The company, which likes to think of itself as the automotive equivalent of the Marseillaise — ie that Renault is to French car-making what l’Hymne National is to patriotism — has hit various purple patches down the years, but the 1980s and ’90s was a particularly potent time for the company.
During those heady years Renault consolidated its position as one of Europe’s leading manufacturers with a series of cars which were not only innovative, but breaking completely new ground. The Regie National des Usines Renault, as the company had become after de Gaulle nationalised it out from under the Renault family, became a powerhouse of design ingenuity and sales success.
Unfortunately, a golden era featuring the likes of the Espace, Clio, Twingo, Scenic, turbocharging, and Megane, died away and while the originals of those cars and technologies were classics of their time, what followed was not.
Despite being privatised once more in 1996, poor product quality dogged the brand and even killed off several models — remember the Renault 14? — but thanks to a very productive alliance with Nissan (which it purchased in 1999) and the firm hand of boss Carlos Ghosn on the corporate tiller, the company has once more turned a corner.
With such SUV hits as the Captur and the Kadjar, as well as revitalised stock models such as the Clio, Twingo, Scenic, and so forth, Renault is now, it would appear, well into another golden era and the test car we’re trying this week would tend to suggest this epoch might be with us for a while.
Now the Megane has always competed gamely with the likes of Ford Focus and VW Golf without ever replicating the vast sales numbers achieved by those behemoths of the family car genre, but it sold well in the various guises afforded it down the years while not really troubling the big boys.
It might have been snazzy (one of the first cars to have keyless operation), good looking, and techie (it had satnav before most of us plebs knew what that was), but there was always the impression — misguided or otherwise — that it was not the same build quality league as its main rivals and did not have the same clout in terms of residual values either.
And, as any self-respecting driver will tell you, it did not have the same appeal as an on-road experience as the VW or the Ford. Well, let me tell you now, you can forget the old misgivings you had about the Megane because a new one is here and it is damn good.
But let us not lose the run of ourselves here, because by comparison with previous Meganes, the new car is better looking, better built, and nicer to drive.
But — and it’s a big but — has it gotten any closer to the top dogs in the segment?
I believe it has — quite a deal closer in fact — but there is still something of a gap between the new Renault and its primary targets and this may well be due to a critical element of its DNA. French cars have traditionally preferred comfort over driver engagement and the new Megane, unsurprisingly, follows this well-trodden path.
If you want something with bags of grip and body control, you’ll have to look elsewhere because, even in GT Line trim as tested, the Megane does not come close to the class leaders.
It handles quite well, but the ride is very mushy and you feel, as so often is the case with Gallic machinery, that the focus during the design process was to end up with a car which glided rather than gripped.
This is fine for a lot of family requirements on great surfaces where Aunty Mabel would adore the tremendously comfortable rear seats on a balmy Sunday afternoon trip; but her cucumber sambos might not be resting as easy when she’s getting bounced around in the back on ragged Irish by-roads where the set-up’s flaws become quickly obvious.
Engaging ‘sport’ mode does tighten things up a little bit, but cannot overcome what appears to me to be a basic design flaw.
And, I do have to say that the Megane’s mega-sensitive lane-change warning system was a real pain in the ass. The Renault is not alone in this regard as all too many such systems — a complete waste of time, in my view, and an excellent example of safety consciousness gone mad — are too intrusive and annoying.
I also had a minor quibble with the automatic low/high beam lights which I felt were not quite intuitive enough for my liking and in the end I turned off the ‘auto’ function and did it manually.
Auto lights, lane-changing warning, and ride and handling aside, then, what was good about the car? Well, aside from the excellent exterior looks, Renault has made big strides on the quality of the interior. Gone are those awful scratchy, plastic surfaces and instead you’re presented with chic, tactile, and pleasing surroundings.
The seating too is excellent and the engine — the very familiar 1.5 DCi unit with 1120 bhp, which is almost ubiquitous across the Renault and Nissan ranges at this stage — is very easy to live with and, let’s not be shy about it, extract the most from.
It is a very willing partner and while performance is not too far removed from pedestrian (11.2 seconds 0-100km/h and top speed of 188) it is still a smooth and relatively entertaining package.