Megane 275 Cup-S vs. Lotus Elise 111S | PH Fleet
Ben thinks his Megane might be nearly as good as the Lotus he owned a million years ago. Time to find out
By Ben Lowden / Friday, December 24, 2021 / Loading comments
It is often said that the second generation of Renaultsport Megane could have been engineered by the wizards at Lotus. Well, I say it often – and I’m sure it has been suggested at least once in the forums, which was all the excuse I needed to bring these two cars together. If you need another one, I used to own this very Series 2 Elise 111S, and the temptation to borrow it from PHer megakas to see how rose-tinted my memories are was too much to bear. After all, I’ve owned my 275 Cup-S for more than a year now, and it has just cost me more than £2k (I’ll cover that next time) – so the honeymoon period is well and truly over.
First, a quick recap. The front-wheel drive Cup-S with its 275hp 2.0-litre turbocharged F4RT engine was launched in 2015 and cost from £23,935, although my car had almost every option box ticked, taking the list price to £32,855. The mid-engined, rear-wheel drive 111S with its 160hp 1.8-litre K-Series arrived in 2004 costing £27,995. That may seem like taking a knife to a gun fight, but the kerbweights are 1,387kg and 806kg respectively, so the power to weight ratio is much closer than you might think.
Today, both can be bought for comfortably under £20k, and deserve a place on your shortlist if you’re looking for an uncompromising sort of thrill – even if they have totally different means of delivering them. You can buy an early second-gen Megane in RS250 form for under £10k and if that’s your budget then you absolutely should because there’s nothing that comes close at that money for performance and specification you get from the factory.
A Cup-packed RS250 will have a mechanical limited-slip differential, Brembo four-piston brakes, a strip of carbonfibre on the dash and, if you’re lucky, optional Recaros from the factory. People spend thousands adding parts like these to their hot hatches. On top of that, the later 275s had Ohlins coilovers, a titanium Akrapovic exhaust and an Alcantara pack as optional tick boxes on the order form. There’s no chance I’d sneak that sort of aftermarket expense past my wife if my car didn’t have them from day one.
It’s impossible not to rub your hands over the Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel as you lower yourself into the Recaro bucket seats. The Megane feels purposeful before you’ve even started it. And boy does it deliver on the road. At slower speeds you feel like a sumo wrestler entering the ring, squatted low and with hips braced for what’s to come. The grip is remarkable even in the wet, and the way the limited-slip differential projects you through a corner inspires you to push harder and harder. True, it’s not quite as comfortable as a Golf GTI and the gearbox isn’t a match for a Type R, yet for me the Cup-S has an edge to it that no current hot hatch can claim to rival. It makes you feel like a hero.
But it is still a hatchback. The Elise is a Lotus. Even though it was designed at the turn of the millennium, it looks like it could have rolled off the factory with the last of the Series 3 Elises this year. The Saffron Yellow paint is certainly as striking as the Flame Red on my Megane – except more so, because it adorns a proportionally perfect mid-engined sports car. Of course, it you thought navigating the stiff Recaro bolsters in the Megane was a hassle, wait until you try to elegantly climb into a Lotus Elise. Nevertheless, once you’ve scuffed the sills and head butted your passenger, there is no place quite like an Elise. The interior is infamously basic: you only have the controls that you need at your fingertips and peering out over the front wheel arches that roll up in front of you is undeniably special.
Firing up the old 1.8 K-Series is like donning an old pair of (angry) slippers, particularly with a Larini exhaust bolted to it. God, I’ve missed that sound. Unlike the Megane, the Elise feels more precious to drive; like it needs to be treated with respect, rather than just grabbed by the scruff of the neck and hurled down the road. Accordingly, your attitude changes. You no longer want to push harder with every corner, and instead slow down to enjoy the sensation of every control surface, and the raw feedback that results from each and every input. The Megane’s steering is possibly the best to ever grace a hot hatch, yet it pales in comparison to the Elise; ditto the delicacy of the gear change, the mild terror of an unassisted brake pedal and the bark of that exhaust.
Just as the Cup-S suffers in comparison with some rivals, so it is for the 111S – I’d argue a Caterham Seven is more rewarding still, and a Porsche Boxster is obviously more comfortable. But if you want to finish a blast without your ears ringing or suffer the necessary compromise that comes with something more liveable, the Elise is a perfect blend.
Interestingly, on paper the Lotus is faster than the Megane to 62mph, but doesn’t feel that way in the real world, probably thanks to the extra torque. For me, somewhat predictably, it also doesn’t inspire the towering confidence that the Megane does – but then I’m used to driving lots of FWD hot hatches and not many mid-engined sports cars. That’s nothing a bit of professional tuition couldn’t fix. The driving experience is no less enjoyable for it, as these two cars have very different ways of putting a smile on your face. Which happens a lot.
What they share is the impression that once you get out of them, no other car will feel the same again. That’s the way it works with personal handling benchmarks. Moreover, you step out of both with a strong sense that they’ve been developed by people who love driving, from the perfect pedal positioning for heel and toeing to the way they’re dialled into the business of going round corners. Crucially, there’s always a sense of occasion, no matter the speed or the reason for your journey. They feel special, which to me is one of the most important factors of all when deciding what car to buy.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is the type of community you’re buying into. While we’d stopped to take some photos, a fellow Elise owner pulled over just to check we were OK and hadn’t broken down. And by pure coincidence, as we returned to the car park we’d met at earlier that morning, we gate-crashed a local Lotus meet. I’d struggle to think of a nicer bunch of one-make car owners to chat to after a run out, and having owned seven Renaultsports now, I can say the same for the RS community too.
Do I miss the Elise? Of course. It remains a towering achievement – one that Lotus has only just this month waved goodbye to. The fact that it can still be acquired at sensible money is virtually a gift to the nation. Yet sensible money breeds sensible decisions, and if you only have space for one car on your driveway, as I do, the Megane remains one of the best real-world performance cars. That said, when the dream of a two-car garage becomes reality, I’ll probably be beating a path to megakas’s door with rose-tinted glasses firmly on.
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