Renault Megane II

The fruits of the Renault-Nissan alliance will hit U.S. shores in spring 2005, when the next-generation Nissan Sentra will arrive, based on the bones of the Renault Megane II.

Although the two vehicles will share some assembly-line hard points, the engine, transmission and suspension will be different, says Jack Collins, Nissan North America vice president of product planning.

In reality, the vehicles may indeed share some similar pieces, but the settings will be different for the American market. That is a shame, because the Megane II is a stellar example of a compact car that doesn't feel cheap.

Voted 2003 European Car of the Year, the Megane II is refined, mannered, quick and most of all, chic. Collins ought to bring a few Meganes to America to let his product planners understand that a compact car doesn't have to feel like a compromise. After all, the current bucket-of-bolts Sentra certainly does.

In past iterations, the Megane's erratic quality earned it the dubious nickname "Migraine." But other than brakes that whined like a FrenchForeign Legion recruit on a forced march, and an electrical gremlin I'll address later, the new Megane's quality was tres bien for a car of its price class. During a week-long test in and around London, the Megane II had the comportment of a five-star sommelier.

The seats are made of faux leather, but it's a superior grain of "pleather" that feels out of place in a sub-$20,000 car. The dashboard and center stack has the same upscale tactile feel as a VW Passat. There are hidden storage compartments underneath the door armrests. All the windows are auto-down. It scored five stars on the Euro NCAP crash test. A trip computer and a six-CD changer is available. And the rear seat has enough room for four six-footers to handle a quick dash to Monte Carlo, or Vegas.

The version I drove was as close to American-spec as possible -- a five-door hatchback with a 2.0-liter, 136-hp 16-valve inline-four gasoline engine. Given the weight of the car, 136 horses won't bring out the inner action hero in you. Despite vigorous rowing of the gears, the Megane gets to 60 mph in an escargot-like nine seconds. Expect the Sentra to have more puissance.

The 2-liter Megane II comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, while the lower-trim versions get five-speed manuals. The second-gear ratio isperfect for the city crawl, great for snappy 20-45-mph acceleration bursts and strong engine braking. But it isn't a racing gear, as redlinehits at 50 mph, necessitating an extra shift to get that crucial 0-60 time. Sixth gear gets you 100 mph at 4200 rpm, still a ways to go beforeredline, and right in the meat of the horsepower band.

The French are legendary for making supple suspensions, and the Megane II is no exception. Despite the low-tech MacStruts up front and torsion beam rear, the Megane II absorbs London potholes and secondary-road frost heave with Gallic nonchalance. On the downside, such refinement results in understeer that will have you aiming for Paris but ending up in Provence.

For how good their suspensions are, Renault could take some time evaluating transmissions. The clutch pedal throw is long, and the clutch itself grabbed like Gerard Depardieu at a crepe buffet. The one-twoshift was especially onerous.

And the Megane II wouldn't be French if it didn't have some quirkiness to it. For one, there is no ignition key - a credit card and "start" button gets the engine turned over. At least, that's the way it was supposed to work - which it did until I had to get to Heathrow Airport right now, at which point the fickle electronics took a Gauloises break.

But just like the maitre'd at Chez Paul who lets you sweat for a fewpanicky moments while he "misplaces" your reservation, the Megane IIcame through in the end. No puff pastry, this.

**Mark Rechtin is the Los Angeles bureau chief for Automotive News.
Photos courtesy of Renault

Renault Megane II
Wheelbase :103.3 in.
Length :165.7 in.
Width :70.0 in.
Height :57.4 in.
Engine :2.0-liter 16v I-4
Horsepower :136 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque :141 lb-ft @ 3750 rpm
0-62 mph :9.2 secs
Top Speed :124 mph
0-400 meters :16.8 secs
Fuel efficiency :29 mpg city/hwy combined
Unladen curb weight 2,750 lbs.
Price as tested :16,850 euros / $19,375 (not incl VAT)
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