I often think cars - and test-driving them - can be a bit like young footballers undergoing summer trials at a big club. They get a relatively short time to impress. Some try hard but don't have the skills; others have the ability but not the commitment. And some leave coaches wondering if there is something they've missed.
've hummed and hawed about this week's 'trial' car, the Renault Mégane Sport Tourer (estate). I've taken it apart (mentally), double checked my notes, paid heed to what passengers volunteered. In the end, there was a decision to be made.
Let me explain. I've had weeks like this before where I totted up the minus against the positive to be sure of striking a correct balance. I do so because this is a highly-subjective exercise: one person's future star is another's average midfielder.
In this case, the positives covered several areas; some of the negatives came down on more basic elements.
The Mégane estate should be a winner. It is set up to be, certainly. There are its looks: smart, clean and stylish. The cabin is big, roomy with decent materials and a central-focus portrait touchscreen display that would not be out of place in a car from the posher end of town. It has a nice dash/instrument display/interface. Someone put lots of work into it.
And there was the evergreen dCi diesel engine that has powered millions of Renaults, Nissans and others for years. It had good balance: brisk power and low-end pulling. Practicality scores elsewhere, too: the big, covered luggage area, for instance. And we had loads of comfort in fine seats.
What more could you ask for after all that? As it turns out, the negatives came with the stuff I didn't expect: like a player who is good pushing forward but not so attentive to defensive duties.
For example, the car seemed to replicate - and accentuate - growls and grouts of the road surface as the tyres came in contact with it. And any bit of a pothole or road-scar had the shock absorbers reverberating beyond what I would have expected. It was as if they were pushed to the stopping point of their absorption over what you and I would consider to be Irish secondary roads. And that includes driving around Dublin, where the jarring felt worst.
I was at a loss; I didn't expect that. I could sense the up-and-down movement of the wheels where normally there would hardly be a twitch. I was not travelling fast. Indeed, I tempered my speed significantly.
The tyres didn't help (17R 205/50) and whether or not the fact they were on 17ins rims made a difference is debatable. I wouldn't be making these points if I didn't get the sense, all week, that the handling and ride were some way from what they could be.
I have driven the hatchback and saloon versions without such criticism. Two other areas added to the 'goals against' column. One was the EDC automatic gearbox, which was ponderous - regardless of mode - in getting off the mark. It was as if there was an intake of breath before it allowed the car to move, especially in Comfort mode.
Initially that compounded another area of disappointment - the front wheels spun at moderate provocation on taking off. It's called torque steer, something you associate with lots of power funnelled to the wheels by jamming heavily on the accelerator.
In this case, the diesel's 110bhp shouldn't have had that effect. I was to blame initially because when I'd get no response, I'd lean heavier on the accelerator and then off we'd go, wheels a-spin. I tempered that, but still noticed the tendency under average pressure (there is a 'manual change' with this transmission, but I didn't use it much).
Some of the touches elsewhere were excellent. The R-Link 2 system (7ins landscape or, in my car, 8.7in portrait screen) lets you control a variety of functions with ease. I could access Multi-Sense to control air con, engine sound, steering effort, lighting ambience, etc.
The level of spec and equipment generally is high, but it just didn't come together for me. Different tyres, different roads (it was grand on my motorway drives to deepest Kildare) and maybe a different driver might have come out with an alternate view.
I prefer the Mégane hatchback. I don't think this squares up to its rivals - such as estates in the Skoda Octavia Combi, Ford Focus, Seat Leon ST, Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot 308 SW - as well. It certainly has the makings of a big, comfortable, roomy and frugal alternative to those, but I'm afraid, for me, the sum was less than the parts.
It happens sometimes. I think a small amount of tweaking could make a difference. In sporting parlance: it's got potential but needs to work on its game a bit more.
Facts & figures
Renault Mégane Sport Tourer (estate) Dynamique S Nav; 1.5-litre dCi (110bhp) diesel. EDC automatic 6spd transmission. 3.7l/100km (claimed): on test 6.1l/100km; 95g/km, €180 road tax
Price: from €20,490 for the entry-level model. Dynamique S Nav trim €26,290
Car on test: €27,990
Basic spec includes air con, 16ins wheels, Bluetooth and cruise control with speed limiter. Trim on test had 17ins alloys, extra tinted windows, DAB radio, R-Link 2 interface with 8.7ins touchscreen, Multi-Sense front/rear parking sensors, rear-view camera. A five-year warranty is standard on Renault cars.