There had been other track-leaning hot hatches before the Megane, but with the R26.R Renaultsport went all in. Welcome to the hot hatch that thinks it's a Porsche 911 GT3 RS
By Craig Toone - Photography by Ben Midlane
The word tolerance has multiple definitions depending on the context. In engineering terms it’s an allowable variance from a specified quantity tight enough to have no effect on performance. In human terms it’s the capacity to endure continued subjection to adverse conditions or thought without reaction.
We all have different thresholds - pain is one, alcohol or heart break are others. So too do car manufacturers, based upon brand values, target markets, fiscal responsibilities and global legislation. This leads to inevitable compromises - no car is perfect, some just get closer to perfection than others. Occasionally however, a manufacturer chooses to focus all its tolerances in one specific direction - the pursuit of driving pleasure and performance - at the cost of all others. With every tweak comes a subtle shift in the equilibrium towards the more focused and extreme experience, but how far should the boundaries be pushed before the balance reaches a tipping point where the added driver appeal breaks the roadworthy sensibility?
The Renaultsport Megane R26.R is a good candidate for a case study. For many, basing a stripped out track warrior on a humdrum family hatchback seems like an inevitable recipe for a flawed and compromised machine. For a select few however, it’s a rolling advertisement for what can be done when talented people are let off the leash who believe entertainment comes in many shapes and sizes, and if anyone can make a Michelin Star meal out of basic ingredients it’s the master chefs over at Dieppe’s famous Renaultsport kitchen. When launched in 2009 the R26.R moved the goal posts of an already title-contending hot hatch so far over to the extreme end of the spectrum it started appearing in comparison tests with dedicated, ground up sports cars from the likes of Lotus and Caterham. Motoring publications tripped over themselves to praise it and started to mention its handling dexterity in the same sentence as the DC2 Integra Type-R - some journalists even went as far as saying it was superior.
A hardcore diet of 123kg, revised spring rates and dampers plus semi-slick Toyo R888 tyres stickier than Wrigleys on a trainer shoe gave the Megane a lick of speed no 227bhp car had any right to possess down a twisting road or racetrack. A scorching Nurburgring lap record of just 8:17 underlined the car's pace and ability. Yet many cars languished in showrooms unsold, the buying public unconvinced by something so extreme with ‘wrong wheel drive’, silly stickers and a basic list price of £23,815. Perhaps they didn't understand or have the stomach for the six point harnesses or plexiglass rear & side windows, the deleted climate control and blank fascia of plastic where you’d normally expect to find a radio. Or maybe it was the blood red roll cage lingering in place of the back seats that scared them off.
Further sacrifices included the front fog lamps, rear window wiper and mechanism (and lack of heating), nearly all sound deadening and the only concession to safety being driver and passenger airbags - a big call for a regular car that was the first to be awarded a EuroNCAP five star safety rating. The bonnet was now crafted from carbon fibre and underneath it the 2.0 turbocharged engine has more exposure than an Only Fans channel - it looks completely naked, shorn of any plastic dressing.
I imagine quite a lot of potential sales recruits failed to graduate from basic training. The rigmarole involved in shimmying into the seats and bolting up the six point harnesses makes solving a Rubik's cube look like child's play. And then you realise you’ve left the door open and can’t reach the handle so you have to start the process all over again. Once ua time I'd have fitted comfortably into aggressive seats like these, but nowadays it feels like only those with snake hips can fit between the Boa Constrictor grip of the side bolsters. The good news is the pain from my newly dislocated hip wears off as soon as the adrenaline kicks in. Up the ante and the fangs of the harnesses bite down and you immediately feel utterly connected to the machine and the drive - it’s as if you’ve become a stressed member of the chassis.
This completely re-frames your mindset to where every corner becomes a challenge to clip the precise apex and put fresh air between the inside rear wheel and road surface. The trouble is, the chassis is so capable and exciting the standard 227bhp no longer seems to cut it, despite the weight loss upping the bhp/tonne by almost 20. You just know the car can handle more without upsetting the apple cart. Perhaps that's why this particular car has been mildly breathed upon to a conservative 260bhp. Despite Renault claiming power was unchanged from the regular R26, the exquisite optional titanium exhaust has to be worth a few horsepower as well as decibels, not to mention adding a healthy contribution to that weight loss too.
The engine seems possessed in this state of tune and there’s real value in seeking out the redline, where it closes in on the limiter with a real hunger over the final 1,000 revolutions. The outright acceleration is very strong but the in-gear thrust is rabid, the echo chamber behind no doubt enhancing the feeling of thrust. Even coming off the throttle is fun, the wastegate releasing a chirrup of hisses like Darth Vader polishing off a particularly thick milkshake.
Sadly the sharp throttle response is heard rather than felt due to a rubbery throttle pedal with a two stage pressure resistance. Another foot control that lets the side down is the clutch, which is a fraction too heavy and has a skyscraper biting point - both are typical characteristics of fast Renaults. Yet you never notice these minor flaws when pressing on - there is no hindrance to a well executed heel and toe. Mercifully, the brake pedal escapes a similar fate by offering almost delicate progression and immediate anchorage when summoned with force; they are a joy to modulate.
