Rewind twelve months to the launch of the original Megane Renaultsport 225.
As the car trundled out in its bright orange hue, Renault's marketing boffins claimed
that this was hot hatch nirvana. The market, they said, had moved on and GTi buyers
no longer wanted focussed dynamics and boy racer detailing.
Instead they wanted a swift, mature GT that would cuddle before it seduced.
It was an intriguing philosophy, but fatally flawed.
The car they'd produced might have worn the automotive equivalent of a Lycra cat suit,
but underneath the posing was a car with saggy man boobs.
In producing a GT, they'd removed a healthy quotient of fun and while it was a hit in
France and Germany, it wasn't quite raw enough for Brits to like it.
And so, twelve months on, Renaultsport has unleashed the Megane Trophy,
its chassis heavily redesigned - which is as close to an admission of failure
as any manufacturer is ever likely to give.
Just 500 limited edition Trophy cars will be built, of which 200 will come to the UK.
But the Trophy is really no more than a marketing wheeze to maximise the car's exposure.
As soon as the limited edition runs out, the revised chassis settings
will be offered on the normal Megane Renaultsport as a 'Cup' chassis.
The Trophy will only be available as a three-door and will cost £20,000,
which places it in direct competition with the Golf GTI 3dr (£19,995).
The Cup chassis is expected to be a £750 option on the standard Megane Renaultsport,
which sells for £19,500.
Having billed this car as one of their "most focussed road cars ever",
it seems odd that Renault has daubed it in a subtle shade of 'Nimbus' or smoked silver.
This is the only colour available for the car and while it complements the new
lightweight anthracite-coloured alloys,
it sends out a mixed message about this car's intentions.
Rumours that the Trophy's interior would be stripped out
in the manner of the smaller Clio Cup have proved to be wide of the mark.
With the exception of a CD autochanger, the Trophy boasts all the luxury paraphernalia
of its mainstream sibling. The specification includes cruise control,
a trip computer, climate control and a tyre pressure monitor,
alongside eight airbags and ABS.
The Trophy also shares the 225's sports seats, but they're now finished in part-leather
and blue weave cloth, which complements the blue seatbelts and detail stitching.
In place of the standard car's faux aluminium, the Trophy features carbon fibre cladding
on the dashboard and door pulls.
These additions might help it appeal to Max Power readers but they're not enough to
lift the ambience of the Megane's cabin.
The Renault is less than three years old, but this class has progressed so quickly
of late that its fascia now feels decidedly low-rent.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI's cabin is a much more appealing place to spend time.
While the revisions to the aesthetics are little more than token gestures,
the changes to the chassis are dramatic. The spring rates,
for example, have been increased by a significant 25 percent at the front and an extraordinary 77 percent at the rear.
The latter, coupled with retuned dampers and a decrease in the size of the front anti-roll bar,
has been introduced to shift the handling balance away from understeer
and towards neutrality. Specially developed Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres
and the new lighter alloys should also contribute to an improved performance.
In tune with the chassis changes are revisions to the steering and braking systems.
Renault has removed the standard car's Brake Assist system,
while increasing the size of the brake master cylinder.
The result is shorter pedal travel and a more consistent, progressive response.
The electronic stability programme (ESP), which is the enemy of press-on driving
in the standard car, can now be turned off and only reactivates during emergency braking.
A heavily revised steering column and new control software
have also been adopted to improve steering feel
So much for the physics lesson - an empty race track awaits.
The 2.0-litre turbo engine starts on the push of a button and settles to a muted hum.
This is one of the few aspects of the car that hasn't been revised,
but then it's the 225's best feature. With 225bhp on offer at 5500rpm
and a peak torque output of 221lb ft at just 3000rpm, this Renault is not short of thrust.
For the record, it sprints from 0-62mph in 6.5sec and will reach 147mph,
but these figures don't reveal the engine's flexibility.
It pulls hard from just 2000rpm and the thrust refuses to diminish
until the rev counter has ascended beyond 6000rpm.
It doesn't take long to appreciate that this engine is finally powering
a chassis that's worthy of it. The steering, once so woolly and artificial,
is more consistent and linear in its response. The self-centring effect
is still a little too strong - a traditional Renault foible -
but it's much improved and it contributes greatly to driver confidence.
So too do the brakes. A firmer pedal feel makes it much easier to modulate the
braking pressure and the Brembo system feels reassuringly positive,
even when maximum retardation is summoned.
The chassis changes can also be labelled a success.
On the track the standard 225 needs to be manhandled.
It feels clumsy and responds to enthusiastic cornering with dogged understeer.
The Trophy, by contrast, feels significantly lighter on its feet.
It can be steered on the throttle with ease and, although it's a little less
stable under braking, it couldn't be described as nervous
and it's much more resistant to understeer.
Only the unrevised, six-speed gearbox seriously lets it down.
Its long throw and inaccurate feel seem even more at odds with the rest of the car's crisp,
positive responses. And it's as noticeable on the road as it is on the race track.
Thankfully, the qualities that impress on the circuit are replicated on the public highway.
The Trophy is much more entertaining to drive than the standard car
and although the ride is noticeably stiffer, it could never be described as uncomfortable.
For all Renault's claims about this being a "focussed" car,
it remains a refined and accomplished long-distance cruiser.
The Trophy is really the car that the Megane Renaultsport always should have been
and it would be no surprise if the Cup chassis becomes standard-fit in a few months' time.
Renault now has a genuine contender with which to do battle with the forthcoming
Vauxhall Astra VXR and the Ford Focus ST.
But for all its qualities, the Renault remains no match for the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The Golf is fractionally slower and a little less overtly sporting than the Renault,
but it remains the better buy.