I've always found the RCZ R quite appealing, but was never entirely sold on it due to its engine line-up. There's nothing wrong with offering economical engines that allow buyers to indulge in stylish motoring without having to pay through the nose for it. In my eyes, though, a range-topping halo model really needs to be available with a powerful, distinctive powerplant as well.
After all, would the relatively staid BMW 1-series be as highly regarded if there was no overtly tail-happy M135i? Possibly, but the fact the M135i exists lends the range a substantial chunk of credibility and makes it appeal to those who may not have otherwise considered one.
On paper, it looked like Peugeot had delivered the goods. Instead of a humdrum diesel or petrol, the RCZ R featured – among other tweaks – a heavily turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol that put out 266bhp and 243lb ft.
My initial impressions were eminently positive, with it offering up plenty of pace, agile handling and a surprisingly refined ride. The engine felt suitably vigorous too, with a strong mid-range and a pleasing exhaust note.
Despite all that torque surging through the front wheels, the Peugeot had little trouble putting its power down, partly thanks to its Torsen limited-slip differential. Admittedly if you got it on to a very wet or muddy road, or pushed hard on damp surfaces, you could provoke a substantial amount of understeer or wheelspin.
The key word there, though, is 'provoke'. Many may be tempted to jump on the "well this is why you can't put that much power through the front wheels" bandwagon, but truth be told it's just a case of acclimatising to the car and understanding what it can and can't do at any given moment. Not much traction? Short shift into the next gear and roll on the throttle. After all, an M135i would have similar problems putting its power down rapidly in equally inclement conditions.
Once I'd acclimatised to its responses and behaviour, the RCZ R quickly transpired to be an enjoyable and rewarding car to drive – and an on-track test proved it to be very capable. As I whipped round Oulton Park, visions of new owners venturing out on track popped into my mind. Here, I thought, is a Peugeot that many may occasionally want to drive as intended.
Walking away from the RCZ R, I was left with one outstanding impression – for once, here was a Peugeot that I actually wanted. A little alarm bell was sounding somewhere in my head, politely reminding me that it cost £31,995, and that I could have an M135i or high-spec Audi TT for that, but the Peugeot was arguably as competent on the road, more visually interesting and just as – if not more – fun to drive.
The Peugeot brand is teetering towards the desirable and easily recommended as well. Previously I'd have steered people well away from many of its models but these days – with the likes of the 308, 508, 3008 and 5008 on offer – there's much to credit in its line-up. Even more so, now that it's a powerful and likeable model topping its range.
Like Vauxhall several years ago, Peugeot may also be on the tipping point of building a much larger and attentive fan base. When Vauxhall launched its VXR range, owners' clubs and forums sprang up left, right and centre. Many are actively engaged with the manufacturer too. For example, Vauxhall hosts special days for VXR owners and working with them to deliver what they're looking for.
Peugeot has already suggested that it will do the same, which bodes well for future owners and for the success of the manufacturer's R brand.
All of this combined, then, leaves me feeling that Peugeot is definitely on the up, something reinforced by a climb in UK sales of six per cent in 2013.
If it keeps continuing to deliver models like the RCZ R and new 308, and listens to its customers, it deserves every success.