Peugeot's hot RCZ looks to sock it to Audi's TT and its peers, but a higher price has elevated it into the realm of premium hot hatchbacks and performance coupes

With the Renault Clio RS 200 having been through a character change worthy of a reformed junkie, the fast French front-drive set is definitely in need of a lift.

The good news is that the lift has arrived. And the fact that we’re getting it from Peugeot makes it doubly welcome.

When the first RCZ launched, it symbolised Peugeot's renewed focus on dynamic appeal

The people who brought us the sublime Rallye-branded 306 and 106 almost two decades ago – and before that the 205 GTI, just to get the obligatory reference out of the way – have at last rediscovered some serious form.

Can the dreaded mediocrity of the noughties-era 207 GTI and 307 Feline be forgotten? Maybe. The RCZ R is here.

We already know it’s worth a bit of fanfare, as early tests on the Cote d’Azur and the Costa del Coventry demonstrated. But putting the car through the full road test workout should reveal the depth of its dynamic talent, the fullest scope of its performance and the true measure of its appeal as a proper driver’s car.

Peugeot's RCZ was originally introduced at the 2009 Frankfurt show. It entered the market at a time of regeneration for Peugeot and neatly symbolised the firm’s intention to put desirability and dynamic appeal back among its priorities.

The car’s ‘cut-price Audi TT’ appeal was augmented in November 2012 when Peugeot announced that a high-performance RCZ would be built – and that car is now here, for us to put comprehensively through its paces.

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We’ve got high hopes. Let’s hope, for the first time in a very long time where a hot Peugeot is involved, they’re not entirely misplaced.


Peugeot RCZ R badge

The RCZ R is nothing less than the most powerful, performance-focused road car in Peugeot’s history. Peugeot Sport, the firm’s in-house motorsport department, got the job of revealing the RCZ’s Mr Hyde. And with recent successes in international rallying, LMP1-class sportscar racing and at Pikes Peak, Peugeot Sport wasn’t likely to do a tame job.

Even so, the attention to detail will surprise you. Performance derivatives pretty commonly get wider wheels and axle tracks, shortened springs and bigger brakes, but not many get special wheel geometry, special Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres, relocated and uprated dampers and anti-roll bars, reduced unsprung masses and a proper torque-sensing mechanical limited-slip differential. That’s a pretty trick mechanical spec for your princely £32,000.

The RCZ R's suspension is both uprated and lowered

Even after all those changes, the RCZ R weighs 17kg less than the RCZ THP 200 – says Peugeot. While that may be true, MIRA’s scales said our test car was 15kg heavier than the THP 156 we tested in 2010. Still, 1355kg makes for a better power-to-weight ratio here than in the 2.7-litre Porsche Cayman we figured last year.

External styling tweaks are fairly understated – perhaps Peugeot felt they had to be on such a feminine-looking coupé – but they just about distinguish the car. The RCZ’s characteristic silvered roof pillars turn matt black, while a fixed boot spoiler is the main visual signifier of speed. How much speed, exactly? According to Peugeot, 60mph from rest in less than 6.0sec and a standing kilometre in 25.4sec.

The RCZ’s gear ratios have been tweaked in order to deliver those figures, and its engine has been through myriad mechanical changes. Peugeot Sport’s overhaul for the 1598cc four-pot in the RCZ R promptly knocks Mini’s effort for the same engine in the JCW GP into a cocked hat.

Producing 267bhp at 6000rpm, the RCZ R lump runs at 167bhp per litre – within 10 percent of the work rate that Mercedes achieved for its headline-grabbing A45 AMG. Peak torque, at 243lb ft, is about 10 percent down on what you’d expect from a 2.0-litre turbo, but it’s available from 1900rpm to 5500rpm.

The powerplant, codenamed ‘EP6CDTR’, uses new forged aluminium pistons developed by Mahle Motorsport, as well as new conrods and new big end shells. The operating temperatures imposed by the special twin-scroll turbo are handled by a special heat treatment for the engine block and a new steel exhaust manifold derived from circuit racing.


Peugeot RCZ R dashboard

There’s practically a set formula for the interiors of hotted-up cars. Smaller, flat-bottomed steering wheel? Check. Metal gearknob? Check. Colour-contrast stitching on uprated seats? Check and check. The RCZ R has ’em all.

