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Driving Seat: A matter of OPINION: Smooth operator; Renault Megane Sport Saloon.

Byline: Alistair Coull and Val Jessop

IN a world that has gone multi- purpose and hatch mad, the Sport Saloon is the most traditional of the Renault Megane range.

While its saloon shape may lose out to its stable mates for flexibility,it definitely gains in terms of quietness, roominess and comfort.

With entry level prices starting at pounds 12,100,it is no wonder that only weeks after its launch, the Sport Saloon is already broadening the Megane's customer base.

The car on test was the 1.9dCi 120 version which is aimed squarely at the equivalent Ford Focus, theZetec 1.8DCi.(115bhp vs 120bhp for the Renault).

Both have similar power, top speeds and acceleration times to 62mph (10.3 vs 10.8 secs).

Prices are similar,but lots of equipment that is standard on the Megane is either an option or not available on the Ford.

The turbodiesel engine, whichI was previously impressed with in a Laguna,is a splendid unit -perhaps the best of its kind available at the moment. It had so much mid- range pull that the Megane performed well even in the very high ratio sixth gear.

The gearing also allows for excellent economy. I do some brisk motor way driving on the daily trek to work but even so, the on-board computer reported I achieved an average of nearly 53mpg in the course of my seven days with the car.

If the Megane had a fault it was that at the wheel you felt a bit remote from what was happening on the tarmac but grip levels were high and there's almost no sense of having a heavy engine dominating the front suspension.

It's a great feeling to be able to whisk round a corner in a fuss- free manner and be able to use the considerable amount of torque to plunge down the next straight,even with as little as a couple of thousand revs.

Inside the car you don't get much diesel rattle. Some very good NVH suppression has obviously been applied and in fact, the Megane's overall build quality seemed very high.

French cars sometimes feel a bit flimsy but the Megane felt as solid as anything you could get from Volkswagen.

There's plenty of room upfront, though to be fair,most manufacturers these days do manage to provide this,even in cars smaller than the Megane.

It's in the back that some cars fail but the Megane passes with flying colours. In fact, with a sense of roominess rarely seen for this price, theSport Saloon sets a new benchmark for this class of car.

In contrast with most saloons which have the same wheelbase and door dimensions as their hatch back equivalents, theMegane Sport Saloon gains an extra 61 mm in the wheelbase -directly benefiting rear seat passengers by almost nine inches of extra knee space.

Access is also improved by fitting rear doors noticeably longer than those of the standard hatch.

At the same time, thecar's rear overhang has also been extended by about eight inches,creating a load volume of 520 litres -considerably larger than the old `booted' Megane Classic and much larger than more `practical' hatchbacks.

FEW saloons,by their boxy nature,ever quite aspire to the gracious, sweeping lines of, say, their coupe or even hatch back siblings.

Even the rectangular shape of the estate affords some artistic leeway in desigjn,but with saloons,it is damn tricky business.

There are exceptions,of course,but in the main saloons do lack the aesthetic edge on their stablemates. I am glad to say that the brave and bold new shape of the Megane II doesn't let the coupe,hatchback and estate have it all their own way.

The saloon may not be as dynamic,but nevertheless it is distinctive: it is a smart, young-at-heart contender -with the test vehicle's 1.9-litre turbodiesel engine ensuring some exciting and spirited driving.

Key to the success of this particular model is practicality and comfort as well as good mpg figures.

The Megane Sport Saloon turbodiesel returns cruising figures well above the 50-mark and you don't have to feather-foot it to achieve them. All this,and much,much more.

The small classy family saloon has Tardis like qualities, with an extended wheelbase ensuring that occupants,both front and back,have a healthy amount of knee and elbow room and the height,despite the raised seating position of the driver, is quite generous, too.

Built on the new C-platform, as a result of the Renault-NissanAlliance,it is a quart in a pint job but, there's nothing pinched or shoehorned about this Megane.

The cabin is airy,light with a good glass area maximising all round vision. It has a thoroughly contemporary interior which shouts out style and quality.

The seating is very supportive and the medium to firm suspension ensures a good degree of comfort.

Add to this a general feel,of refinement,plus a good cabin insulation which keeps road and engine noise levels to a absolute minimum.

The Megane power unit is linked to a fluid, six speed transmisison which allows the saloon to swiftly and effortlessly head towards top motor way speed and, where legal, take it to its 122mph maximum.

The electric power steering is light and reasonably precise -contributing to driving enjoyment though you have to be alert to its self-centring tendency.

You also have to be aware of the brilliant but sometimes over enthusiastic brakes,but otherwise the Megane is a tidy and predictable mover and handles well.

There are three trim levels: Expression,Dynamique and,as in the tst car,Privilege. The first two get air con while tghe top-specPrivilege has climate control.

Expression has a single CD, while the others are fitted with a CD multichanger. Every models has anti- lock brakes plus an extensive list of passive safety features.

ENGINE: 1870 cc 4-cyl 118bhp@4000rpm 221lb/ft@2000rpm PERFORMANCE: Top speed: 122mph 0-60: 10.7secs ECONOMY: Town: 39.8/ out of town: 64.2/ mixed: 52.3mpg CO2 EMISSIONS: 141g/km INSURANCE: Group 7 PRICE: pounds 16,100
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 30, 2004
Words:1017
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