THERE are some cars that just look brilliantly competent at standstill.
Maybe it's the quirky French styling; the aggressively flared wheel arches or the bright red Brembo four-piston callipers behind sporty black wheels, but Renault's Megane RS 250 Cup simply screams speed and ability.
The RS badges on its bulbous rump and curvy nose speak volumes.
They stand for Renault Sport, and anything that goes through them – the motorsport division of Renault – is bound to get the pulse racing.
After all, the same company provides the engines for Mark Webber's and Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull F1 cars.
History has shown that the French build hot hatches like no one else. Models such as the Renault 5 and Peugeot 205 GTi have become icons thanks to their heady mix of performance, handling ability and value for money, and the Megane RS 250 Cup stays true to these principles.
And it has excelled in its sector. The RS 250 in Cup Trophee guise recently secured the Drive Car of the Year Best Performance Under $60,000 award, beating off such talents as the new Ford Focus RS, Subaru Impreza WRX, VW Golf GTi and Holden Commodore SS-V, much to many people's surprise.
After a few hours' play time along some of our finest hinterland roads in the new RS 250 Cup, I soon appreciated why the sporty Megane hatchback upset the opposition. It's a no-compromise track-inspired racer for the road, and you'd struggle to climb into much else this competent and aggressive-looking in the sub-$45,000 price range.
Looking the part
French car makers aren't shy when it comes to ‘out there' design; sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The previous-generation Megane had a rear end only a blind mother could love, but these post-2008 Meganes offer less controversy while maintaining Renault's required sense of individuality.
The RS 250 Cup takes these appealing looks and adds steroids. My test car couldn't have looked racier dressed in white over black wheels, and the whole stylish body is a satisfying blend of sweeps, curves and muscles.
Its back-end design is a triumph over previous Megane efforts, with a pleasingly racy form and centre-exit single chrome exhaust outlet beneath the rear bumper.
Up front the nose benefits from Renault Sport's racing technology, with an F1-derived aerodynamic spoiler beneath LED day-time running lights and very sporty black front-end shield.
It sits very squat and purposefully on its lowered suspension, and looks big and particularly wide for a hot hatch. It's one of those cars that begs to be driven.
On the road
Pulling out of the Renault dealership's forecourt and onto Maroochydore's pothole-ridden Sugar Road gave me an idea of what I was in for. These RS 250 Cup's have been designed with the race track in mind, and stiff suspension combined with low-profile tyres don't equal a smooth ride on such roads.
Yet, compared to other race-bred cars, the RS 250 mops up road imperfections fairly well, but for the sake of my internal organs the sooner I left the city streets behind the better.
Once onto the Bruce Highway the little Renault started to shine. With its twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder good for 184kW (or 250bhp, hence the RS 250 name), reaching silly speeds in no time was scarily easy. According to Renault's figures, the 0-100kmh dash can be reached in a shade over six seconds, and at times it feels even quicker.
Yet it always felt remarkably composed on the open road. It gets you there quickly, but doesn't feel like its ripping you apart in the process, like other rapid turbo offerings. For a hot hatch – dare I say it – at times it even felt rather sensible.
Not so through the twisties. There's a satisfyingly brash engine note up in the higher rev range, and it was a real hoot to pilot on the undulating asphalt around Maleny. Brilliantly composed, highly accurate steering and incredibly precise turn-in; the RS 250 was at home in this environment.
Renault has spent big providing an excellent chassis here, and the big Brembo brakes are superb for a car in this price range.
A lot of power goes through its front wheels so I wasn't surprised to experience a smidge of torque steer while moving through the gears with a bit of enthusiasm, but never enough to spoil a truly thrilling ride. Bargain performance: that's what these hot hatches are all about.
The RS 250's interior has enough special features to remind you you're piloting something special here, but it doesn't go overboard.
The best aspect for me were its cloth and suede bucket seats that successfully combined the right amount of comfort with impressive support. Even when G-forces were up through fast turns, my butt stayed planted, allowing me to focus on the drive.
The chunky leather steering wheel was suitably sporty; as were the short-throw gear stick and drilled aluminium pedals. A bright yellow tachometer won't appeal to all, and the slanting dash dials take some getting used to, but attractive yellow stitching and carbon-effect detailing are nice touches.
Rear visibility is a bit lacking, as is rear legroom, but this is a sports car for heaven's sake, and it would be silly to expect such sensible features. But boot space is excellent for a hot hatch so you could easily enjoy a blast to the supermarket for the weekly shop.
Under $45,000 for this low-kilometre RS 250 screams “performance bargain” to me. These ballistic Meganes deserve their recent award wins as great all-rounders with enough performance to satisfy the boy/girl racer in us all.
It's a performance car that still feels refined and almost sensible when not exploring the turbo's full talents, and could you ever get tired of its quirky be-muscled looks?
It's a hot hatch par excellence as the French would say, and one that stylishly continues the tradition of great driving fun for very little money.
Model: 2010 Renault Megane RS 250 Cup.
Details: Two-door front-wheel drive three-door hot hatch.
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 16v with twin-scroll turbocharger generating 184kW @ 5500rpm and 340Nm @ 3000rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual with Limited Slip Differential.
Performance: 0-100kmh in 6.1 seconds, 245kmh top speed.
Consumption: 8.7 litres/100km.
Bottom line: $44,990 drive away from Garry Crick Renault, 88 Sugar Road, Maroochydore, (07) 5450 3300 www.cricks.com.au. Ex-dealer demo car with 3300km on the clock and includes floor mats and tinted windows.
More motoring can be found at Drive.com.au.
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