The R26.R moniker sounds like the formula for a new superdrug, and that's exactly what this hot French hatch is. Seven years after its debut and about forty-eight hours before its demise, the quaint-looking Renault Mégane has at last attained eternal dynamic greatness. The Mégane's less controversial successor is already on sale in Europe, but Renault's performance arm (based in Dieppe, France, far from the Paris HQ) is still completing some high-performance derivatives of its predecessor. Based on the Mégane Renault Sport (and the F1 Team 26 version that followed), the R edition adds enough extra punch, poise, and panache to thoroughly upset the European hot hatch fraternity. Output increases only marginally over the Renault Sport (from 225 to 230 hp, and from 221 to 229 lb-ft of torque), but weight drops by 270 pounds (to 2712), despite additions like a roll cage and upgraded brakes. With the optional titanium exhaust, the R26.R loses about another 30 pounds. Thus equipped, it takes only 25 seconds longer to lap the Nürburgring than the new Porsche 911
GT3. Even more notable is the five-second lead it carves out over the 305-hp, European-market Ford Focus
After a full day on the track, I emerged from the French road warrior with a huge grin on my face and with a square behind that was baked into shape by the tight-fitting Sabelt bucket seats, which are adjustable only for fore-and-aft positioning. But the sheer driving pleasure almost negated the self-mutilation, and the R26.R's incredible mix of speed and almost supernatural roadholding was by no means restricted to the 'Ring. Quite the contrary: thanks to an expertly calibrated suspension and Toyo Proxes semislick tires, the macho Mégane was also the uncrowned king of the challenging roads that frame the world-famous racetrack. Once they've reached their working temperature, the 225/40YR-18 tires provide a compelling blend of slide and bite, although in the wet, the shaved footwear requires extra caution.
Every move the R26.R makes is wonderfully tactile and communicative. Although electrically instead of hydraulically assisted, the rack-and-pinion steering has more facets than Kali the Hindu goddess has arms. Turn-in is amazingly three-dimensional in weight, input, and response; the on-center feel is both attentive and relaxed; gearing is quick, with less than three turns from lock-to-lock; and there's equilibrium between the dial-in effort and the self-centering action. The four-piston Brembo brakes combine strong performance with incredible staying power. The effort may be a bit on the high side and pedal travel is a little longer than expected, but the brakes are progressive and nicely balanced, with an ABS interference threshold that can only be described as adventurous.
Thanks to the six-speed manual transmission's quick and precise lever movements, one never really misses the dual-clutch option offered by some of the competition. You might expect the chassis of a car like this to make no ride-oriented compromises. In reality, however, the relatively compliant suspension mates stiff dampers with less extreme springs, fights body roll but still permits enough wheel travel, and allows plenty of lift-off oversteer when stability control is switched off. A limited-slip differential straddles the line between strong traction and steering fight.
The Mégane R26.R's engine is a 2.0-liter turbo four that delivers peak output at an unexciting 5500 rpm. The performance, however, is little short of breathtaking. The R26.R, according to Renault, sprints to 62 mph in only 6.0 seconds, tops 147 mph, and averages a relatively miserly 28 mpg. The strong urge continues in the 60-to-125-mph bracket, where the French two-seater almost matches the BMW M3 in fourth-gear oomph. Even beyond 125 mph, the Renault offers a rare synthesis of stability and poise, of power and control. The price you pay for going flat out in the R26.R is a barely muffled noise level, which must be the reason that a radio isn't on the options list. What you get free of charge are ugly decals, pretty aluminum wheels, bigger spoilers front and rear, a suede-rimmed steering wheel, polycarbonate rear side windows, a carbon-fiber hood, and less sound-deadening material. Complete with lightweight exhaust, roll cage, and semislicks, the R26.R retails at 39,190 (about $52,000). The bad news is that Renault will build only 450 examples, all of which are already spoken for, and all, of course, only for the European market.
On sale: Now (in Europe)
price: 39,190 (about $52,000)
Engine: 2.0L turbo I-4, 230 hp, 229 lb-ft
Renault in America: More Than Le Car
Renault was one of the first postwar car importers, bringing the tiny 4CV sedan to America before Volkswagens were officially distributed here. The disastrously unreliable Dauphine established a reputation that Renault never overcame, even when quite good cars were on offer. Here are three notable Renaults sold in America:
Renault Caravelle - 1960-67
Embodying Bardot-era French chic, the stylish convertible was embraced on both coasts, but sluggish performance, with an 845-cc engine and a three-speed gearbox (later 1108 cc with four speeds) and fragile build quality made it a tough sell for anyone who wanted to use it as an everyday car.
Renault 16 - 1969-72
Certainly cutting a unique profile, the 16 was light, well-balanced, and provided clever seating arrangements. It was decent looking, spacious, and helped establish front-wheel drive and a rear hatch as a family-car norm. Its mostly aluminum engine was used by Lotus and Alpine for sports cars.
Renault 5 (Le Car) - 1976-83
The underpinnings were old (1946 engine, 1961 front-wheel-drive layout), but brilliant styling made it the first popular French car widely admired for its appearance. The in-house design job was good enough that the transverse-engine Supercinq successor was essentially the same, just a bit bigger.