RenaultSport RS265: Leading from the front

By Matt Greenop

The RenaultSport RS265 is well deserving of the hot hatch label. Photo / Supplied
The RenaultSport RS265 is well deserving of the hot hatch label. Photo / Supplied

The term "hot hatch" gets thrown around a lot but in many cases indicates little more than a slightly warmed-over shopping basket with a few bits of stick-on bling for cred's sake.

When the first of the Volkswagen Golf GTIs appeared, a short time after Renault's genre-defining 5 Gordini, the pair marked a huge departure from the simple hatchback. These were weapons in comparison to the stock options - a big leap in power, handling and attitude - genuinely hot hatches.

The gap between a factory hatchback and its sportified brethren these days is slightly narrower, and there's only a handful of these that can actually be labelled "hot hatch". The upcoming Focus ST is up there although its savage RS version is undeniably the real deal, and Mazda's MPS and the Volkswagen's Golf R get in there too.

But last week's launch of the latest pocket rocket out of France has even further cemented Renault at the top of this hard-fought market.

Renault, since the Gordini days, has had a firm grip on what makes a hot hatch hot. The 5 Turbos, from lean road-going form to the GTs and Group Bs with their comically swollen guards, the stealth power of the little Clio Williams in the 1990s, even the white-knuckled ride of the Megane R26R, have cemented a reputation that Renault F1 fans, Euro production racing tragics and front-drive enthusiasts rave about.

In 2010, when the RenaultSport RS250 landed, it marked a new era. The MacPherson struts disappeared to be replaced by the greatest thing to happen to hatchbacks since Amedee Gordini (aka the Sorcerer) said, 'Hey, I've got an idea'. Independent steering axis front suspension manages to make it a far more drivable option by getting rid of the great evil that is torque steer.

This problem, which sends the front in whichever direction the weight distribution, suspension and road topography decides you should go, has been all but killed off with the combination of the brilliant RenaultSport Cup chassis, a very capable limited slip-diff and the front end set-up.

Rather than the MacPherson arrangement, which sees the steering axis sandwiched between the lower balljoint and top shock mount, suspension components are completely separated from the damper. As a result the RS eats corners with far less issues than traditional front-wheel drives.

The latest RenaultSport to join the stable is essentially a reworked version of the 2010 model, but with more power, more torque and some styling changes. Launched in the hills of the Queensland hinterland last week, the RS265 is one of the best-handling front-wheel drives ever made.

It is named for the 265 ponies that live under its short bonnet (195kW in our money), and will be available in New Zealand in two specifications, neither of which come with an automatic option. Yep, a real gearbox, and a real driving experience to go with it. It must work, as it now holds the record for front-drive production cars around Nurburgring Nordshleife, with an impressive 8.08.

The 265 will be offered here in Cup or Trophy spec, powered by a two-litre in-line four, transverse mounted at a slightly rearward incline, which is teamed with a slick, notchy six-speed and that LSD to give a six-second slam to the legal limit and a top speed of 255km/h. But really prove their worth on the windy stuff.

Getting used to how the front behaves during flat-footed driving is more about switching the brain off than anything else. There's a weight bias to the front that means you know the Brembo four-pot front picks are doing their job, and once the braking is out of the way, where you take the typical FWD approach of pointing a few degrees tighter than the corner requires, the RS doesn't need this subconscious adjustment.

Climbing and descending Mt Glorious outside Brisbane and Mt Mee, a bit further up the coast, gave us the chance to give the cars a workout on roads that strongly echo the types of surface we often drive on in New Zealand.

Easily balanced on the right foot, and more than enough power in reserve made the car behave in slingshot mode, sucking up its 2.5bar of boost between corners and firing to the next braking point, while being able to maintain good momentum and feel solidly in control most of the time.

Of course, there's the occasional bum-puckering moment, but that's a result of a car that needs to be driven, rather than using electronic cuts, kills and interruptions that can desex a car as quickly as the computer can do its thing.

There are two chalk-and-cheese ESP modes, normal and sport, which aren't hugely interruptive and give the driver a bit of room to play with wheelspin before getting in the way. It is possible to turn it off altogether, which is really designed for track time, and sport is fine for road use.

In true gadget-era fashion, there's the RS monitor at the top of the centre stack that allows adjustments to throttle sensitivity across five settings, and also includes readouts of power, torque and G-force.

Inside, the RS265 is a sport-bred stunner with a clean and functional dash, easy controls over digital function and high-backed leather seats. The Renault Sport signature coloured seatbelts are red or yellow to match the spec that you choose. , and this is echoed by stitching on the leatherwork. The only thing that really detracts from the look inside is the highly-chromed top on the gearshift.

The RS265 Cup version, with 18-inch rims, is the lower of the two specs for New Zealand, and will start at $53,990.

The Trophy will go for $59,990 but there's a lengthy option list that will allow some customisation for those wanting some personal touches. Aussie gets four models in total, including a limited edition 808 edition to commemorate the "ring run", and a Trophy+.

"While we're only planning on bringing in the two models, Kiwis will have as much if not more choice than Australians when it comes to options," says Renault New Zealand market boss Ben Montgomery.

The interesting thing with the RS265 is picking where the real competition is - while it seems a comparison with other hot hatches is the clever move, it's a dead cert to take on the likes of Subaru's WRX STi.

- NZ Herald

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