Twenty years on, DTW recalls the shock factor of the mundanely named but highly distinctive Renault Mégane II.
I have had in mind to write something about the Mégane II for a while now, but other distractions have prevented me from doing so. Then, in starting to do some research on the subject, I came across ‘The Surge’ series on Christopher Butt’s irresistible ‘Design Field Trip’. As a result, I nearly didn’t bother writing this piece, because Christopher and Patrick le Quément (no less!) have put together the definitive articles on the boldest C-segment hatchback design since the Golf. However, I decided to carry on so that, if nothing else, this piece can act as a signpost to that series of articles.
The Mégane II went on sale in October 2002, replacing the successful original range of cars of that name. For a car required to sell in high volumes at relatively modest margins to generate a profit, it was a bold and yet very well-judged piece of design. When Car Magazine reviewed it as a newcomer in November 2002, they and le Quément made the point that they would rather one in ten potential customers loved the car and bought it than for it to end up as a second or third choice on everyone’s ‘to buy’ list. As it happened, the second-generation Mégane did rather better than that.
The story told via ‘The Surge’ is that the look of the Mégane II was at least a decade in the making. It was prefaced by the Vel Satis concept car of the mid-nineties, an amuse-bouche which whetted the appetite of the motoring world. Somehow, the design team on that concept managed to capture a very modern interpretation of what a truly French car should look like, without being at all retro.
Then came that most delightful of (sadly) white elephants, the Avantime, of which much has been written in DTW over the years. As well as following the same design philosophy as the Vel Satis concept, it also featured the incurably pretty, ‘kite-tail’ design rear lamps which first featured on the Fiftie concept car. Most importantly for the upcoming new mid-range car, the Avantime broke the ice in the market by putting the distinctive, near-vertical and clean-edged C-pillar, rounded rear screen and bustle-backed rear out onto the streets (well, on a few of them at least).
That all said, when the Mégane II hatch was first shown in the Autumn of 2002 (it won ECoTY in 2003), its design caused quite a stir. The five-door was ‘quite something’, but the three-door raised that to ‘something else’.
Both hatches (and the other body-styles) carried the same dimensions and sat on the same Renault-Nissan Alliance’s C platform which would also support the Nissan Almira. Both sported carefully refined and toned versions of the Vel Satis concept-car’s look, but the three-door had this stark, geometrically pure looking arc to the DLO, which carved deeply into the sharply squared-off rear pillar. It should have looked all wrong, and perhaps some will think that it does, but for me it created a uniquely sophisticated look.
If the rear of the Mégane II was boldly distinctive, the front had less to cause fright. Although still marked out by sharp lines and edges together with taut and largely unadorned surfaces, it was much more conventional. Of note was the way in which the front wings cut into the A-pillars, and in which the sides of the bonnet curved upwards to meet the raised top edges of those wings, meaning that the bonnet was more dished than domed (as is the trend today).
The flanks had taut, gently curved surfaces, with a neat and subtle crease-line along the side that sat below the simple, body-coloured door handles. Boldly arced wheel-arches were rimmed by a distinct lip which accentuated the wide track of the car. Most, if not all, hatches had a rubbing strip along the lower flanks, finished either in body colour or dark grey and this was tipped at the front by a satin-metal finished lozenge with the engine specification stamped onto it. A quality touch, to my eyes.
There were also saloon (rather contrived), estate (rather nice), and tin-top coupe-cabriolet (rather fragile looking) versions which, along with the Scénic (neat as a pin) and Grand Scénic (a bit clumsy), provided something for everyone. None of them, bar perhaps the more compact of the Scénics, came close to the impact of the hatches. The Scénic also suffered from a smaller boot than its predecessor (I know, because it was for this reason (OK, and price) that we rejected it as a replacement for our Scénic I in favour of a Xsara Picasso).
Someone much better informed and educated in these things than I really needs to dissect exactly why the Mégane II (and the Avantime and Vel Satis production car, which emerged around the same time) exudes such a strong essence of France, the French and their culture. I’ve always thought and said that the rear aspect of the turret (especially on the three-door) brought to mind the very distinctive képi worn by French gendarmes and members of their army – but there’s a lot more to it than that (obviously).
The interior was less distinctive and impressive. It even resorted to a gimmicky aircraft-style handle for the handbrake. Compared to the Golf IV it was decidedly low-rent (but then, what wasn’t?), but it was roomy and probably just about good enough to not be a deterrent. It was, though, a safe place to be, with the Mégane II gaining what NCAP then rated as 5-stars. (NCAP has radically moved the goal-posts since then, of course.)
I remember driving a couple of Mégane IIs as hire cars and finding them pleasant enough, but they felt a bit baggy and slow-witted compared with the Focus I (but then, what didn’t?) and rough compared with the Golf IV. The engines were OK with the pick probably being the 120 PS DCi (common-rail diesel) apart, that is, from the 225 PS, 2-litre 16V Turbo in the RS version, a car which became something of a hot-hatch legend in R26 and R26.R forms. It’s also worth saying of the latter that Renault Sport performed something of a miracle with the simple torsion-beam rear suspension to make it a handling masterpiece.
So, what really made the Mégane II special was its very singular look, the impact of which during that era was only approached by that of Ford’s ‘New Edge’ Focus of a few years earlier. And, for once, such a courageously styled car proved a sales hit.
In 2003, its first full year on sale, the Mégane II sold almost 355,000 cars in Europe, up from just over 260,000 the year before. Sales peaked a year later at over 465,000, dropping down to 389,000 in 2005. These numbers do not include sales of the Scénic II which never looked better than it did in the same design theme, and which was a huge hit for Renault during that period. There were a couple of years in the mid-noughties when the Mégane II/ Scénic II was the 4th best selling car in the UK; imagine that.
I remember it was argued at the launch of the Mégane III in 2008 that the dramatic styling of its predecessor had aged quickly and so sales had fallen-off quite suddenly from that peak, especially in markets like Germany. This argument was being made in justification of the Mégane III which, whilst still a handsome and distinctive car – especially in three-door guise – was a more muted and less full-bodied design. There’s a great line from le Quément in The Surge, Part VI, where he states:
“… with Mégane III’s exterior design approval, we were celebrating a feat equivalent to climbing three flights of stairs in our local mall – but it could not compare to the landmark design contribution of the Mégane II, which had been a heroic and spectacular ascension to the very top of the Eiffel Tower.”
And now we’ve come full circle, back to ‘The Surge’ series on Design Field Trip, so, I’ll soon leave you to scurry your cursor up to the top of the home page of your search engine of choice and thereby treat yourself to a much more fulsomely informed draught of the same subject. Or simply click here to be taken there directly.
Almost twenty years after the Mégane II was launched, the Mégane as we know it no longer features in Renault’s new car price list. There is the new Mégane E-Tech (an EV in compact SUV form) which is handsome enough, but could not be compared even to the Tour Montparnasse, let alone the Tour Eiffel.
Renault seems to be trying to rediscover its ‘French-ness’ by developing retro-reboots of its back catalogue, like the R4 and R5. Compared with the intellectual effort that led to designs like the Vel-Satis concept, the Avantime and Mégane II, this seems creatively bereft. As such, Renault still seems to lack confident leadership which can attract and promote the best creative minds. It needs people like le Quément to develop a bold design philosophy with the longevity to provide direction for generations of French EVs to come, not a series of creative cul-de-sacs.