The RCZ is a classy, interesting, fun coupé that shows Peugeot has got its mojo back

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The weight of brilliant Peugeots from the past has worn heavily on the shoulders of Peugeot’s executives during recent years. Its cars – from the company once famous for ‘the drive of your life’, you’ll remember – have lately struggled to offer the best drive you’ve had that day. And Peugeot has known it, meaning a great deal is expected of the RCZ.

It is a car that Peugeot acknowledges and hopes will mark a turning point: that from here on in, it will be making interesting cars that are entertaining to drive.

The RCZ must be expensive to build. In addition to the glass roof, the bootlid is particularly complex

To a small extent, the tide has already turned. The 3008 and Peugeot 5008 have both featured chassis dynamics that are a marked step-up from, say, the 207 and 307. It’s a trait that has continued with the new Peugeot 508.

The RCZ, though, is meant to represent a marked progression again. Peugeot calls this the first of a new range of ‘special cars’ meant to add an edge of exclusiveness to a French marque better known for big-selling small cars.

This is the car, and the point in time, from which it would like us to judge its future product.

How significant does Peugeot think the RCZ is? Put it this way: in its history, it has until now never created a passenger car that doesn’t have a ‘0’ or two in the middle of its name.

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Peugeot RCZ front grille

You won’t find it in Peugeot’s written information, but the design inspiration for the RCZ coupé seems clear enough to us. Peugeot hopes this car will do for it what the TT did for Audi. And with those sweeping chrome bars that seamlessly meld its A-pillars into its roof and then into its B-pillars, the design similarities are fairly clear.

Along with that, though, comes a sense of Peugeot identity: the Peugeot nose is clear enough, and the tail, too, plus some of the detailing. It’s Peugeot’s take on the small 2+2 coupé, rather than just a pure clone.

RCZ rides firmly but surprisingly well, given its optional 19in wheels

Design success is rather subjective, but we’re particularly fond of the double-bubble roof and rear window. The window looks horrendously expensive to replace, but they’re details that have made it over unscathed from the 308 RCZ concept of 2007.

Unfortunately, the low roofline means that, even with the clever-shaped glass, there is very little rear passenger space. The kink in the window line looks good, but it’s also essential as a way to drop the waistline and allow enough glass area in a small cockpit.

The pop-up rear spoiler has two phases. The first is set at 19deg and deploys automatically at 53mph, retracting again at 34mph. The fully extended position settles at 34deg and deploys above 96mph. The wing can also be controlled by the driver.

The RCZ’s body is 30mm wider than the standard 308 hatch’s, as well as being lower. More important, its tracks are 44mm wider at the front and 63mm wider at the rear.


Peugeot RCZ dashboard

In creating a car that looks this radical on the outside yet costs from the low end of £21k, Peugeot has had to compromise. On the RCZ, this has occurred underneath the skin with its 308 platform, but also in its interior.

Inside, the 308 still dominates. The general cabin architecture and even some details are straight out of the hatchback. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but next to an Audi TT, whose bespoke interior was good enough to be the inspiration for the R8’s, it’s a mite disappointing. There are, however, some highlights.

A diesel hybrid, four-wheel drive RCZ concept appeared in 2009, but no production model came of it

In GT specification, leather is standard on the front and rear seats, and it can be extended to the upper part of the dashboard with an integral leather pack.

This contrasts markedly with some plastics that are straight from the 308 line, particularly around the steering wheel shroud (noticeable because it’s otherwise well finished around here) and on the lower transmission tunnel. On the whole, though, it’s a well-finished interior and more than acceptable at the price.

The driving position is fine, too, with no pedal offsets and a steering wheel that has a massive range of adjustment (although the wheel itself could be smaller on a sporting car like this).

What you won’t find is much room in the RCZ’s rear. This is strictly a 2+2 coupé. Access to the rear bench is tight, and once you get there, it’s less than accommodating. The backrest is very upright and the squab small. It’s roomier than an Audi TT and those bumps in the roof do add a little to headroom, but for anything other than the shortest of trips, it’s best avoided.

The bench backrest folds down to increase the boot volume from 384 to 760 litres, but because it’s an enclosed boot rather than a hatch, the RCZ is less practical than a TT or VW Scirocco.


Peugeot RCZ petrol engine

With the RCZ, there is the risk that Peugeot's eye-catching styling could oversell the performance. At least, that is the case with the lower-powered 154bhp 1.6 petrol model, which has just 115bhp per tonne (based on our tested weight). That’s little more than a Ford Fiesta Zetec S.

However, up to 60mph, which takes 8.4sec in a straight sprint, the RCZ proves entertaining enough, albeit more for its peppy, happy-to-be-worked character than its sheer pace.

The lower-powered 1.6 petrol is willing to rev through the mid-range

The turbocharged 1.6-litre engine responds cleanly from low revs with minimal lag and an encouraging willingness to rev through the mid-range. Even though there is a noticeable drop-off beyond the point of peak power, at 5800rpm, the RCZ will rev to its soft limiter at 6500rpm without feeling too breathless.

Beyond 60mph, though, the lack of horsepower starts to show. Adding a further 20mph to reach a realistic motorway speed takes a further 5.9sec, and only if you’re prepared to hang on to third gear. Change up early to fourth and the same increment takes 7.4sec.

