THE Renault brand may be struggling to find its mainstream audience in Australia, but its RenaultSport subsidiary has few problems staying front of mind in the niche world of driving enthusiasts.
RenaultSport has a firmly established reputation for building brilliant hot-hatches, which are assembled at a separate location (Dieppe) to the French company's bread and butter models.
Its latest model was launched this week in Victoria - the Megane RS250 Cup.
Like its predecessor the Megane RS225, the RS250 employs a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine. With about a quarter of engine components changed, however, the company's latest rival for the Volkswagen Golf GTI now boasts more power.
The 250 name refers to the engine's horsepower, which converts into 184kW - and a 19kW increase over the Megane 225.
Torque also lifts from 300 to 340Nm - produced at the same 3000rpm.
There's a noticeable increase in weight for the front-wheel-drive RS250 three-door hatchback that Renault calls a coupe, but it doesn't prevent the new hot-hatch from being four-tenths quicker (6.1sec) in the 0-100km/h sprint than the old model.
Australian journalists had only a few laps in the new RS Megane at Victoria's short but sweet Broadford race track, though it was sufficient time to appreciate RenaultSport has built another fine performance hatch.
There's strong grip from the 19-inch low-profile tyres of the Cup Trophee - which at $46,990 carries a $5000 premium over the entry-level Cup model - and once it starts to run out, as it will when exploiting limits on a track, the Megane RS is enjoyably responsive to throttle pedal movements to keep the car's nose pointing in the right direction.
Both Cup models also benefit from a mechanical limited-slip differential that helps to reign in wheelspin from the front tyres during cornering.
A chunky Recaro bucket seat stops your body from sliding around, and the brakes - Brembos up front - are brilliantly effective at retarding speed, and are consistently strong for successive laps.
Other key controls also add to the fun. The shift action of the six-speed manual is precise and nicely weighted (along with the clutch pedal), and the steering, while not always the most natural-feeling tiller, is accurate, meaty and virtually devoid of torque steer (tugging on the wheel).
The turbocharged four-cylinder is also virtually lag-free in its power delivery and feels strong throughout its rev range all the way to its 6000rpm redline (500rpm after peak power arrives).
There are disappointments in this department, though. The RS250's exhaust note is far too muted for an entertaining hot-hatch and fuel consumption has gone backwards from the previous model, even if only slightly - up from 8.4 to 8.7 litres per 100km.
The RS's yellow tachometer is Ferrari-like, though the colour is a theme throughout the cabin from the yellow stitching for the seats, steering wheel, gearlever and door trim to the seatbelts.
Carbonfibre-effect plastic on the dash also helps to distinguish the RS's interior from the regular Megane's cabin.
As for features, the $41,990 Cup's standard gear includes cruise control, auto on/off and follow-you-home headlights, rear parking sensors, height- and reach-adjustable leather steering wheel, LED daytime running lights, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control, Renault sports seats, aluminium pedals, 18-inch alloy wheels, six airbags and stability control.
Stepping up to the Cup Trophee brings extras such as height-adjustable Recaro front sports seats, keyless entry and engine start, electric side mirrors that are foldable and 19-inch alloy wheels.
Options include metallic paint, leather seats, bi-xenon headlights and front parking sensors.
Renault Australia says it expects to sell 500 Megane RS models in 2011, with its smaller hot-hatch, the RenaultSport Clio, accounting for about 160 sales