Peugeot's Audi TT challenger is one of the prettiest coupes on the road and this one has the firepower to match its looks as Jonathan Crouch discovers.
Ten Second Review
It almost seemed as if Peugeot's once magic touch with sporting cars had deserted it. Then it launched the stunning RCZ and pretty much all was forgiven. The French maker's answer to the Audi TT is a gorgeous 2+2 coupe with curvy lines and a line-up of punchy but affordable engines. It's a car that has brought new life to its brand and its market.
Just over two hundred years ago, two brothers, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Frederic Peugeot, took a brave decision. They would set up a company in their father's corn mill that would first sell saws and tools and go on later to sell bicycles, motorbikes and cars. More than 55 million vehicle sales and two centuries later, the lion emblem originally adopted to illustrate the strength of the teeth of the brothers' handsaws adorns the most exciting machine the French company has ever created. One designed very much to revive its sportscar credentials. The exclusive yet affordable RCZ. Back in the early '90s when Peugeot used to dominate the classic Le Mans 24 hour race, it also used to dominate the market for affordable sporting cars, the 205 GTi the must-have shopping rocket of its day. It died in 1993, along with Peugeot's involvement on the track and the Gallic brand was never quite the same. Until now. 2009 saw the French marque triumph once again in Le Mans, overtaking Audi, a brand whose TT sportscar this RCZ now wants to see off in the showrooms. Here is the new face of a very different company, its first passenger car badged by name, not by number, and, we're promised, the first in nearly twenty years to restore the bite of the Peugeot brand.
The RCZ's underpinnings aren't those of a hardcore sports car. But so what? That's the case in any affordable performance machine and it's certainly true of this model's closest rivals, Audi's TT and Volkswagen's Scirocco. You might though, still be forgiven for expecting that such a futuristic shape would clothe something a little more hi-tech than the kind of front driven, torsen beam-suspended set-up found on any ordinary family hatch, in this case borrowed from Peugeot's Focus-sized 308. But as other brands have proved over the years, the ingredients available matter a lot less than how they're used. And the signs that they may have been used rather effectively in this case come the first time you venture off the highway and begin to flick this little lion from lock to lock. Here is a car involving enough to make an ordinary Audi TT seem really rather dull. It feels light and alive, corners flat and has plenty of grip at the front end. Are there downsides? Yes of course, but they aren't many or especially significant. The firm ride you'd expect but it can fidget over the poorest surfaces. The 6-speed manual gearbox is positive but slightly notchy - a good reason to opt for the 6-speed auto. The steering, though accurate, could be more responsive. And, even with the most potent version of the turbocharged 1.6-litre four under bonnet developing 197bhp, it could feel faster, a legacy of the long-ish gearing there to control running costs and the high-ish weight. Having said that, the top THP200 model is a swift car that delivers an impressive set of performance stats: 0-62mph in 7.6s and a 146mph maximum means it can put up a good fight against Audi's more powerful and expensive turbocharged 2.0-litre TTs. The fastest RCZ also gets extra bracing under the engine for added stiffness and response, upgraded brakes, plus re-tuned suspension that's crisper and more direct, as well as the smaller steering wheel and shorter-throw gearshift that really should be standard across the range. Although the 0-62mph time is just 0.5s quicker than that of the THP156 petrol model, the complete package feels much sharper.
Design and Build
It's prettier than anything else you can get for the price. Who would argue with me about that? This is one of those rare things: a motorshow concept car - in this case the 308 RCZ of 2007 - brought almost unchanged to production reality. It's a shape simply dripping with beautiful detail, most notably with the deliciously voluptuous rear window where two perfect curves of glass merge seamlessly with the twin humps of the roof, this car's so-called 'double-bubble' styling signature. It looks sensational, offering a handcrafted feel with enough wow factor to make a pricier Audi TT seem very ordinary indeed. Move inside through the large doors and the Ingolstadt car's class-leading cabin makes up some ground but this is an interior Peugeot can still be rightly proud of. The driving position's low-set and sporting but on base models, the lovely prominent circular clock and assorted metallic accents aren't quite enough to completely divert your attention from some of the hard plastics - on the glovebox lid for instance - that are a legacy of a 308-derived dash. Still, once you've added the leather seats included on higher spec models and wisely fitted the extra-cost integral leather pack that extends hide to the upper part of the dashboard, it all feels properly premium. Build quality's great too: this car rolls down an Austrian production line alongside £150,000 Aston Martin Rapides - and it shows. And practicality? Rather improbably on a car of this kind, it is, Peugeot assures us, something of a virtue, despite the fact that unlike its immediate rivals, this Gallic sportscar has a boot rather than a rear hatch. On this evidence, it is perhaps a better way to go for before you start folding seats, this RCZ's 384-litre luggage capacity is significantly greater, not only than a TT but even the larger VW Scirocco. Fold its rear seats and the figure rises to 760-litres. You might be tempted to keep them folded too as, unlike the VW, this isn't a place you could reasonably seat two adults - not unless you had something against them anyway.
Market and Model
The RCZ prices sit in the £20,000 to £25,000 bracket, with the sales starting point for most being the entry-level THP 156 petrol model. There's an £1,800 premium to find if you'd like the extra torque and fuel economy of the diesel variant. The top THP200 petrol model comes in Sport or extra plush GT spec with a price tag of over £25,000 but it's much better equipped than a comparable Audi TT and still around £1,500 less. Closer pricing is offered by the Volkswagen's Scirocco coupe that's slightly less glamorous but slightly more practical. Whether you opt for a 156 or 197bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol RCZ or a 163bhp 2.0-litre HDi diesel variant, you should find this car to be well equipped. Dual-zone air conditioning, alloy wheels, rear parking sensors and an MP3-compatible stereo system with USB port are all standard across the range. Safety-wise, there's everything you would expect - four airbags, stability control and the usual braking aids. And of course, there's a predictably extensive options list with niceties like a carbon fibre roof if you really want to individualise your car.
Cost of Ownership
The RCZ's modern engines should help endow the car with low running costs and the official 40.9mpg combined cycle economy figure for the 1.6-litre 197bhp petrol with 159g/km emissions will be attractive to sportscar buyers on a budget. The 2.0-litre diesel returns over 53mpg with CO2 emissions of just 139g/km. Perhaps it's no coincidence that all these numbers are practically identical to comparable Audi TT and Volkswagen Scirocco rival models, as are insurance costs (28-34 on the 1-50 scale), warranty and expected residual values. The two-year factory warranty is backed up with a one-year dealer warranty and the vehicle-determined service intervals can be as far apart as 20,000 miles or two years, depending on how the car is driven.
This is the car Peugeot simply had to make: different, practical, fun to drive and drop-dead gorgeous. Plusher trim, the Sport pack with its sharper handling and extra power are all really needed to make this RCZ complete, but such is the saving offered over its most obvious Audi TT rival that many buyers will feel able to tick those boxes. It's the kind of car that few of those who buy will ever have expected to be able to own. Exotic, yet accessible, it's a compelling package - and a fitting tribute to an enduring brand.