The range-topping THP200 GT, complete with 197bhp, feels brisker, but not honest-to-God quick. The engine pulls admirably from about 2200rpm, gaining thrust as you pass 4500rpm (en route to a 6500rpm redline and a 6700rpm rev limiter) but the hefty kerb weight is a limiting factor.

The top speed of 146mph reflects the decent aerodynamics and small frontal area (a small spoiler deploys automatically to a low, then a higher, position as speed rises). The so-so 0-62mph time of 7.5sec shows how the willing engine has to fight the weight.

The six-speed manual gearbox is considerably better than that fitted to any other recent Peugeot although, in a broader context, it is good but unexceptional. The shift is relatively short and precise but the overall experience is not especially satisfying.


Peugeot RCZ cornering

One thing is certain: the RCZ is the most sporting Peugeot we have seen for a generation. After the disappointment of the 207 GTI, it is welcome to find a Peugeot that is actually good to drive.

With the GT model’s 19-inch wheels, there is plenty of grip – so much so that, in dry conditions, even quite enthusiastic driving is unlikely to trouble the ESP.

Adults won’t like it in the back. The small seats are upright and space is tight

What’s more encouraging still is the sense that the RCZ pivots around its driver. Our weighbridge reveals that this RCZ’s 1340kg is distributed 64 per cent at the front and 36 percent at the rear, but it feels more neutrally balanced – and certainly capable of coping with a great deal more power than its 154bhp.

But grip and balance are not the only attributes that we look for in a sports car. To make the transition from being a good car to a great one, it must also exhibit poise and feel. And in the RCZ, there is not a huge amount of either.

The steering, although relatively accurate, lacks texture (even by the measure of other electrically assisted systems) and the handling, in the dry at least, is one-dimensional. In wet conditions, it is more lively, but we’d prefer a set-up that was a little more involving at slower speeds and more progressive at the limit.

It’s a similar story with the ride quality: good but with reservations. In line with the car’s sporting remit, the spring rates are firm but not unyielding. Given the size of the wheels, the secondary ride suffers surprisingly little crash, and the car’s structure feels impressively rigid.

However, over smaller ridges, there is a residual ripple that can refuse to settle, taking the edge off refinement.


Peugeot RCZ

The price of the RCZ range stops almost where the TT range starts – it’s virtually pitched as an entry-level version of the German coupé. Against rivals that look more staid but have similar pricing, the Peugeot’s appeal is dimmed slightly. It’s no more competitively powered or priced than, say, a Scirocco, although it should hold its value just as well.

The RCZ’s touring economy is more appealing. For a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine in a 1340kg car to return 47.4mpg over our touring route is impressive indeed – and it helps towards the very decent 36.1mpg overall economy.

Traction in the wet is pretty good and better than in the similar-powered Citroën DS3

Given the type of car that Peugeot wants the RCZ to be regarded as, it’s no great surprise that Peugeot makes few claims about its servicing or repair costs. But given what lies under the skin, don’t be surprised to learn that the RCZ is no more expensive to run than other Peugeots.

Presumably, in an effort to improve fuel economy, Peugeot has fitted the RCZ with surprisingly long gearing. Third gear is good for 100mph. Although this makes for relaxed engine speeds on the motorway, it goes some way to explaining the less-than-startling performance.

For those who want the looks but diesel economy, Peugeot offers the RCZ with its 161bhp 2.0-litre HDI engine. This brings with it claimed economy of 53.2mpg and 139g/km CO2 emissions.

As for insurance, the RCZ’s ratings vary from group 28 for the entry-level 1.6 petrol model to group 34 for the 197bhp 1.6 GT.


4 star Peugeot RCZ

We are excited about the Peugeot RCZ. Not because it is the best car to drive in its class, and not because it takes Peugeot back to the heyday of the 306 Rallye. In truth, the RCZ can claim neither of those things. What we are excited about is the fact that Peugeot is making desirable cars again.

The RCZ is fun but, most of all, it looks far better on the road than either the Scirocco or the TT. It’s comfortable, too. The German cars will edge any contest that involves driving quality – each has an almost Porsche-like single-mindedness. But the RCZ is different: a practical car that is fun to drive, and far prettier than anything you can get at this price.

Peugeot should make a Le Mans edition: ditch the rear seats and fit lightweight materials

The RCZ is not faultless. There are compromises in almost every area, from the suspension architecture to the interior. But as an overall package, the RCZ has all the major ingredients. It offers just about enough entertainment, even in its entry specification. However, the biggest achievement has to be that it is interesting and different to look at, and yet competitively priced.

For those who will use the RCZ mostly in urban environments, the entry-level 156 THP’s urge at low to medium speeds will probably suffice. But anyone looking for a low-slung coupé that can legitimately be labelled ‘quick’ would do well to consider the 200bhp RCZ. It may cost an extra £2300 but it is only slightly less frugal.

Peugeot should be congratulated for having the conviction to put the RCZ into production and taking the steps needed to make its cars drive better. The RCZ is a huge step in the right direction.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Peugeot RCZ 2010-2015 First drives