Port Elizabeth - Did you know that Renault South Africa occupies fifth place in terms of market share in South Africa in passenger car sales? This is thanks to its popular Sandero, Kwid, Duster and Clio models. Its Megane hatchback, however, never really caught on locally.

The French brand has sold around 25 000 Meganes on local soil since the model’s nameplate was introduced here in the 1990s, but if you compare its sales to the VW Golf or Ford Focus, Megane sales are comparatively poor in this country.

There is a Megane, though, that’s sought-after by South Africans, and this one comes with an R.S. badge.

The new RenaultSport Megane R.S.280 blasts into Renault showrooms across the country, after a track-based media launch at the Aldo Scribante racing circuit in Port Elizabeth earlier this week. Available in two flavours: LUX and CUP, each derivative is pitched at a particular type of petrolhead.

Megane R.S.280 LUX is fitted with a sport chassis and comes as standard with a six-speed EDC (efficient dual clutch) automatic gearbox. It rides on 18-inch alloys as standard.

The more hardcore version for sports purists is the Megane R.S.280 CUP which has a six-speed manual transmission, a firmer chassis with stiffer dampers and it rides on 19-inch alloys from the factory. (You can option the 19s on the LUX at the dealer).

The launch allowed me to sample the LUX model on track and on the road.

First up, all LUX models at the event were running 19-inch wheels and tyres, not the standard-fitment 18s. In any event, the wheel and tyre combo will make a marginal difference to ride and handling as the car is pretty firmly sprung and damped to begin with.

Renault spokesmen say this car is the ideal competitor to the Volkswagen Golf GTI and the Ford Focus ST because for the first time, the hot Megane is available in a five-door.

From a practicality persperctive then, the Megane has the VeeDub and the Ford checked, but what’s it like to drive?

I lined up my car at the Aldo Scribante start/finish line to test its launch control function first. There’s a frenetic series of button-pushing, lever-pulling and pedal-holding involved before you scorch from 0-100km/h in 5.8 seconds (that’s only 0.1 seconds slower than what Honda claims for its manic Type R hatchback).

From the driver’s seat, on Aldo’s freshly tarred surface, the car doesn’t feel fast when launched (wheel-spinning through most of first), but it does pull hard through the gears as it gathers paces beyond 100km/h and up to 200km/h.

The old Megane’s 2.0T engines, however, felt stronger towards the top end of the rev counter where this new 1.8T motor seems to just run out of ‘huff’ before the redline.

The new 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbopetrol engine is rated for 205kW and 390Nm, which actually punches with the more expensive Golf R and Ford Focus. The Megane will take on those hot hatches when it arrives in Trophy format next year, bringing the Megane R.S.280 line-up to three models in total.

From outside to the inside, the R.S.280 is styled like no Megane before it. Yes it’s still uniquely chiselled, but it’s the way the car sits on the road with a slightly wider track under flared front wheel arches. Purposeful sums up its stance nicely.

In terms of specification, it’s packed with everything you’d expect to find in a premium hatchback of this level, including voice control, electrically operated windows and mirrors and a built-in satellite navigation. LED headlights up front, with R.S. Vision LEDS in the lower section of the front bumper are a nice touch.

The seats are also supportive, although the the extra bolstering and padding of the backrest does eat into rear legroom.

Both on track and on the road, the Megane R.S.280 proved extremely fast, yet extremely controllable. 4Control four-wheel-steering, as also fitted on the less powerful Megane GT model, assures nimble handling at low speed (under 60km/h) and stable direction changes at high speed.

The two models launched this week sell for exactly the same price of R549 900, and they come with a three-year/45 000km service plan with service intervals at 10 000km.

Drive360