Monday, February 17, 2014

Don't Be Gentle, it’s a Renault Megane Rental

One perk of my day job is travelling to warm test tracks during the colder months of the year. A trip to a semi-exotic location driving a late model rental car is my best opportunity to sample Beaters-to-be before the original owners drive them into a lake. At the rental desk, I express no vehicular preference. My fate lies in the hands of a friendly middle-aged Spanish woman holding a square piece of plastic that apparently unlocks and starts an almost new Renault Megane (apparently pronounce MAY-ghan) hatch back. My first time behind the wheel of a French car is about to begin.

First impression is this thing is pretty ordinary rental hardware. Most rentals are strippers fortunate to have cruise control and this one is no different. The interior is black on black with just enough soft touch materials to not feel desperately cheap. The controls are intuitive enough to allow near immediate drive off though the cruise control on/off switch is oddly placed next to the center arm rest. I was hoping for an array of amusing French features but find only small under floor storage compartments for front passengers and the strange electronic key. Electronic keys and fobs are decades old but the Renault approach is different. The combined key and fob is roughly credit card size if you stack five cards together. It’s way too large to comfortably fit in a wallet and takes up a lot of room in your pocket. Ok, it’s French and I don’t need to understand it.

Fortunately, the center cluster has a convenient place to stick the key, and the car won’t start before it’s inserted. Press the clutch pedal and the Engine Start button and the 100hp diesel sputters to life. Once inserted, the key can be removed at any time and removing the key doesn't shut the car down. Confusing ignition status further is the Start-Stop system. If you haven’t had the pleasure, Start-Stop kills the motor while resting, like at a stop light. Pressing the clutch pedal to engage first gear re-fires the motor and by the time you drop the clutch it’s ready to go. This French car arrives at a red light and literally surrenders. The one fly in the soup-de-jour is that the car doesn’t know the difference between a red light and a parking space. With the car successfully parked, I simply removed the key and attempted to exit which re-fired the motor. Pressing the Engine start button before removing the key seemed to be the only way to turn the car off. Apparently, an interlock to prevent the key from being removed while ignition is ON, wasn’t in the budget.

Once rolling, the little diesel and six speed manual trans work adequately, if slowly. By American standards the car isn't just slow, it makes a Prius feel sporting which encourages a drive-it-like-a-rental mentality of WOT launches and red line shifts to get anywhere. Fortunately, the shifter is pleasant enough to row and the engine is refined at high (4,000) rpms because you'll be doing a lot of it to keep up with traffic. Nearly everything I've driven in Europe has a small displacement diesel and the gearing of the Renault felt oddly short in comparison. Highway merging requires frenetic shifting that feels like I'm working harder than the Renault mill. I’d say the gearing should be wider, but that might make it even slower.

Once onto the highway selecting the cruise control, speed limiter, or neither is made with a switch next to the hand-brake. Setting the cruise control illuminates strange green lights ringing the speedometer. Pressing the go pedal to accelerate above the set speeds turns the green lights off and turns other lights around the speedo red. Why? C’st le vie. Road noise and ride at highway speed are tolerable but not inspiring. Initial ride impression is quite soft with just enough damping to prevent it from being Dodge Dynasty floaty. Impact harshness over small events is heard more than it’s felt. Overall, highway ride is slightly better than an ‘80s Ford Taurus.

Sadly, driving the Megane in a straight line is difficult. I don't know why so many cars with electric power steering can’t get it right but the Megane has all the problems of EPS combined. On-center steering efforts are light and response is poor, making it hard to find one steering angle that will achieve a straight trajectory. Small inputs are often meaningless, until the dead zone is taken up and the vehicle suddenly jumps half a lane. Some kind of dead zone on-center is normal but there’s no change in steering effort to match the car’s response. Driving straight ahead on a flat highway is a constant ping-ponging between the untellable input that shifts the car right and then left. Steering effort does increase off-center but not in any way that feels like what the car is actually doing. It’s like playing Daytona USA if the race track was straight and the race car had no power.

More frustrating is the steering’s tendency to freeze in place for a moment. Occasionally, when I managed to hold a constant steering angle for more than one second the steering kind of gets caught and it takes a noticeable effort to break it free. When it breaks free, the steering wheel then jerks to the side you're pulling on throwing the car into the next lane. Several manufactures have had recalls for this, usually to try and detect the situation and increase the assist from the e-motor. This does nothing to really fix the issue, just reduce the jerk when it happens. It’s horribly frustrating and happened about every other day I drove the car.

Once off the highway and onto winding roads the steering and ride felt more at ease. The steering efforts build nicely when driven aggressively in a corner but still feels artificial. Body roll is present but not excessive and the car handles changes in direction with more composure than I expected given the soft highway ride. Over bumpy pavement the ride was surprisingly good, although pot holes are more heard than felt. Separating what the driver hears and feels through seat and steering wheel is difficult when evaluating ride. The ride of the Megane was surprisingly good, if you can ignore the clunking sounds it makes over bumps. My daily route to the work site included a half dozen serious speed bumps and here the Megane really surprised. Lesser rental cars slow down to around 40kph to avoid passenger vomiting or bodily harm, and bodily harm is the limit to which rental cars are pressed on this road. The Megane handled them at nearly 80kph. The suspension doesn't steer, ride, or handle particularly well but it clears speed bumps like the General Lee jumps creeks.

Getting out of the driver’s seat and taking a step back I can’t help notice that this is a big car compared to what French hatch-backs once were. It’s tall, wide, and even without a trunk, fairly long. The hatch area is small with room for two small suit cases and not much else. The lack of boot space is acceptable for a hatch, but it feels odd to me when the rest of the car is so big. The Megane is not alone, as its competition has grown larger as well. It's as if while most dimensions increased, the trunk space stayed put. Of course the rear seats can be folded down if you're lacking passengers. Opting for the Megane wagon seems a more sensible choice as it’s really not much longer and you can carry people and cargo at the same time.

Fuel consumption is important to renters and the Megane did well, reporting just over 6 L/100km (39mpg) of spirited driving although not all the diesel made it to the motor. I don’t know if maximum g roundabouts or huge speed bumps were the culprit, but the capless fuel filler wasn't able to contain all that diesel. After two days the passenger side was coated with diesel residue. Also, the fuel gage isn't perfectly accurate and allowed me to drive 100km after filling the tank while still reporting fully filled.

Otherwise the Megane was a reasonable rental beater. Linking my phone to the sound system via Bluetooth was easy even with the controls in Spanish and it recognized my phone and restarted the music automatically when I returned to car. While I think it’s an attractive car it doesn't really stand out or inspire looks of appreciation.

I had high hopes for two weeks of French motoring and walked away disappointed. I wanted something different with funky displays, a plush ride, light and responsive steering, and tossable handling. What I got was unremarkable except for its ability to negate speed bumps. There was nothing to really set it apart from a Hyundai or Opel other than panel fit like a ‘90s Chrysler. If I need a used large-ish hatch in five years I think I’ll look for a Focus or Guiletta for unassuming European commuting.

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