Cynics, avert your eyes. Because it’s hard to think of two cars more likely to draw derisory comments from Eeyore types than the Renault Sport Megane Trophy-R and VW Golf GTI Clubsport S. The former is a £50k hot hatch with no more power than its ‘regular’ £30k sibling, in options. Those options being ceramic brakes and carbon wheels. The Clubsport S is a two-seat Golf GTI; yep, the very hot hatch that’s made its name on practicality, subtlety and family-friendly ease of use, ditching its rear bench in the name of circuit speed. It’s three-door only, which we’re told nobody wants any more, and manual-only as well (ditto), creating a car that’s very easy to criticise on paper. A Golf R is more accelerative, a standard Clubsport barely less potent, a normal GTI way more affordable.
Despite all of that, though, these cars deserve to be widely and wholeheartedly celebrated by enthusiasts. The next few paragraphs will be spent explaining just why the Golf and Megane are as good as (or better than) you might expect; but, more than that, both should be praised simply for making the light of day. Even if all of the Clubsport S Golfs and second gen Trophy-R Meganes ever made were brought together, you’d have fewer than 1,000 cars. Neither Volkswagen nor Renault will make meaningful money from either, even at what they cost; while both been ostensibly created to break records, they also represent a willingness from their manufacturers to fulfil exciting, interesting, fun product ideas, to indulge the engineers and appease enthusiasts,. As seemingly everything on four wheels nowadays must be ruthlessly rationalised for profit and success, creating swathes of tediously similar cars, the manufacture of such genuinely daft machines should be applauded.
There could be a whole feature dedicated to this Trophy-R; it’s a treasure trove of delights for those interested in vehicle engineering. Renault sends out the PowerPoint presentation for the Trophy-R with the car, and it’s fascinating. The aerodynamics have been completely overhauled, downforce improved for no drag penalty thanks to features like that giant rear diffuser, a bespoke front end and the flat underbody beneath the bumper. The brake scoops mean twice the air flow reaches the rotors. The NACA scoop in the (carbon) bonnet helps with engine temp but has been designed not to impact drag. Not content with saving 25kg removing the rear seats, the new front Sabelts save another 14kg. And that’s just the start of the Megane’s obsessive fixation on being fast.
Ohlins doesn’t even mention Renault on its list of manufacturers that use its suspension parts, but the Megane has its patented DFV dampers anyway. Only the best would do for this car, so the best was what it got. The standard wheels (the red ones) are each 2kg lighter than the rims on a Trophy; get the optional (and beautiful) carbon items and another two kilos is gone at each corner. Even with six-piston calipers in place of four, and 390mm discs in place of 355mm ones, opt for the ceramic brakes and you’ll save another precious kilogram. The door glass is thinner, with another kilogram gone, and the ditched rear wiper – really handy on a greasy, grimy M1 – contributes another 3kg to the savings pot. Buyers can only have the smaller infotainment screen, saving another 250g. It’s such an obsession Renault would probably see it as an insult to drive the Megane after a hearty lunch.
By comparison, the Golf’s makeover – on paper and in person – looks modest, shaving only 30kg from a GTI’s kerb weight through ditching the seats and some sound deadening. The only sticker marking it out is just like the Clubsport one, only with that valuable extra ‘S’. To the untrained eye, this is just a Golf GTI – that the CS can be that, as well as so much more, is why it’s so revered.
Even at sensible speeds, this Golf has its tells. That cavern behind the seats means more can be heard going on, from surface changes to the handbrake engaging. More exhaust noise means less-noticeable speaker enhancement, giving it an authenticity lacking from MQB hot hatches. The Alcantara wheel feels so much better than any leather equivalent.
The resulting impression of something far more focussed, engaging and capable than a regular GTI only strengthens with speed. Front axle changes for more negative camber (including a new subframe) are the not sexy, easily marketable upgrades like extra power or drastic weight loss, but they work wonders for the driving experience. Even on P Zeros instead of the Cup 2s originally fitted, the Clubsport S has a front end of markedly greater precision than standard, from turn in accuracy to exit traction, communicated through more informative, weightier steering. You’ll want confidence and directness on a Nurburgring record lap, which is exactly what the Clubsport S delivers.
If that sounds like a subtle, discreet sort of modification, then it characterises the Clubsport S overhaul – and it’s the sort of thing that makes it great. Because it can be a Golf GTI (albeit with two seats) for as long as is required, refined and mature. But then, through a raft of seemingly modest and yet highly effective changes, its calibre as a driver’s car is raised significantly. Where a GTI begins to get scrappy and loose, the Clubsport S is lithe, keen and responsive, supple yet sharp, a B-road joy.
The Nurburgring cheat mode for the dampers – reset the Individual mode for that – is key, delivering pliancy and flow with composure and near unflappable assuredness. Race makes it choppy, so leave that be. The powertrain shouldn’t go unnoticed, either; this car is lighter and more powerful than the Megane – yes, really – punching through shorter gear ratios to deliver performance that’s easily on par. The EA888 rasps, pleasingly through that freer exhaust, all the way to 7,000rpm; with a seemingly renewed appetite for revs compared to similar cars, it’s a more entertaining experience up to 64mph than a TCR would be to its optional top speed of 164mph. Honestly, it’s excellent; the wider public might not get the Clubsport S, but it’s a real gem – as rightly reflected in the second-hand values.
Speaking of worth, there’s no better point to begin properly discussing the Megane. Because, inevitably, the question will remain: can a car derived from a C-segment hatchback, one typically sold as a run-of-the-mill family vehicle, really deliver a £70k experience? In parts, yes. Seriously. Those who value the ‘right’ badge and expected bang for buck at the money can buy a TT RS; but for those who put a premium on feel, involvement, excitement, resolve, resilience and fun in their driver’s cars, the Trophy R can absolutely compete. Bear in mind that a four-cylinder Boxster or F-Type with this sort of power can cost similar money – the Megane is a better honed sports car, by a margin. I really think it is.
