REVIEW DATE: 01 May 2009
Can the entry-level Megane deliver the goods? Steve Walker takes a look.
There's no denying that Renault's Megane Extreme lives up to its name but it's the lower extremity of the Megane line-up where this value-focused model does its thing. The Renaultsport hot hatchbacks might get the headlines but the French manufacturer will be hoping that the Extreme's little price will translate into big sales. Are these hopes destined to be realised?
It's perfectly possible to pay well over £20,000 for a Renault Megane these days. That's if you're after the fastest and flashiest or you're one of those customers who likes to get creative with the options list. Renault's family hatchback is by no means unusual in this respect. Its rivals from Ford, Honda and Volkswagen also regularly leave the factory with luxury specifications and power-packed engines that command big premiums over more mundane editions. That doesn't change the fact that it's at the more affordable end of the sector where the majority of family hatch business is done and it's precisely here where the Megane Extreme models are looking to capitalise.
Appropriately, the Megane's two least powerful engines are offered with the Extreme trim level, the 1.6-litre VVT petrol and the 1.5-litre dCi diesel. Both have their strong suits but you couldn't count thrilling performance amongst them. The petrol option has 100bhp and is quicker than the diesel over the 0-62mph increment with a 10.9s time versus the oil-burner's sluggish 12.9s. It's a modern engine using variable valve timing technology to maximise economy and performance but despite its superior sprinting pedigree, most Megane Extreme buyers will find it inferior to the oil-burner in everyday use. The 86bhp 1.5-litre diesel feels stronger at lower engine speeds thanks to 200Nm of torque developed at 1,750rpm (the petrol makes its best torque of 147Nm at 4,250rpm). This greater suitability to the kind of driving Megane Extreme drivers are likely to do coupled with its excellent economy gives the diesel the edge but that's reflected in the pricing.
"Renault's Megane hatchback is a class act"
From a driver's perspective, the Megane is a difficult car to fault but by the same token, it doesn't stand out in the manner of the top family hatchback driver's cars. The Extreme models are never likely to set pulses racing with their pace and agility but the comfortable ride and nimble handling of the five-door cars is impressive. Renault has worked in high levels of refinement too with even the diesel engine proving hushed when on the move. The gearchange could be snappier but in general it's well above average for an affordable hatch.
Offered exclusively in the Megane's sober five-door bodystyle, the Extreme models are somewhat forgettable from a styling perspective. Renault went for an elegant, understated look with the five-door car leaving the three-door to do the coupe curves. On the inside, the car is much more impressive. Even in this entry-level guise, the feeling of solidity and the quality materials is a match for anything in the sector. Once again, there's not too much to excite visually, the Megane preferring to reassure its owners that they've bought into a classy product.
Space in the cabin is unexceptional but the boot volume of 372 litres in the hatch figures amongst the best in the segment. Rear seat passengers don't get the head or leg room that they benefit from in some rivals, although space for the front seat occupants is generous and there's lots of adjustment on the driver's seat to help you get comfortable behind the wheel.
Sitting at the base of the Megane line-up, the Extreme models lack some of the high-tech trickery that Renault likes to fit on its plusher products but the essentials are mostly present. There's an MP3-compatable CD stereo, electric front windows, ESP stability control and air-conditioning all included. The diesel engine might be the more desirable option but it comes at a hefty £1,700 premium over the petrol engine and the kind of budget-conscious buyers attracted to the Extreme trim level might be put off. In more general terms, the Megane is very keenly priced compared to the alternatives.
Running costs should be manageable for the Megane Extreme derivatives. The diesel puts in a first-rate performance at the pumps with its 62.8mpg economy being as good as you'll get from any family hatchback and emissions of 118g/km also setting a shinning example. It will still take owners a while to make back the premium needed to upgrade to a diesel in fuel savings, however, with the petrol engine returning 42mpg and 159g/km.
Renault hasn't enjoyed the best reliability record in the past but the latest models look to be moving in the right direction and residual values should firm as a result. Insurance is group 7 for the petrol engine and an attractive group 5 for the diesel.
In its higher specification guises, Renault's Megane hatchback is a class act - smooth, comfortable and well-built. The Extreme models might operate at the bottom end of the range but these core qualities carry across well even here. With an equipment list that offers the basics but little else, it's a car built around its value proposition that looks certain to be a big seller thanks to those eye-catching prices.
The diesel engine comes at quite a premium over the petrol option as is the norm in this area of the market. While it's a more desirable unit overall, the upfront cost might be an issue for buyers attracted by the Extreme's modest prices. The Megane five-door lacks the swooping lines of the three-door coupe version and isn't particularly forthcoming with its rear passenger space but a massive boot and good interior build quality count firmly in its favour.
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