RENAULT may be the darling of Europe with its style and panache but it takes more than leather seats and an extra cup holder to charm the pants off Australians.
We need to know we are really getting a good deal, that the car we choose will spend more time in our garage than that of a mechanic and that it will have something a bit special so we can show off to Johnny down the road.
Well, the French are no fools and are hoping that expanding their small car stable by offering a new diesel hatch variant will help them keep a finger on the Australian pulse.
Small cars are of course no longer the preserve of cash-strapped students and little old ladies.
Tough times have made them immensely popular and although there seems an embarrassment of riches to choose from, there is always room for a newcomer that can mix looks with economy and performance.
Soft-touch plastics, quality trim and attention to detail give the Megane Hatch a somewhat more upmarket feel than some of its rivals.
A simple but well designed instrument cluster takes centre stage with a large digital speedo making it impossible to feign ignorance when you're pushing the limit.
The sat nav sits proudly in its casing in the middle of the dash, at the correct height to steal a quick glance and recessed well enough for a glinting sun not to cause any problems.
It is operated by a remote control which is pretty easy to use once you get the hang of it.
The steering is adjustable for height and reach, which makes finding the optimal driving position much easier.
More thought could have gone into the placement of some buttons and knobs as well as the radio which is difficult to navigate on the run. Seats are firmer than you would anticipate but not particularly uncomfortable.
Head and leg room in the rear is quite compromised and requires some generosity of spirit from those in the front if you need to accommodate tall adults. The boot is nicely capable, helped in part by its shape and coped well with the requirements of a family stealing a few days away.
On the road
Don't expect the buzz and action that you would get from the Megane RS hot hatch.
They may share the same beginnings and sidle up to each other on the showroom floor but the Megane Hatch is all about delivering value and economy instead of performance brilliance. It does remain more than competent, however, with one of the best small diesel motors around powering the 1.5-litre engine. It has good manners and grip and is zippy at speed.
We expected the Megane to impress around town with its economical sure-footed tight handling and good brakes but it was its performance on the open road that raised the eyebrow. While the slight turbo lag and diesel clatter from standstill can be trying, give the Megane Hatch her head and she will sing for her supper.
The dual-clutch system comes to the party, making highway driving smooth and almost trouble-free with a burst of speed on hand when needed.
What do you get?
Quite a lot actually, in keeping with Renault's quest to impress the socks off the Australian market. The entry-level diesel Dynamique includes keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth with audio streaming, auxiliary and USB inputs, rear vents, a full sized spare, automatic lights and wipers and fog lights.
For $5000 more the Privilege tested here adds leather upholstery, sat-nav, rear sensors, 17-inch alloys, sunroof and a single CD/MP3 player.
The Megane Hatch hasn't been tested in Australia but safety features include six airbags, anti-lock brakes with emergency brake assist, electronic stability control and hill start assist.
This cramped segment will have to jostle around to make room for this diesel hatch that has the measure of Hyundai i30 (from $20,990), Citroen C4 (from $32,990) and Peugeot 308 (from $24,990) as well as the slightly larger Mazda3 (from $27,360), Holden Cruze (from $27,790) Ford Focus (from $33,690) and the popular VW Golf (from $28,990).
Small cars may not be your first choice but necessity often makes them an unavoidable one. The thing is whether it's feasible. The Megane Hatch certainly has a lot going for it with good bones, skimpy fuel use, excellent inclusions and reasonable space. The placement of the start button, a fiddly Bluetooth setup and loud rattle on start-up are inconveniences you can get used to.
Renault is using a dual-clutch system for the first time in Australia in a bid to improve efficiency. The company claims figures of 4.5 litres/100km and 117g/km of CO2 emissions. Our use was closer to 5.4 litres/100km over a range of driving conditions - still a figure to be proud of.
There is some French flair evident in the sculpted features of the Megane Hatch. It is an interesting car to look at with a short front, pert behind and rear overhangs.
The 17-inch alloys add to the charm as does a long, rakish nose.
There is little doubt Renault is working hard to forge a presence in this country. To this end it is offering quality cars with generous inclusions and new technology. This diesel Megane Hatch should be a good earner with its excellent economy, styling and green credentials.
Model: Renault Megane Hatch Diesel.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive compact hatch.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic.
Engine: 1.5-litre turbo-diesel generating maximum power of 81kW @ 4000rpm and peak torque of 240Nm @ 1750rpm.
Consumption: 4.5 litres/100km (combined average).
Bottom line: From $27,490 (plus on-roads).
What matters most
The good stuff: Long specification list, great economy.
What we'd like to see: Less turbo lag, more straight-forward and less fiddly cabin design.
Warranty: Five-year unlimited kilometre warranty and 24/7 roadside assist.
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