It used to be the case that if you wanted a sharp-driving coupe that doubled-up as a chic status symbol, you bought an Audi TT and that was that.
Now it’s Peugeot’s go to lead the charge of the stylish affordable coupe. The RCZ was first shown as a jaw-dropping 308 RCZ concept car at the 2007 Frankfurt motor show, and the crowds demanded it went into production.
But can it eat into the TT’s decade of dominance, or even become the new default choice in the class? We’ve spent a week with the RCZ to see if it got under our skin, and – more importantly – if it fitted into our lives.
The RCZ is dramatic from any angle, more so in this facelift version which washes away some of the dowdy old 307-derived nose details in favour of an interpretation of Peugeot’s current corporate front end.
From the bulging wheelarches – necessary to an extent to house the much wider track and wheels than the 308 chassis usually deals with – to the little kink in the window line, the RCZ is, frankly, a bit of a stunner. It’s the kind of car that kids will comment on as they walk past and people will pay close attention to as they pass it.
The most obvious feature is that twin bubble roof. It looks like it would make for a perfect panoramic sunroof, so it’s a little disappointing to discover that it’s a solid black panel. It’s not like the cabin needs any extra light though and the bubble does at least continue down the rear screen, making for some interesting rivulets when it’s raining.
We’re not totally sold on the silvered rails that make up the roof pillars though. They’re a little too reminiscent of the maligned Citroen C3 Pluriel and would probably look better either in black or on a silver car. But then you’d miss out on the wonderful pearl white paint applied to the press car, which accentuates every single styling line on the vehicle – one of the rare occasions where an expensive paint finish really is worth the premium you pay.
Just about everything you can see and touch inside the RCZ is excellent. Leather is standard on GT models like the one on test here (at least in the front), but this car has an optional Cohiba leather interior with an extended leather pack, so the dash, door cards and centre console surround are also leather clad. It’s good stuff, but you don’t have to hunt for long to find some brittle and misplaced plastics – the transmission tunnel section, for instance.
For more evidence of cost-cutting, look no further than the sat-nav. It’s housed in a big chunk of grey plastic and folds out when required, looking like one of those information screens descending from the overhead lockers of a domestic flight.
It’s fortunate that it does fold away, because its position all but renders the middle of the windscreen useless, with a letterbox sized gap between it and the rear view mirror. It’s also too far away to be operated as a touchscreen, so you have to enter things in an extremely unintuitive fashion using the stereo buttons. We’d be tempted to leave it off the spec sheet and get a smartphone with Google Maps instead.
There’s plenty of room if you’re driving or are a front-seat passenger, but even in average-Joe seating position, there’s precious little legroom for the guys in the back – and the plunging roofline means there’s not much headroom back there either.
Storage space is at a premium too. Although the door pockets are pretty capacious, they’re also smooth plastic, so you can tell how vigorously you’ve driving by how loudly things are sliding about in there. The box under the armrest is tiny, there’s a coin holder that doubles as a can holder but won’t fit even the smallest take-out coffee cup and the glovebox is 75% full of fuse box – even the car’s own manual won’t fit in there.
Still, the boot is fairly generous – at 309 litres it’s not so far off family hatchback space – and while it’s pretty shallow you can fit a week’s shopping in with no bother. A useful cargo net is supplied too, in case a bout of fast driving breaks out on the way home.
When a car looks this sporty it creates the expectation that it’ll be a hoot to drive – and the RCZ manages to perform with flying colours. It can be driven fast in the dry without any worries, though there’s a faint whiff of understeer (the front wheels pushing wide) at lower speeds, it disappears as you pick up the pace.
Alongside outright grip, it responds in a pleasing manner, seeming to almost take the driver as a fulcrum and pivot around him or her. Get too giddy and the electronic stability programme (ESP) will kick in to decelerate spinning wheels, adding to the effect.
There’s an obvious payoff of sorts. The suspension is pretty stiff, so some thumps enter the cabin over nastier lumps in the road, but there’s a lot of rigidity too, so the entire car moves as one. It settles down quickly and doesn’t transmit as much of the movement to the car’s occupants as you may expect; the ride is actually much more serene than you may anticipate. On a long cruise, the RCZ is quite relaxing.
This is pretty fortunate because low-speed driving in the RCZ can be quite stressful. Visibility is pretty patchy, both over the shoulder and ahead with that sat-nav screen up and blocking your view, you will be forever guessing your way out of Y-shaped junctions.
The power steering which works so well with larger steering angles at speed gets a bit hit-and-miss when it comes to urban roundabouts, though it’s pretty light for parking. What’s not so good for parking is the width. It’s as wide as many SUVs, and combined with the visibility issues will make for many wheel scrapes – as whichever media outlet had this RCZ before us found out. Parking sensors help, but a camera system wouldn’t go amiss.
This RCZ was paired with the 2.0-litre Peugeot HDI engine. It’s a tried-and-tested unit found not only in Peugeot and Citroen models, but also under the bonnet of some Ford models, badged as a Duratorq.
In many ways it’s a typical diesel, with plenty of low and mid-range grunt and not a lot of top end rush, though the power peak at 4,000rpm is a little unexpected – that’s positively stratospheric for a diesel, so you can rev it out to get a bit more acceleration. The 240lb ft torque peak at 2,000rpm is a little more typical and makes for excellent in-gear overtaking – the RCZ will pick up from more-or-less any speed and thrust you at the horizon, or just sit and cruise.
The engine is particularly well sound-deadened too. There’s not a great deal of diesel clatter, so if you are loping along the motorway, it’s a pleasant enough companion. Peugeot claims 65.7mpg on the motorway, with 54.3mpg combined in this application. We didn’t quite match that, with around 44mpg over the tank, but it’s not over-optimistic.
Value for Money
This is perhaps not an especially strong suit. The basic vehicle on test here, the RCZ GT HDI, comes in at £26,350 before the optional extras – and just over £28,500 with the extras included. This is no small sum for what’s effectively a two-seat Peugeot and, considered objectively next to faster five-seat hatchbacks even from within the brand, it’s quite pricey.
But it’s up against the coupe crowd, where style costs. In particular it’s up against the Audi TT, which you can’t even buy for this price – even the top spec RCZ R would only set you back the kind of money a base TT costs. Tack on the £125 annual road tax and frugal 50mpg return and the RCZ looks like something of a steal.
The RCZ brings anxiety and joy in equal measures. It’s so wide and visibility is so poor that you’ll need to train yourself in clairvoyance to manoeuvre it. Lower limb amputation and gymnastic flexibility are needed to get into the back and if you carry keys, a phone and a wallet, you’ll probably need to pick which one to leave behind.
But you won’t care one bit about any of that. It’s stunning to look at, onlookers treat it as a piece of street theatre as it goes by, and the actual driving experience comes close to front-wheel-drive benchmarks. Rather than coming up with a competitor for the Audi, Peugeot has created something to which Audi merely offers an alternative.