A small, lightweight coupe with striking looks and a fiery turbocharged engine, Peugeot’s RCZ 1.6 THP is based on a recipe with in-built potential to excite.
The question is whether the execution can live up to the car’s on-paper promise. Let’s find out.
Compact coupes should be all about the fun factor and that’s something that Peugeot’s cars were conspicuously lacking for a good few years. The French brand had been known as a manufacturer of fantastic driver’s cars but that reputation had slipped and there was little sign of a burning desire to reinstate it. It all meant that expectations weren’t high when Peugeot announced it would enter to the compact coupe market with the RCZ. The car was undeniably dramatic to look at but could the experience behind the wheel really deliver the big silly grins that coupe owners like to wear when they step from their vehicles?
Peugeot’s 1.6-litre THP engine has a solid pedigree. It’s one of the results of the link-up between Peugeot and BMW which saw the two marques pooling resources to produce a range of compact powerplants. BMW doesn’t entertain bad engines and the 1.6 THP is fitted to the high performance models in its MINI range, so the portents for this RCZ were good from the start.
The RCZ’s underpinnings aren’t those of a hardcore sports car. It’s front wheel drive and though the front suspension is independent, the rear end has a torsen beam set-up like that found on numerous family hatchbacks and most superminis. The engine itself gives more cause for optimism with a choice of 156bhp or 200bhp versions, the former sprinting to 60mph in 8.7s and the latter taking just 7.6.
"The adventurous styling helps the car stand out and the nimble, responsive feel on the road ensures there’s plenty of fun to be had"
Once out on the road, the RCZ quickly identifies itself as the best handling car Peugeot has produced in a very long while. It feels light and alive, corners flat and has plenty of grip at the front end. Any concerns that the chassis might lack the sophistication to compete with the market’s other small sportscar contenders are quickly put to bed. The downside is a ride that’s quite hard and fidgets over the bumps and a gearbox that’s positive but a little notchy.
The engines don’t come across as brutally quick off the line but when the turbocharger comes on song, there’s a lot of heft in the mid-range to get your teeth into. These lighter weight petrol units also bring advantages over the diesel alternative as they reduce the load over the front wheels bringing an extra sharpness to the steering.
There’s no radical departure from Peugeot’s tried and tested styling themes on the RCZ but equally, there’s no denying it’s a striking thing to look at. The nose is very Peugeot with the huge light clusters and air-intake then the deep bonnet contours flowing back to the A-pillars. The domed roofline has more than a hint of Audi TT about it and the aluminium foot arches provide a two tone effect.
The RCZ is at its most unorthodox around the back where the proportions of the car aren’t helped by an extended rear deck that hints at an eventual folding hard-top version (which Peugeot strenuously denies). More impressive are the powerful haunches over the rear wheels and the trademark "double bubble" roof which has a pair of bulges that proceed down the rear windscreen.
We’re told that the RCZ is more than just a pretty face and that it can contribute some practicality as well. The car has a front-engined 2+2 layout with exceedingly small rear seats that have increased headroom thanks to the roof bulges and a surprisingly big boot capacity of 384 litres (you only get 290 litres in an Audi TT). This space can be increased further by folding the rear seat backrests down.
The dash will be familiar to 308 hatchback owners and with cabin design and build quality being a 308 strongpoint, this is no bad thing. Special sports seats are fitted in the front with integrated headrests and the centre console slopes towards the driver to bring the controls within easy reach.
The 156bhp 1.6 THP engine is the entry-level option in the RCZ range, coming in at £1,800 below the diesel option. The 200bhp engine is £500 more than the oil-burner and if you’re buying the RCZ for the right reasons, which are excitement and style rather than fuel economy and running costs, the lively petrol units are the only choice. Sport and GT trim levels are available with Sport models getting 18" alloy wheels, dual zone climate control and rear parking sensors. The GT is notably plusher but needs to be for the £2,300 premium. It includes leather heated seats with electrical adjustment, automatic lights, automatic wipers and 19" wheels that come with larger brake discs on the 200bhp cars.
The Audi TT is going to be a tough nut for the RCZ to crack but pricing under the £20,000 barrier will give the Peugeot a useful edge. At that level, the car is a realistic alternative to the likes of Volkswagen’s Scirocco and Alfa Romeo’s GT. It’s good enough to compete in that company.
The RCZ’s modern engines should help endow the car with low running costs. The official 52mpg economy figure for the 2.0-litre diesel with 139g/km emissions will be attractive to sportscar buyers on a budget. Both of the 1.6-litre THP turbo engines return close to 40mpg with the 156bhp option 2mpg over and the 200bhp at 1mpg under. It means there’s little ongoing cost penalty for the more powerful car once the upfront price has been taken care of.
Could Peugeot’s reputation for producing exciting sporty cars be given new life by the RCZ coupe? The signs are definitely promising. It’s the sharpest driving car the French manufacturer has come up with in a long time and it’s at its best with the added zip of a 1.6 THP turbocharged petrol engine under the bonnet.
The RCZ isn’t perfect but it’s a huge step in the right direction for Peugeot and a realistic alternative to the small sports cars you were considering. The adventurous styling helps the car stand out and the nimble, responsive feel on the road ensures there’s plenty of fun to be had. A firm ride and tiny rear seats must go in the minus column but otherwise this is a very worthwhile coupe for the keen driver.