Renault's new addition shows just how far the French automaker has come since the days of Le Car.
To Americans, Renault is synonymous with bad quality and lousy reliability. These days, however, la Regie is responsible for some stylish and thoroughly well engineered cars, which are as reliable as anything on the European market and nicely screwed together, too.
Whatever one thinks of the exterior of the Megane II hatchbackand we rather like the formal proportions to the hindquarters that remind us of a 1920s limousinethe interior is superbly wrought. Indeed, the soft-touch plastics that swathe the dashboard and center console and even surround the window lifts and door pulls are up to Volkswagen standards and make most of the small cars on sale here, whether from Japanese or domestic manufacturers, look decidedly cheesy. Sure, we were driving the upscale Privilege trim level, which costs the equivalent of $20,000 without the British sales tax of 17.5 percent, but all Meganes have the same elegant interior architecture and high grade materials. There's some suitably quirky Frenchness, too, with a flat card taking the place of a key: slot it into a hole in the center console and then hit the Start/Stop button to get going.
The Megane is sold with 1.4-, 1.6- and 2.0-liter gasoline engines as well as 1.5- and 1.9-liter common-rail diesels. The diesels are the nicest to drive, with the 1.9-liter four making 118 horsepower and an amazing 221 pound-feet of torque at an equally astonishing 2000 rpm. All that low-down lugging power ensures the Megane 1.9dCi covers ground remarkably swiftly, aided by a very sweet six-speed manual. Top speed is 122 mph, 0-62 mph is claimed to take 10.5 seconds, and real-world overtaking is remarkably easy. The engine is super smooth and quiet, too: We'd reckon that nine out of ten Americans wouldn't be able to tell what type of engine this is. Better still, in a place where fuel costs $5 a gallon, real world fuel economy of around 40 miles per (U.S.) gallon makes a huge amount of sense.
It's not all good. The Megane is a great highway cruiser, but once the road starts twisting and the surface starts breaking up, the car's MacPherson strut front and rear torsion beam suspension can't quite cope. The car tends to float too much over crests and suffers from lateral motions on bumpy back roads, while the steering is a touch inert. The chassis is competent and the car can be hustled rapidly and safely, but it's hardly inspirational.
Would the Megane catch on in the States? In Privilege formwith power locks and windows, steering column radio controls, automatic air, et ceterait costs about the same as a well equipped VW Jetta or Golf. It isn't any more entertaining to drive, but is more stylish inside and out and would be a great freeway ride or city commuter. Whether anyone at Renault really wants to try out the American market again is a moot point-and with Nissan doing so well, why bother? What we really like about the Megane, though, is that its design team, led by the underrated Patrick Le Quement, has really managed to come up with a distinctly national style in a way that the multicultural design teams at other major makers-GM and Ford in the U.S. among them-have failed to do.