DTW tries on a little silver number from Renault.
The apparently irrelevant preamble
In all good faith, motoring writers tend to fixate on problems much as the princess fixated on the pea. For those of us interested in cars, that’s fine: we are also little picky princesses, to a man. Merely knowing that there is some small aspect of a vehicle that impedes its theoretical performance around Thruxton on a dry day is enough to earn a definitive seal of disapproval. That is even if the aspect is wholly unrelated to the intent of the vehicle in question.
I’ve been guilty of this myself, as I’ve sat in a variety of cars and nit picked over all-but-invisible tool split lines on plastic trim in the boot or wondered whether that 1mm design solution under the bumper is at all acceptable on a car costing, ooh, twelve grand. This long preamble is my way of saying this: I don’t want my previous cries of wolf to diminish the central message of this little essay. That point is: the Renault Megane is quite a noticeably bad car.
On the positive side, the Megane looks more than pleasing inside and out. It was among Patrick Le Quement’s last efforts and he pulled out stops and turned over stones to make sure there was nothing visually unsettling about the car. The photo appended shows quite a rakish beast, one as swept back and swoopy as the antecedent was upright and, yea, verily like unto a Dalek. I quite liked the old car but felt its cleverly unorthodox appearance was not matched any of the rest of it.
Simultaneous engineering, it seems
So, as we gaze at the Megane we sense that it looks good in a conventionally contemporary kind of way. And sitting inside the car we discover a low-set driver’s seat, a bang-up-the-moment dashboard, no sodding ashtray and quite comfortable seats for all aboard. The handbrake gets in the way of your elbow. Wasn’t CAD and simultaneous engineering supposed to avoid this kind of fouling? The handbrake gaiter is comically baggy and simply obtrusively unaesthetic, shall we say.
The payback for the marked sculptural activity around the rear is that the interior of the car is sclerotically reduced. The thick plastic trim (for your comfort and above all, for your convenience) eats into the interior space, worsening the effect of the marked tumblehome. This was bad on the last model and its worse again now. Plus ca change, plus les choses sont un p’tit peu idiotiques. But enough of the static. We can live with handbrakes nudging our elbows and lousy rear visibility. We can live without an ashtray. That’s what footwells are there for. Now let’s see how the dynamics are.
Which version was he driving?
The Megane I tested had no markings on it so I can’t tell you what sort of an engine was fitted though I´m fairly sure it was a petrol. My years of driving have taught me above all that if you want to know how many speeds a car’s gearbox has then look at the big wand jutting from the centre console. You can write that tip down as it may come in useful. Let’s just say this was the silver Megane 5-door in Anonymé trim with the six speed box.
When you start the car everything goes wrong and stays wrong. The first impediment here was the gearbox. After speed two I was lost. I don’t think the problem is intrinsic to it being a six speeder. I’ve sampled the Mondeo 2.0 Ecotec with the six-speeder and, apart from feeling like number five was supernumery, we got on fine. You could ignore the extra cog and get on with your motoring life without anything getting crunchy. (I think the Ford just had a second fifth gear).
The Megane was not like this, not at all. Once I was under way I was lost in the labyrinth of cogs. Anything could happen apart from the road speed and engine speed being in harmony. Ford have been clever: they’ve offered a sixth speed you can forget about once you’ve paid the extra nine hundred quid for it at the dealer. “Yeah, great car. Six speeds but as easy as driving a five speeder….”
Renault have created a truly irritating interface which left me unsure where I was and what I was doing there precisely. Alas, the blame for some of this falls to the talented men and women of the motoring press who know how to shift cogs really well. Most us aren’t like this. We want and we need carefully engineered pabulum. Sometimes improvements that help the expert benefit the layman. Sometimes they just cock up a good compromise.
The five speed box is one of those good compromises now being upwardly cocked.. Expect them to be a rarity on all but the worst cars in ten years. Some cars now have seven speeds, making me think of the men’s razor with five blades. I ask you.