You’ll initially file the steering under the flawed control weights category too, but spend more time with the car and you’ll begin to appreciate it. The geometry is unchanged from the R26, so the .R is no great communicator, and the steering is certainly very light, with a nanosecond of built in slack just off centre that should’ve been eradicated in a car like this. Thankfully the no compromise rubber with its granite side walls increases the precision - placing the car quickly becomes second nature and eventually you realise you prefer the slower gearing of this early EPAS over many current systems, which choose to mask their deficiencies with instantaneous reflexes. The featherlight weighting also fades into the background when pressing on enthusiastically, much like the awkward pedals. You wouldn’t however, say no to a little minor tweak again - a retrim of the wheel in full alcantara.
The steering gives you the confidence to lean on the car elsewhere too. The operation of the limited slip differential is a world class highlight. It's simultaneously both subtle and aggressive - subtle in your hands, yet aggressive on the line of the corner. Initially the rear end feels rather skittish, like its skimming over the surface rather than gripping to it, but gradually work some much needed heat into the rear tyres and the sensation disappears and the back axle also becomes a directional asset. A gentle lift to tuck the nose in ever so slightly still happens very sweetly and progressively despite the high level of grip - the benefits of a low mass combined with the stability of a wide track and that bolted to the chassis feeling. Has a front wheel drive car ever offered so much adjustability on and off the throttle? A 205 GTi is unquestionably more tail happy, and the differential in the mk1 Focus RS is far more aggressive, but few cars combine the two so harmoniously and with such driver encouragement. Afterwards I realise all these multiple angles of attack have occurred with the dynamic stability control still on - I’ve been having so much fun I completely forgot it existed - Reanultsport’s ESP calibration certainly has some wide tolerances dialled in.
"you immediately feel utterly connected to the machine and the drive - it’s as if you’ve become a stressed member of the chassis. Suddenly every corner becomes a challenge to clip the precise apex and put fresh air between the inside rear wheel and road surface"
The weakest link at speed is the gearbox - Renaultsport isn't renowned for robust gearboxes - ask any Clio 200 owner - the one in the Megane has pitiful resistance and as such the throw across the gate is limp and loose, but thankfully it doesn’t object to being rushed. You can’t help but imagine how much more enjoyable the car would be with one further extreme; an aggressive touring car style CAE shifter. Still, it’s not like you need to be rowing through the gears to get this R26 shifting. Save for some low down sluggishness, the power delivery is very strong, whilst the car tracks true & straight at full tilt no matter the surface. There’s also zero axle tramp unlike some high power front wheel drive cars either.
It’s not just the technical ability that elevates the R26.R. It’s the assault on all the senses - the plexiglass windows buzz in traffic and the unladen passenger harness zings to the rhythm of the titanium exhaust. The R888’s pick up every loose stone available before firing them into the arches like tobacco buckshot. These are elements of driving that are increasingly being snuffed out across the board, ones that create another dimension of interaction with the drive and amplify the sensation of speed. In the end, only 364 of the planned 450 production run were bolted together. Renault UK was bold in reserving 230 of that original allocation but when the curtain fell only 159 travelled across the Channel. It’s good to see however that Renaultsport hasn’t been burned by the experience, churning out two successors, even if the numbers produced decreased and the price massively inflated.
Owner Kristian has had the car for several years now and covers around 2-3,000 miles annually, most of which is spent on track. He praises the behaviour of the car at the absolute limit - “in slower turns you can lean on the brakes heavily and use trail braking to alter your line, and as long as you aren’t heavy footed, exit speed can be kept high and accurate. The car will understeer if you do get on the power too early, but you will rarely experience it on the public road. Where the R26.R really excels is on entry to fast corners. Why? The chassis is so neutral there is never any fear about what it might do - if you go in too fast the car will drift with absolute neutrality, with all four corners moving in unison. And trail braking at this pace? You can certainly adjust the car nicely - particularly in the wet - but again, it’s all so controllable you can constantly play with how you drive to get the most out of the car.”
What's great about the R26.R after you’ve gotten past all the impracticalities of strapping yourself in is it doesn’t eliminate over 80% of the U.K’s road network -despite its track leanings. Its suspension - whilst not as supple as I’ve read to believe - still operates at a bandwidth that can just about cope with a ragged B-road. There’s no doubt the Megane prefers a smooth surface, but at no point does the body control become overwhelmed. The famously backed off springs are clearly being counteracted by the rock hard sidewalls of the Toyo tyres, and although it might lose some of the outrageous grip, it would be interesting to try the R26.R on some more pliable modern UHP tyres. Renault in fact offered Michelin Pilot Sport rubber as an alternative to the Toyo’s on the order form.
Whatever your stance may be on the room for two only hot hatch, the good news is you can feel every penny invested by Renault in this car, the expense in each and every modification and what it brings to the party. Yes, entering and exiting the car is a faff and yes it’s very tiring and wherever you go you always seem to be accompanied by the distant roar of a jumbo jet thanks to the tyres. It’s unlikely to be appreciated by a non car loving partner either and during our brief stint the driver's electric window threw in the towel. You could also argue that a regular R26 offers enough of the thrills without sabotaging it’s civilised manners. But that misses the point - it’ll never hit you with the single mindedness, the physical rawness, nor get the heart pumping like the car with the extra dot R. It’s like comparing filtered Kentucky Bourbon to pure white dog moonshine. Some cars are designed to make you feel comfortable, some designed to make you feel alive, and this Megane is certainly one of the latter that's absolutely worth tolerating.