WHO’D have thought it? Renault: The second largest car-maker in Europe in 2016.
That statement in itself seems mildly implausible given the company’s slightly barmy history — engineering and financial-wise — but, under the impetus of boss Carlos Ghosn’s ‘Drive the Change’ plan, Groupe Renault last year reached a new sales record and has become the number one French automotive group worldwide.
With some 3.18m vehicles registered, the French company, which also controls Nissan and Dacia, reported that volume and market shares were up in all regions where its’ products sell.
And, with a raft of new products hitting the streets in the last 18 months or so, Renault itself is beating a hurried path to the top of the sales charts in many markets and its says its current rude health is mainly explained by volume growth of over €1bn.
Cars such as the new Clio, as well as SUV/Crossovers such as the Captur and the Kadjar have been the bulwark of conquest sales for the brand and the recent launch of the new Megane and a variety of Scenic models has underpinned Renault’s resurgence across Europe, to the point where it is now prodding VW where it hurts most.
And it is the Megane we focus upon this week. We’ve already tried the hatchback version — in GT Line form — and came away relatively impressed with the newcomer. This week, however, we’re driving the saloon version which in Renault’s current model nomenclature is designated as the Grand Coupe, or GC for short.
Now, lairy as we are of some of the names companies use to aggrandise certain categories of their products, the term Grand Coupe is really not very applicable here to a modest family saloon, but there’s a certain element of natural French élan going on. But is there enough of it to warrant any comment other than ‘et alors?’ — or ‘so what?’ in English? Perhaps just about enough.
This is quite an eye-catching design and one which should remain relatively fresh for a few years — something which the French don’t always get right. Indeed, the company’s ability to produce designs which lose their lustre quicker than an Élysée Palace presidential mistress, is pretty legendary - certainly in the modern era.
The Fluence, which this Megane GC effectively replaces, is a case in point and it is almost certainly something which will most definitely not be installed in any museum of modern art as a beacon of design ingenuity.
The Megane GC may not be accorded any such honour either, but it has to be said that the Renault design team have done a pretty neat job of making this a car which will have appeal across a wide spectrum of the buying public.
The main target of the car will be young families who don’t want either an MPV or an SUV, but still demand something which is comfortable, has bags of room and is endowed with a very high level of equipment — technological or otherwise. This car will certainly fit the bill.
Time was when small family saloons were just that — small. And, in a lot of cases, they were so poorly equipped you were lucky not to have to pay extra for the steering wheel. But ‘small’ is no longer an adjective which can be applied to this market segment.
On first encounter with the Megane, you will immediately be struck by how big this thing is and how close it has gotten to bigger machines such as the Passat or the Mondeo. It looks, well, imposing.
Size aside, another thing you will notice here is the level of kit that has been packed in. Why, even as you approach the car with your almost phone-sized keyless key, the car will unlock automatically and the folded mirrors will spring to attention.
And then there is stuff like the very eye-catching LED light designs, which do tend to set the car apart in its segment. In fairness to Renault, they were usually well ahead of the posse in this regard and generally specified their cars to a level well beyond their main German and Japanese rivals.
They had to do this to try and gain market traction because the overall quality of their products was generally nowhere near the same ballpark as their non-French rivals.
That may no longer be so obviously the case as Renault has upped its game, imposing fairly major changes on the front and rear suspensions to enhance passenger comfort levels, reduce road and tyre noise and make the car a much better driving prospect.
Despite these efforts and what are clear improvements in driving dynamism, the Megane does still lag behind class leaders like the Focus and the Golf as its handling is not as sharp, even if ride comfort has got a lot better and general NVH characteristics greatly enhanced.
On the engine front the tester was equipped with the 130 bhp 1.6 turbodiesel, which is a relatively new powerplant and offers a welcome choice from the standard 1.5 dCi units, which have been with us for some time, and while those were straightforward, honest, and decent, this new unit offers more power, more torque, more performance and better economy and emission figures.
With plenty of torque on offer (320Nm), you may find yourself spinning the driven front wheels if you get too excited at traffic lights or such, but the overall performance (10 seconds to 100 kph and 198 kph top speed) is smart rather than saucy.
Even so, the 4.0 l/100km (70 mpg) and the 103 g/km CO2 figures stand out as highlights.
But, as is so often the case with Renault, you get the feeling that it was more interested in making a car that wowed with its creature comforts rather than any greatness it may offer drivers who like driving.
Stuff such as the vertical touchscreen (very intuitive and easy to navigate), front and rear sensors, reversing camera, hands-free boot opening, panoramic roof (€1,000 extra), leather trim and upholstery, do add greatly to the allure, but the Signature trim we tested does also accelerate the price quite a bit.
But there is one other thing worth noting here. We Irish have a passion for small and medium saloons — despite the rest of the world having moved on from such things.
That is why we still have a Toyota Corolla on sale here and why such as the VW Jetta always had a big following here.
On that basis, the Megane GC is going to be a hit with Irish buyers, despite being something of an automotive curate’s egg.
Because of the design and the amount of kit Renault has piled into it, it will lure a lot of customers who may not be bothered by the fact the car comes nowhere near its’ rivals as an actual driving experience.
The cost: From €21,990-€29,490 as tested.
The engine: A very enjoyable companion and miles better than the 1.5 dCi option.
The specification: Top drawer — possibly the best thing about the car.
The overall verdict: Getting better, but still not a match for the class leaders as a driving proposition.
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