Most powerful engine versus most admired chassis – the rationale for a classic twin test confrontation doesn’t get much stronger. It only muddies the waters to say that one car is a just-out Mercedes at £52k and the other is a Renault approaching its best-by date that is £20,000 less… So we will ignore the badges, and the prices, and concentrate instead on what this odd couple is like to drive. Which when all is said and done, when the toys have lost their novelty value, the neighbours have lost their interest and the cars have lost their showroom gleam, is all that really matters.
The hook was the UK launch of the latest Renaultsport Megane 265. With its tidier nose design and equipment rethink it didn’t warrant a launch but any excuse to get back behind the wheel of what is, by common consent, the most rewarding of hot hatches is fine by us. I had to drive there in something so why not the Mercedes A45 AMG, which came out last year but which has thus far escaped our scrutiny. They are rivals aren’t they? A bit?
The A45 AMG is Mercedes’ smallest, sportiest, theoretically youngest AMG model. And, yes, it’s hot (a mind-bending, record-beating 355bhp from its turbo 2.0-litre lump) and it has a hatchback, but we are not about to call it a hot hatch; it’s certainly a long way from the traditional pocket rocket that Renault has done so much to define. The Merc is five doors and four-wheel drive, has two pedals and a paddleshift and is more chunky than pretty sitting on its 18-inch alloys. It’ll do almost 170mph.
The three-door Renault is more sleek coupe by comparison, on the outside at least. On the inside it’s dreary and looks, well, about £20,000 less of a car than the exquisitely detailed and made Merc. Apart from its terrific Recaro seats that is – I preferred them to the almost equally well bolstered chairs in the AMG, and I thought the driving position in the Renault slightly better as well. The Renault is front drive of course, has a healthy 261bhp from its blown 2.0-litre engine, three pedals and a shiny-topped lever sprouting between the front seats to manage the six forward ratios. As tested it came with Cup chassis pack of sport suspension, mechanical limited slip diff and, like the Merc, 18-inch wheels.
‘As tested’ is a telling phrase for both cars. The (essential) Cup pack for the Renault is £1350 and is just one of the items (those Recaros are optional too, at £1300) that helps push RRP of £26,925 to a not-too OTT £31,665. Renault are obviously beginners at the options game. The test Mercedes (starting price £38,190) came with a very OTT £13,400 worth of bits and bobs, many of them carbon, some of them a bit bling, and including every gadget you never knew you needed. None of which I will bore you with here. This has to be about the driving.
Both these cars are decently quick. The Renault is as fast as you think it ought to be with 261bhp, the Mercedes not quite as quick as you imagine it should be with another hundred horsepower. Weight accounts for some of that – the Merc is 150kg up on the Renault – as does brilliant all-roads, all-weather traction. Deploying the Merc’s mighty firepower is totally drama-free, and largely without ESP interference. But it’s not a particularly responsive engine and off-boost can actually feel a bit flat. We won’t take issue with the Merc’s claimed 0-62mph time of just 4.6 seconds, but subjectively it never feels that fast. Mercedes engineers would consider that a victory.
Swapping cogs is fast and efficient and the brakes are formidable, despite slightly overservoed pedal feel. It steers smoothly and obediently, a little stabilising understeer very occasionally putting in a welcome appearance if you’re really tanking on. The ride is firm, sometimes hard, but with exceptionally precise control, and – a surprise this – road noise is low. In fact the Renault has more rubber on the road than the Merc and is always much noisier. In the immensely tall seventh gear the AMG will cruise in a very refined manner, and at 35mpg. The Renault is not as refined though with care can be as economical.
In great contrast the Renault feels every bit as quick as it is. The engine is less obviously turbocharged, always more responsive, feels just as strong and willing at the top end and is better sounding – though it can’t match the Merc’s one aural party trick of a purposeful exhaust snort on full-bore upchanges.
You are kept a lot busier in the French car than the AMG. It’s big power output for a front-driver and it copes with it well. But nowhere near as clinically as the all-wheel drive Mercedes. On the bumpy and wet backroads of our test route there was work to be done in the Renault by the LSD, the ESP and the PBW (person behind wheel) in order to get the power down and keep the thing pointing straight. God it was fun!
The steering is more responsive and communicative than the Merc’s, despite being similarly electrically assisted, and the Megane’s agility is always more impressive, even if it is sometimes accompanied by some torque steer. There’s almost as much steering available under the right foot, so wonderfully adjustable is the chassis. All this plus you have to change gears for yourself. In truth it’s not a great manual gearchange but it fits the rest of the car – better anyway than would the current paddleshift box from the Clio RS. Fingers crossed that sharpens up its act by the time the Megane inevitably goes digital with the new model due next year.
You want driver involvement? The Renault overwhelms you with it, and it doesn’t much matter what speed and which road. You can’t help but feel sporty when driving it. The Megane is showing its age in lots of ways but still the penalties for such seat-of-the-pants driving appeal are relatively few – few enough to make buying the latest Megane RS a very viable thing to do.
The frustrating thing about the Mercedes is that it too can offer an involving drive, even a forgiving and exploitable chassis, but you have to go out of your way to find them. Which basically means having to drive unsocially fast, such is the car’s awesome grip and neutrality. That makes it a phenomenally quick and secure ground coverer, one that’s sophisticated, quiet and mostly comfortable, but not an engagingly sporting car. For most of the time you’re in a Mercedes, one with harder ride and exhaust pops.
A winner then? The Renault makes a great sporting hatch. Still. The A45 makes a pretty good AMG. It’s nice that you get all that AMG stands for in a small package, though it would be helpful if the price was a bit smaller, too. So which would we go for? Obvious really: as much as we admire the Mercedes, for a sporting road car it has to be more about the getting there than the arriving. For pure driving satisfaction you’d have to have the Renault.