First Drive: 2009 Renault Megane R26.R

Mark Fagelson

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 RS.

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.

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