But even if it’s slightly predictable, the RCZ R’s version of a quick interior is an appealing and enticing one. There are chromed kickplates on the sills and a small plaque on the centre console to remind passengers that this is no ordinary RCZ. The steering wheel doesn’t feel as tiny as those in the Peugeot 208 and Peugeot 308 but, flat bottom aside, it’s pleasingly shaped and finished. It also has the advantage that you can read the dials.

The Peugeot's pedals are pleasingly spaced. Nice drilled aluminium pedal tops, too

The seats are supportive and comfortable and, with plentiful under-thigh support and a broad range of reach and rake adjustment on the wheel, it’s not hard to find an almost Germanic low-slung driving position with the wheel at your chest.

The metallic gearknob is, as they always are, chilly on winter mornings, but it guides the lever around a short-throw, positive gate. The aluminium pedals are well spaced.

Ergonomically, the rest is a slightly mixed bag. The rear seats are all but hopeless and the multimedia system is eclipsed by those of its main rivals, but once you’re accustomed to both you end up using the rear seats as handy luggage space and learn to find your way around the car’s systems.

Standard kit is more plentiful than average. You get Peugeot’s ‘RT6’ sat-nav system, directional xenon headlights, tyre pressure monitors and auto-folding door mirrors thrown in, as well as the obvious stuff like the sports seats.

The boot capacity is marginally bigger than in a seats-up Audi TT, but the Audi’s liftback opening gives it a versatility advantage.


Peugeot RCZ R rear quarter

Probably the easiest criticism to level at the standard RCZ is that it simply isn’t quick enough. Even with the 1.6-litre petrol engine in its lustier 197bhp format, the coupé won’t bust the 60mph tape in much less than 8.0sec – about the same time a BMW 320d takes. It’s adequately brisk but never a prospect to trouble the imagination of an enthusiast buyer.

The R’s first task, then, clearly addressed by the heavy-duty overhaul undertaken below decks, is to cash the cheque its racy body first wrote almost four years ago. This it does with aplomb. From either a standing start or out of any of its six shorter ratios, the car is now perceptibly rapid.

The Peugeot RCZ R's brakes are impressively resistant to fade and easily modulated on track

Its four-cylinder motor, whether in a Peugeot or elsewhere in a Mini, has always been a willing unit, but the modifications enacted here – particularly the efforts made to wring better performance from higher engine speeds – deliver the most fervent variant yet built. There’s a new-found enthusiasm to rev beyond 5000rpm, and even though a stopwatch would testify to the benefits of upshifting before striking the limiter at 6800rpm, the let-up barely registers.

Extra potency has not left the R feeling needlessly peaky. The bustier twin-scroll turbocharger continues to work well low down, and it is unquestionably the 243lb ft of torque from 1900rpm that gives the car a thrusting sense of urgency. So much so that in poor conditions, much like those faced on test, the R struggles to deploy all of its output cleanly.

The front wheels do not require the added complication of lock to start them spinning, and they continue to do so in second gear, given the chance. It is this shortfall in traction, rather than any deficiency in power, that leaves the car some way short of its claimed acceleration time.

Given a dry surface, 6.1sec seems realistic. And the 5.5sec it took to get from 30-70mph – half a second quicker than a Vauxhall Astra VXR – just goes to show which league the R’s overhaul has put it in.


Peugeot RCZ R cornering

Let’s take the ‘ride’ part of this section first. Despite a sporting intent and 19-inch wheels with 40-profile tyres, the RCZ R rides with impressive compliance. If you’ve just stepped out of our front-drive handling benchmark, the Renault Mégane RS 265, you’ll be astounded at how well the RCZ R smoothes out rough surfaces.

There’s a bit of boom from the engine, but, coupled with the decent driving position and a torque-laden delivery, the ride goes some way to making the RCZ R a pleasing long-distance companion.

The RCZ R rides impressively well on its 19in alloys

It doesn’t steer with the same straight-line steadiness, perhaps, as a Volkswagen Scirocco or an Audi TT, but neither is it flighty or demanding. It does steer accurately, mind, and with good responses. At 2.8 turns lock to lock, it’s pleasingly geared – not hyper-fast, yet far from lethargic. There’s only a little discernible feel through the rim, but that does mean there also isn’t quite the level of torque steer you might expect from a car of this ilk.