Why? Because the Trophy-R combines so much of what was great about previous fast Meganes – the agility, the communication, the sense of impregnable mechanical toughness – with the broader tracks, additional tech and extra power of this fourth generation to create something remarkable. Bear this in mind for progress: with just 25hp more than the old Megane 275 Trophy, this car is 28 seconds faster around the Nordschleife. That’s not a direct Trophy-R comparison (where the gap is a mere 18 seconds), but it goes to show what a seismic leap forward this car is.
Renault will hate us for saying this, but a significant part of the new Trophy-R’s transformation to properly engaging performance car has come from ditching the four-wheel steer. It’s saved a chunk of weight (32kg), but the real advantage is in the increased confidence the driver has through both the more natural rate of response in the wheel, and the messages coming back through it. Within just a few minutes you’re pushing far harder than you would in a standard Trophy, the R a car of far greater outright ability thanks in part to how much more confident you are in the way its front and rear end will respond. Far greater outright ability may well be selling it short, too. In the right situation, the Megane Trophy has shown itself to be a decently sorted hot hatch – this R is aeons ahead. Even without the steering rear axle, turn in might be more immediate (as well as more trustworthy); thank the increase in negative camber, the reduced un-sprung mass in the wheels and brakes, and the lower ride height for that. Grip is superior too, even in less than perfect conditions, again presumably as the camber puts more rubber – now Bridgestone S007s, upgraded from S001s – into the tarmac. Traction via the limited-slip diff quite frankly makes a mockery of the Golf’s VAQ set up; despite being stiff, which you wouldn’t normally associate with great traction, the dampers are claimed to behave identically in rebound as in compression, meaning precious little disturbance between contact patch and road.
And the brakes. Good heavens above, those brakes. Never has a road car been so hilariously overspecified. The Megane Trophy-R’s ceramic discs stops you like Bernard’s Watch, seemingly freezing the action with no delay. Their phenomenal performance is thrown into light, even on the road, against the Golf’s pretty puny stoppers, as is their feel – the middle pedal of the Renault is a more satisfying, easier to modulate one than that in the Volkswagen.
Despite being clearly intended for track use – even its recommended road damper settings are only a couple of clicks from the circuit ones – and very occasionally flustered as a result, the Trophy R still makes for a mega road car. This will sound absurd, but it almost has the balance of a mid-engined car, weight low and around you rather than flung out front; it means the Megane is neutral and predictable, even at the higher speeds the overhauled chassis permits, finely tweakable to your every request. Unchanged, yet required to move so much less weight, the 1.8-litre engine has a renewed vigour, with greater urgency throughout the rev range. Breathing out of Akrapovic’s finest titanium pipes – another 8kg gone – there’s some of the old Megane turbo whoosh back, combined with a slew of naughty crackles and bangs. The gearbox won’t win any prizes, though its additional heft over the Golf sort of suits its more serious character.
It’s an invigorating, intoxicating sensory overload, the Trophy-R, like something far more exotic than a five-door hatchback, down to the heat haze from the bonnet duct, the feel of strapping spare wheels back in with harnesses and the sound of cold brakes squealing – it really is an unforgettable car. Which you’d kind of hope for at £70,000. Imagine what it must be like on a racetrack…
So can there be a meaningful conclusion here? With one car costing twice what the other does, one still on sale and examples of the other all snapped up two years ago, perhaps not. It would certainly make the job of finishing this test a lot easier; just say both are great and move on. But that just wouldn’t do. Be in no doubt: the Golf GTI Clubsport S remains superb, as brilliant now as it was when launched out of the blue back in 2016. Dropped into our hot hatch group test a few weeks back, even with the proviso of having two seats, it would have won: cheaper than all cars as tested other than the i30 N, the most powerful, miles more stylish than a Focus and sufficiently athletic to make a TCR seem torpid. Of course, taking rear seats from a car ostensibly about practicality does seem daft – to some extent it always will – but there can be little arguing with the results. Who wants to give people lifts, anyway? Its slightly softer demeanour makes the CS a preferable road car to the Trophy R, the latter occasionally fighting and scrapping with the surface. It could be argued, too, that the Clubsport S is the greater achievement, for the money it cost and coming from VW – which doesn’t exactly have form as far as truly great driver’s cars are concerned. Renault has been doing this for yonks; even starting from a base as… compromised as the current Megane has proved little obstacle for Renault Sport’s experience.
But even if a moral victory goes to VW, it’s the Megane that’s the performance car of greater desirability, dynamic prowess and sense of occasion. Hardly shock of the year, given the age and price difference. And more to the point, you can’t buy a Trophy-R exactly like this, because the three UK cars with ceramic brakes have been allocated. Even so, it remains magnificent; a long way from the traditional hot hatch template, perhaps, but as exhilarating to drive, as expertly engineered and as unshakeable in its focus as anything from more exotic manufacturers. The Trophy-R will reside in collections alongside Speciales, GT3s and CSLs with its head held high, as a car of deservedly equal standing in fast car folklore; let’s hope some owners are willing to get out and discover just why that’s true.
SPECIFICATION – RENAULT MEGANE R.S. TROPHY-R
Engine: 1,798cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,400pm
Top speed: 163mph
SPECIFICATION – VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI CLUBSPORT S
Engine: 1,984cc four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 310@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,850-5,700rpm
Top speed: 164mph
Weight: 1,285kg (kerb weight)
MPG: 38.2 (NEDC)
CO2: 172g/km (NEDC)
Price: £33,995 (2016, used cars now from £30k)