I still haven’t explained how I hated the digital speedo which caught my eye every time my speed changed. Which was all the time. There’s a principle in ergonomics which is that displays should only tell you about important changes in state. They shouldn’t repeatedly flicker in your eye to tell you that hey, things are pretty much as they were a second ago.
Another ergonomic offence is the control to change the ventilator speed. It takes ten pushes of a tiny button to change the speed from off to max. And you have keep your eyes fixed on a little graphic to see that the speed has altered. There’s little acoustic feedback from the vents themselves. I don’t want to sound all mimsy, but crashing a car because you had your eyes pointed at a little fan graphic down by your knees is a stupid way to die.
Renault’s key card remains an unhelpful novelty. It’s still possible to get out with the key card and leave the engine running. Folks with hearing difficulties must do this every day. Someone hasn’t told Renault.
Finally, I move to the worst part of Renault’s new and disimproved Megane. The ride. The best you can say about it is that when the car is stopped the car is quite comfortable. As soon as rubber starts to roll you can feel your skull and spine in mutually opposed vertical conflict. All the suspension did was to keep the car and the road apart. Apart from that, it transmitted faithfully each crack, dip and pock through the body and the steering column. This last pathway added a new irritation, the feeling of a perceptible (though small) looseness between the steering column and its mountings.
Volvos since before they were round
I like my dad but my dad knows truly, absolutely nothing about cars. He has driven Volvos since 1992. The one exception was a short spell in a Merc 190D which he crashed without knowing it was rear drive. He wouldn’t be able to recognise ride comfort even if the Golf Channel paid Tiger Woods to discuss it until Mrs Woods took him back (I’m assuming she hasn’t and won’t ever. I know nothing about golf). Well, even my dad complained after a ten minute ride on smooth German country roads. I had a mild headache.
Here is a car with ride comfort so appalling and so appallingly out of tune with the car’s remit that surely even ordinary punters will actually notice. They must. Can they not notice this Megane is markedly worse than their 1999 version? All but ten of them will do nothing more with this car than simply trundle about, take it in for services and maybe drive to Penrith or Calais once or twice. They don’t need a car that feels as if it’s got suspension ready to tackle the St Gotthard Pass.
And I say “feels” because the truth is the suspension isn’t up to more than the softest of beatings. All that dry bone, felt and wood in the bushings, tyres and shock absorbers haven’t endowed the Renault with any detectable extra competence in the handling stakes.
Renault have listened to motoring writers and got it all wrong. Once their cars rode beautifully for the negligible cost of their not being able to break track day records. Now their cars still can’t hammer the competition at Oulton Park but won’t bring you back from Tesco without making your brain bleed. And this is the sad part: motorists have listened to the people who listen to motoring writers and they’ve got it all wrong too.
I think Renault’s buyers now expect a punishing ride. It will make them feel like they are real drivers and that their motor car is not just another moderately attractive mainstream family hatch.
The bit where the keys are handed back
I wouldn’t worry about any of this were it not for the fact that misplaced engineering solutions have a way of spreading if it looks like someone is selling more cars on the back of them. Look at that pointless Skoda hatch-saloon liftgate, for example. Or seven speed gearboxes, for that matter.
I can only hope that Renault’s attempt at sporty handling is so unsuccessful that it will compel them to reconsider their core competence, comfy cars that don’t last more than six years. Who would want a built-for-life Renault that drove as badly as the new Megane?
[This article was originally posted elsewhere, March 2011 .]
SELECTED COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POSTING:
Seant: ” …I shall comment, making no apologies that I didn’t comment before, since I was away from the site and have only just seen this. A beautifully written put down of this, and by implication, so many other misguided current cars that try to seduce the average punter, who lives in fear that he will meet Jeremy Clarkson in a car park, that they need something that looks as if it can be hammered. Although I am convinced that history will prove us right, and that this era will be seen as a slide into irrelevance and decadence, with the motor industry perfectly reflecting the general zeitgeist, that is of little consolation. I am just glad that you, and several others on this site, let me know that I am not alone.”
