What's it about?
In essence, it is the commercialising of Renault's 2006 F1 constructor's championship-winning R26 car. In practice, it is the latest, marvelously sorted version of the turbocharged 2-litre Renault Megane hot hatch.
Although previous Megane Sport and Renaultsport F1 Team versions were awfully quick, they were also plagued by awfully rubbish steering. And this was unfortunate, for Renault has an enviable reputation with regards to building formidable hot hatches.
Fortunately, the technophiles at Renaultsport in Dieppe, France, decided to import some Japanese manufactured differential trickery from across the water, which has changed things a lot.
Technically it is still pretty much standard fare super-quick Megane. You get a 2-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine producing 169kW (compared with the 165-kW
Sport version), driving the front wheels through a six-speed gearbox.
F1 constructors' championship winning wreaths visually adorn the car, and the roof and bumpers are curiously covered with square design collages. And it is very, very lurid in the Yellow finish our test unit was finished in. The red Brembo brake calibers do look fabulous behind the gunmetal 18-inch mags, though.
You either love or hate the Megane shape, and the added visual drama of the R26 finish will polarise opinion even further, endearing it strongly to fans and providing styling detractors with more derogatory ammunition.
It does look a lot different to the current crop of hot hatches though, which means you won't lose yours in a shopping mall parking lot littered with VW Golf GTIs, for instance.
The interior is shockingly standard for a vehicle brandishing special edition insignia though. Barring the Recaro front bucket seats, an F1 team chassis plaque (ours was number 1 467) and some red stitching on the steering wheel, it remains run-of-the-mill Megane.
This means you also get a ludicrously stiff handbrake, seatback adjusters that are impossible to reach around the side bolsters of the bucket seats and a ridiculously tall shifter for the six-speed gearbox.
Pedal placement is neat enough though and the cabin remains decently equipped.
Under the bonnet
So it looks as conspicuous as somebody with a mullet hairstyle at a Sandhurst Estate tea party, and the interior is as mixed and matched as the current Protea selection criteria, but the R26's raison d'être is driving - quickly. This is something it does very well, too.
Chiefly responsible for this performance is the R26's key distinguishing feature - its GKN Driveline-sourced limited-slip differential. This ensures at least a third of the available torque is sent to the front-wheel with the least traction during hard driving.
Powerful front-wheel drive cars usually suffer handling abnormalities simply because asking two wheels to both steer a car and transfer, in the case of the R26, 310 Nm to the road is akin to asking Paris Hilton to think and breathe simultaneously. It's not really going to happen.
Inevitably, spirited driving causes the inside wheel on any given corner to simply spin away the torque before claiming your no-claim insurance bonus as you understeer into an Armco barrier. With a limited-slip differential you have torque spread control, and once you have the corner apex in your line of sight, power can be liberally applied without fear of consequence. In theory.
On the road
Rolling on 235/40R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres instead of the Dunlop SportMaxxes used on the F1 team version, the ride is hard, but the more communicative steering feel is also immediately noticeable.
Powering on, the clutch action is light too and the six-speed gearbox, despite its oddly tall shifter, is easy to slot up and down through the shift gate. The 2-litre engine pulls strongly from about 2 500r/min with a purposely audible whooshing sound from the turbo.
Although it produces peak power at a low 5 500r/min, the 2-litre turbo motor is always keen to be stirred along with alacrity, which means you arrive at corners a lot earlier than expected, which is where things went awry with the previous Megane F1.
The numb steering might not be completely cured, but the flatness of R26's turn-in ability is stunning. You simply flick it in, the front end grips, and there is virtually no body roll as you power on through without any wheel scrabble either.
It's incredible what a change of tyres and differential can do.
If the steering was imbued with more feel I think you would actually scare yourself stupid with the razor-like chassis responses. Of the current crop of hot hatches, the Honda Civic Type R might have crisper steering feel, but very few can match the neutrality of the R26's body control.
With its quintessentially oddball French styling, eye-popping colour schemes and garish graphics the R26 is an oddity in the current top-end hot hatch market.
Despite a very average interior and some packaging foibles no doubt compounded by the slotting in of Recaro sports seats, the R26 is essentially, bar the harsh ride, an easy hot hatch to live with from day to day.
On choice roads though, the highly tractable turbo motor and vice-free handling are epically rewarding. You find yourself tapping the F1 team chassis number name plaque located behind the handbrake religiously each time you get into it. R26 grows on you.
Whereas previous Megane hot hatches have all been fast but rather severe and unyielding rogues, the R26 is the first one which really convinces. It is a disarmingly loveable rogue, and if you don't mind Renault's after sales service reputation (which the company claims is in the process of being overhauled) this is the most individualistic hot hatch you can buy.
Very tractable turbomotor
'Switzerland' neutral front-wheel drive handling
Renault specialist parts and servicing