Driving the Renault Mégane R26.R on the snow-covered L-10–a public road-cum-rally track near the famous Nürburgring–is an unforgettable affair. And not simply because summer tires and slush don’t mix. This particular Mégane is a stunning piece of machinery in any condition: no Stateside machine comes even remotely close. And unlike most European unobtainium, it’s no sculpted, Teutonic monument to cash-flow either. It’s French. Cheap gas, Japanese quality and the Detroit-centric Eisenhower Interstate System have given Americans no reasons to contemplate, let alone lust after, French cars in the modern era, but not having this Ferrari-killing hatchback on crack is a bummer. The Mégane R26.R is so wrong it’s gotta be right.
The Mégane R26.R is simply unmistakable, even if it’s a Renault hatchback. Clock the 18-inch alloys and Piet Mondrian-worthy geometric decals in red ink. And there’s the Lunar Grey paint contrasting against the carbon fiber hood: a not so subtle reminder this three-door is far more than the tall roofline and dorky C-pillar implies. Rear spoiler aside, there’s simply no way to get around the Mégane R26.R’s hatchback roots. But this isn’t a rice boy poseur: resting against the near weightless polycarbonate rear/quarter windows gives the kinds of goose bumps that only come from a real race car.
Note: first timers will push those side windows while going in for a closer look at the spartan and sporty interior of the Mégane R26.R. And because there’s so little to behold, everything in eyeshot will be serious business: race seats with carbon fiber shells, six point harnesses, an optional roll cage (dressed in red, of course) and suede accents on the tiller and shift knob. The ambiance is bare bones, but what’s left is reasonably appealing in ergonomics and touchy-feely build quality. So it’s still a far better place to kill time than any modern Chrysler product.
And what was left on Renault’s chopping block? A loss of 270lbs from the removal of sound insulation, rear seating, a lone airbag (driver’s side), no radio, fog lights or other ancillary creature comforts. But if you missed the Mégane’s racing pedigree, there’s a “R26.R” badge screwed in the dash to remind all and sundry this ain’t no ordinary French econobox. You know, in case the red wheels didn’t tip you off.
And the greasy bits don’t play around. The Mégane R26.R’s mill comes from the RenaultSport racing parts bin: a 2.0L turbocharged mill, 6-speed transaxle and Michelin Pilot street tires. The (optional) titanium exhaust is a wicked affair, providing unfettered access to the turbo’s prodigious “woooosh” at anything more than quarter throttle. George Lucas never made a Tie Fighter hatchback, but Renault is clearly picking up the slack.
Perhaps you heard that the Mégane R26.R is the fastest production wrong-wheel drive whip on the Nürburgring, earning an 8:17 time slip. While weather conditions kept this review off the ‘ring, driving on nearby country roads shows how the Mégane R26.R accomplished that feat: plenty of suspension travel, a body that stays docile and flat in aggressive cornering and what must be the most communicative steering ever installed on a FWD vehicle. Bumpy roads have little chance at upsetting the Mégane R26.R’s racing line, both the steering and suspension keep the driver informed and in control.
But discretion is the better part of valor with a turbo pushing the front wheels, torque steer still rears its ugly head. With a limited-slip axle, modest power output (230hp/229lb-ft of torque) and a torque peak that’s nearly flat, boost is easy to modulate for post-apex bursts of acceleration. The Mégane R26.R will cook when needed, but the whole affair is subtler than the powertrain (or wheel color) suggests. And that’s not a cop out.
The groovy rotors and Brembo calipers move with a linear feel you rarely see in a (once) mundane compact platform. The Mégane R26.R stops as smoothly as it corners: with only 2700 lbs to halt, there’s no doubt the Mégane R26.R can handle hot lapping on the Nürburgring with grace and pace. And that’s precisely where this car excels, offering owners a rewarding but pain-free way to kick butt on any road course. I’m prepared to forgive Renault for importing the LeCar if they sell us the Mégane R26.R.
Or not. In reality, some performance icons are better left to the brand loyalists. Think of this as the French Cobra R: limited quantities and a lofty asking price of $35,000 USD, not including US federalization. And I reckon an immaculate C5 Corvette Z06 is a far superior track toy, with more creature comforts too. And buying one won’t require a degree in International Business.
And unless Honda jump-starts the Sport Compact genre in the United States, this French sweetheart is merely a tease. Too bad then, that Renault made a true masterpiece. The Mégane R26.R is the ultimate econobox expression, sporting credible looks with hard-edged, useable performance. Perhaps one day gas prices will inspire our premium compact platforms to reach for the stars the way this whip-sharp Renault has…. and maybe someday we’ll all get 5-8 weeks of mandatory paid vacation.