Megane range. At the front, there is an aggresively wide airdam flanked by two "pimply" looking foglamps. Combined with the almost diamond-shaped headlights, this gives the Sport plenty of presence in the rear-view mirror. But it looks, perhaps, even better at the rear, where two exhaust outlets sprout from the center, as on the mid-engined Clio V6. Our first test car looked manacing in black, the colour contrasting nicely with the large 18-inch alloy wheels. Our second car was in a burnt-orange colour, which also suites the character of the car and helps make it a real head-turner. To find out why we had to test two cars, read on...

The interior changes are subtle; it has a leather steering wheel,aluminium pedals and footrest, and dials rimmed with black "piano-key" plastic. Depending on the chosen colour scheme for the interior, the stitching of the upholstery (perforated leather or leather/cloth) is either orange which looks better than it sounds, or carbon.

Space for the front occupants is good, and the bucket seats provide excellent comfort and support. Access to the rear is not too bad thanks to the front seats sliding and tilting far forward. Once seated, however, rear passengers might feel somewhat claustrophobic. Boot space is good at 272 dm3 and total utility space with the rear seatbacks folded forward was measured at 964dm3.

The Megane may carry the evocative RenaultSport badge, but it is no bare-boned track special. Standard equipment is comprehansive; climate control, radio/CD player, rainsensitive wipers,electric windows, cruise control, automatic headlights, multi-function trip computer, and a headlight washer system. Eight airbags are fitted.

But those things are all forgotten once you put your foot down and experience 165 kW in anger. The 2.0-litre engine is basically identical to the one first used overseas in the Vel Satis, but in the Megane sport it gets a twin-scroll turbocharger which boosts the filling of the cylinders and improves throttle response. There are also changes to the crankshaft and pistons. Maximum power is delivered at 5 500 r/min, and 300 N.m of torque comes on tap at 3 000 r/min. Power goes to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox.

For a few days we absolutely adored the car's thumping power, but then something started going wrong.The RS became unwilling to rev beyond 5 000 r/min making performance testing impossible. Power delivery progressively became more erratic, so we asked Renault to have a look at the car. it didn't take them long to discover the fault (fuel pump failure), and so a second test unit was delivered. There were no problems with this one.

It is, howver a tricky car to get off the line smoothly - there is plenty of wheelspin - and after much experimentation we achieved a best time of 7.03 seconds to the benchmark 100 km/h. This is about a half second off the claimed time, but still faster than any hot hatch we've tested recently. We managed to achieve an average top speed of 232 km/h, and blitzed the 1 km mark in 27,89 seconds.Our test cars rev limiter came into action at 7 000 r/min in the first two gears, dropping to 6 500 r/min for third gear and up.

With 90 percent of the maximum torque being available between 2 000 and 6 000 r/min, overtaking acceleration is mighty. Getting from 100 to 120 km/h in third gear takes just 2,19 seconds, for example, and only 3,83 seconds in fifth. Turbo lag isn't really an issue, and the car's immediate throttle response is one of its most addictive features. You can't help flexing your ankle... The gearbox isn't great, unfortunately, with the result that shifts are rubbery and not entirely accurate.

RenaultSport has significantly revised the suspension to help the Megane Sport put its huge power down effectively. The torsion beam rear suspension is stiffer, and there are tweaked springs, dampers and suspension bushes.

The biggest change is the front. Well aware of the inevitable torque steer potential on a front-wheel car such as this, Renault has developed what it calls an independent steering axis front suspension.

The trick front suspension does work, to some extent, but there is still a feeling that the car is wrestling the driver for control. In most circumstances, when accelerating out of a corner, the steering wheel will squirm, but the wheels will remain mostly true to the chosen direction. But if the driver is constantly sawing at the steering, the car becomes ragged - too much understeer, too much torque steer - to the extent that speed of progress is hampered. And although the steering has a meatier feel than normal Meganes, it still feels noticeably electrically assisted. The result is an odd steering feel that one tester labelled as "misleading feedback". For keen drivers, this makes the car disappointingly tricky to place accurately.

The electronic stability systems also come into play quite often when the driver isn't smooth, cutting power earlier than you'd expect. The stability and traction control system can only be switched off at speeds under 50 km/h.

To get the most out of the Megane sport, it must be driven smoothly. Pick your lines early, get the braking points right, and exit on a well-judged wave of torque. Under these circumstances it is not only devastatingly fast , but also a lot of fun. Body control and damping are both good. And the brakes are excellent. We achieved an average stopping time of 2,74 seconds during our simulated 100-0 km/h emergency braking test.

Test summary

It is fast. It looks good. In terms of performance per rand, the Megane Sport is certainly very well positioned. But it could have been better. The underpinnings seem to be overpowered by the engine, resulting in a car that sometimes comes across as unruly. Drive it in its preferred manner and the rewards are great, but we feel that the chassis and steering need extra sharpening. The Megane Sport is a rough diamond that could do with some extra polishing, but in its class it is, for now, a very enticing proposition.

Original article from Car