There is some, mind; you’d expect nothing else of a car with 243lb ft driving through a mechanical limited-slip differential on its front wheels. But in dry conditions, which were sadly rare when we tested the RCZ R, the Peugeot finds admirable grip and suffers only a little steering disruption.

It also keys into the road well with its front end, producing impressive traction and acceleration even in slow bends, while a lift of the throttle or a trailed brake bring the rear into play nicely. It’s a slightly different story in the wet, though; both understeer and oversteer are keener to make their presence felt.

The Peugeot's good fun, then, but ultimately there’s a lack of finesse here. It’s a better drive than cooking Audi TTs, but while the RCZ R outrides a Mégane RS 265, it doesn’t outhandle one.

The conditions for our track test were greasy and cold. In such conditions, on the ‘dry’ handling circuit, the R is a pleasing companion. It has decent levels of grip and resists understeer manfully. You don’t notice a great deal of pitch or roll, the steering is responsive and turn-in respectably brisk.

From then on, things are mostly led by the front end, as long as you stay steady on the throttle. Traction is okay and torque steer is limited, but so is feel. Even so, it’s possible to overwhelm both front wheels entirely in low-speed corners.

In wetter conditions, the RCZ R remains well balanced. You can’t trade front and rear grip with a little lift like you can in a Mégane RS 265 or a Ford Fiesta ST, but there’s more adjustability here than in an Audi TT. When the RCZ R does let go of its rear wheels, they tend to go quite far, quite quickly.

At that point, lots of power is your friend. Rapidly applied, it will drag the car straight.


Peugeot RCZ R

Few RCZ R owners are likely to run it as a company car, but those who do will benefit from the fact that this car emits just 145g/km of CO2.

On benefit-in-kind liability alone, a highly equipped RCZ 1.6 THP 156 auto might be more expensive. A typical 2.0 diesel RCZ wouldn’t be a lot cheaper.

It's worth considering the optional metallic paint and the snazzy black mirror housings

Economy is as good as the CO2 figure suggests. We bettered 44mpg on our touring test and averaged 36.4mpg overall – or about 25 per cent better than many bigger-capacity rivals might return.

But younger drivers be warned: what you save on fuel and tax may well get spent on insurance. The RCZ R is in insurance group 42 – four groups higher than an Audi TTS, six higher than a Mégane RS 265 and seven higher than a Vauxhall Astra VXR.

As you might expect, the Peugeot's residual values aren't quite a match for the TT, but they're superior to the Scirocco and other hatches pretending to be coupés.

The car retains its back seats, but Peugeot would have been better off chucking them out to save a few kilograms, given how little room there is even for children back there.


4 star Peugeot RCZ R

Although likeable enough, there were plenty of reasons not to buy the regular RCZ. Foremost among them was the lack of fire in its belly compared with the coupés packed in around it.

Conceivably, Peugeot could have tackled this by simply making the car quicker, but it hasn’t. Instead, it has done the job properly and, we’re delighted to say, like we’d imagine the Peugeot of old would do it.

It's a fine effort, and the quickest and best Peugeot you can buy. Fun too, but pricier than it should be

Thus, the R is swifter and more substantial, yet also largely uncorrupted by comfort-limiting irritability. Moreover, it proved to be entertaining and occasionally adjustable to the point of genuine trickiness. We’ll gingerly admit to liking that, too.

Things look pretty good when you compare it to its rivals, too. The Audi TT is dull to drive and quite aged now, while the Mini Coupé JCW 1.6 is nowhere near as finessed as the Peugeot.

It's only the likes of the Renault Mégane RS 265 and BMW M235i that really offer more overall prowess than the Peugeot, but that in itself shows how far Peugeot has come with the RCZ R.

Less endearing is the price. By topping £30k, the R is pitched against some rivals it is not able to objectively overcome. Potentially that will cap its success, but it doesn’t limit its mechanical appeal.

Considered in that light, the R is comfortably the best car Peugeot currently makes.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Peugeot RCZ R 2014-2015 First drives