I replied: ”
I’m glad you found it a good read. It seems few others have noticed this. A big surprise for me was the variance between the car as I found it and the car as described in a variety of journals. I didn’t expect to find the vehicle so cramped or uncomfortable or ergonomically inadequate. Which Meganes did the Fourth Estate test if it wasn’t the one I drove? I don’t want to blithely say that all car journalists are plain wrong. They’ve got a much broader frame of reference than I can ever have. By the same token, might it not be possible that motoring scribes are missing something that, say, an alert layman might observe, precisely because they’ve sampled such extreme vehicles? Perhaps because they use the Mohr’s hardness scale to split minor differences between Porsches and Audi RS8s they are unsuited to parsing what’s needed down at the coalface of motoring. The average motorist ought to notice the design flaws that make the current Megane, for example, about 50% less useful and pleasant than the 1996 example, even if the new one has plastics from the same supplier as Audi.
Russel Bulgin, bless him, was a fine and lively writer but he might have been the one to start discussing panel gaps and plastics in the popular press. Audi and VW did well from this. But surgical-quality plastic doesn’t make a car better to drive or use. And Clarkson and his other petrol head peers (in inverted commas) were the ones who’ve turned car journalism into showbusiness where speed and flashiness are the only parameters. This has not been a recipe for good cars: the Megane is one product of this unhappy development.”
Lokinen: “Years of teaching both novices and seasoned drivers to learn or improve their driving led me to notice pretty quickly that male drivers feel a macho need to wrap their hand around the gear lever and forcibly manhandle the lever around the gate with no regard for the natural assistance built in. Simple tip, no matter how many gears, let go of the lever when it’s in the central plain and it will ” Always ” return back to the central position where it simply requires some forward pressure for 3rd and backward pressure for 4th. I even have to remind myself of this occasionally….but it always works.
I’ve often pondered the apparent lack of real direction of the French motor industry. When I think of French cars I always think of suspension. Perhaps the problem is that there aren’t the cobbled roads or ploughed fields that required the type of suspension that they were renowned for and consequently the thing they were good at is no longer required.
Personally and especially after a few years of Citroen ownership, the conclusion was that the clever French tech was mostly gimmicky with no real actual use in the real world. I used to raise the suspension on my Xantia whilst sat on my drive for my own amusement and to see if it still worked. Had no other use for it and actually it was that very lack of use that became it’s downfall as the height actuaters seized eventually. Other gimmicks which Citroen quickly dropped were the rotating drum speedo and headlights that moved with steering.Whilst the last might not seem to be a gimmick, on a Citroen it was as the engineering was such that it wouldn’t stay operational for long enough to be more than a showroom party trick.
Renault tech has been let down for many years by it’s absolutely appalling poor electronics. Commiserations to you if you have a Renault with electronic gearbox gizmo’s or a model with a digital dash….”
I replied: “Quite a lot of people bought Citroens to tow trailers. The height adjustment comes in handy then. And over laneways with a high central ridge you can raise the height to clear this. Personally I have raised the height of the car to help my parents (in their seventies) into the car. They rather like this feature. The rotating drum speedo was harmless fun.
About the electronics Lokinen is on to something. The current overload is going to really place a limit on these cars’ longevity without adding anything useful during the service life. Bad roads are still with us, especially if you live outside of Germany. The UK has some really ruined surfaces and it amazes me no-one has more seriously addressed this. In fact, the worse the roads get the harder the average suspension setting seems to be. The French were brow beaten into giving up their comfort USP by journalists impressed with German cars (which do suit Germany very well). Thus we have the humorous situation in Ireland (from where I hail) where the most sought after cars have suspensions utterly unsuited to the small, rough roads that are usual there.”