Photography by Richard Pardon
Peugeot has plumbed the world’s most powerful 1.6-litre road car engine into the sexy RCZ coupe, creating the fastest street-legal Peugeot ever: the Peugeot RCZ R. At £31,995, it’s right in the firing line of one of CAR’s favoruite hot hatch coupes: the formidable VW Scirocco R. Over to Chris Chilton to referee this near-530bhp coupe showdown…
Breaking Audi’s eight-year stranglehold on Le Mans? Piece of cake. Obliterating the Pikes Peak hillclimb record by over 90sec? No sweat. Persuading you to spend the thick end of £35k on a car with the lion on its nose in a segment filled with talented rivals? Finally, Peugeot has a proper challenge on its hands, but coming off the back of the rather quietly excellent 208 GTi, we reckon it’s in with a real chance.
The car in question is the RCZ R, a new, range-topping performance version of the RCZ coupe. While the most popular versions are sensible 154bhp petrol and 161bhp diesel models, the R is a very different beast, its electronically limited 155mph top speed qualifying it as the fastest Peugeot ever, and that includes the crazy 205 T16 road cars built to homologate the 1980s Group B rally champion.
The good news is that the same people are responsible for both RCZ R and 205 T16, they being Peugeot Sport, which more usually spends its time building race cars like the Le Mans and Pikes Peak machines. Peugeot proper says its sporting arm is perfectly suited to developing limited volume cars like the R, which will sell in tiny numbers, probably no more than 300 coming to the UK each year.
In its home country, the RCZ weighs in at €42,000 (£37,000), which seems like a glass-half-full assertion when said receptacle has a 30mm hole in its base. A Porsche Boxster – bare bones, admittedly, but still a proper sports car, let’s face it – costs only £1200 more, and you’ll recoup that and then some, come resale time. But Peugeot’s UK division has pulled off a bit of a blinder, getting the RCZ R to British showrooms for £31,995, or £10 more than Volkswagen charges for the excellent range-topping Scirocco, which just happens to wear an R badge too.
So we dispatched a bright green Scirocco R down to the South of France, to the spectacular mountain roads high above Nice, to discover how close this pairing really is. You might be wondering why we didn’t bring a TT – the Audi might seem the most obvious rival, being the car the RCZ so desperately wants to be. But there’s a new one on the way, and the current car is pricey: £32k nets you no more than 208bhp; if you want the TTS, you’re looking at high thirties.
To be fair, you’d also be looking at four-wheel drive, a feature neither of our cars has. The Peugeot and Scirocco make do with front-wheel drive, the VW using an ESP-based electronic differential and the Pug a proper mechanical diff to harness their not inconsiderable latent equine outputs. While the Scirocco pumps out a meaty 261bhp from its 2.0 four, the Peugeot summons up 267bhp, and from a motor 400cc smaller.
Delivering that mighty 167bhp-per-litre specific output involved more than a quick phone call to the local frites tuner. Although based on the 1.6-litre engine co-developed with BMW and fitted to the outgoing Mini Cooper S, the RCZ R’s motor received some serious internal work to ensure the additional 70bhp over the previous range-topping RCZ would last longer than a hit of nitrous.
Pistons made by Mahle are forged using a grade of aluminium more commonly seen in F1, and kept cool by two jets blasting oil at their underside. The con rods are also beefed up and the big-end bearing shells given a tough polymer coating to withstand the twin threats of a 9.2:1 compression ratio and the boost produced by the new twin-scroll turbocharger. The result is 0-62mph in 5.9sec; the Scirocco gets there in 5.8sec. This is going to be tight.
However, running an eye over the pair as they bask in the warm winter sun 1000m above sea level at the Col de Braus (lesser known neighbour of Cols Turini and Vence) they don’t exactly look as if they’ve been cut from the same cloth. The VW’s modern reworking of the 1970s sports-estate breed is effortlessly cool and fuss-free, its elegant window line rising above subtly flared arches and culminating in a practical Kamm-like tail, the squared roof ensuring the Scirocco is a genuine four-seater.
Not something you could say of the Peugeot. Yes, there are four seatbelts, but the back seats are all but useless. What the RCZ does do brilliantly is to leave people’s mouths gaping as you drive past. And that’s what hatch-based coupes are all about. I’ll confess I’m no big fan of the styling, which is great in parts but smacks of trying too hard, with its mismatch of slabby flanks and rakish roof, those ridiculously large wing mirrors and the recently facelifted beak, which looks like a 7/8 scale RCZ is trying to escape from the mouth of a full-sized one.
You can’t deny its impact though, especially in R guise, its visual clout magnified by 19in wheels bolted to suspension dropped 10mm, by matt black roof arches and a bigger fixed spoiler at the rear, and wheelbarrow-handle exhausts in gleaming chrome. This is very clearly the coolest-looking Peugeot road car for about 20 years and the reaction from other road users says exactly that. People love to stare at this car, peer through the window and imagine themselves at the wheel behind a surprisingly high-quality dashboard, derriere secured by a rather fine sports seat covered in a mix of Alcantara and Nappa leather, and mounted appealingly low in the body, just like a sports car’s should be.
They probably aren’t, however, imagining that the pedal box appears to have been mounted to suit someone who’s lost both legs below the knee in a farming accident. It does though, which is a shame, because the Audi TT’s traditional sports car straight-leg driving position is one of the key bits Peugeot’s team could have done with copying. Instead, you feel like you’re working some loom in a pre-industrialised 18th-century cotton mill, as you tread the pedals.
That’s not the only disappointment. If there’s one glaring omission from the spec sheet it’s the option of a dual-clutch ’box. An entire decade after Audi launched its DSG, Peugeot is still busy developing its own, meaning the RCZ R comes only with a six-speed manual. The Scirocco offers both.
The Pug’s gearknob feels unnecessarily large, and the change (shorter for the R) is light but just less than slick, with a slightly knuckly feel as you drag it across the gate. The Scirocco’s standard six-speed manual is smoother, and this car’s dual-clutch six-speeder, a £1400 option, is lightning fast. I still love a great manual ’box, but climbing up and down the Col’s twists and turns the DSG makes it that much easier to be in the right ratio, whether you’re selecting it yourself, tapping on those steering wheel paddles or even knocking the stick back and forth.
And punters love it too: Volkswagen says 66% of Scirocco R buyers go for the DSG option. But if that means they’d dismiss the RCZ R out of hand they’d be in danger of missing out on something rather good. Because here’s the thing: the Scirocco R, one of our favourite real-world performance cars, a car we’d pick in our top 10 front-drive sports cars every time, is nowhere near as much of a giggle to hoon about in as its Peugeot rival.
This is why we do these stories, why we drag cars all over the world for comparison tests, because there is simply no substitute for hammering one car down a stretch of Tarmac, then doubling back and repeating the exact same exercise in its worst enemy. The Scirocco does nothing wrong. In fact it is rather brilliant. It steers faithfully, grips well and by toggling the standard-fit adaptive dampers to Sport you can clamp down on body movements as much as you think you’d ever want to.
But the RCZ R is better. It steers more crisply and delivers more feel, turns in more keenly, and just feels that much more alert. Run through a fast sequence at the top of the Col, a quick, open section featuring more left-rights than an army drill, and the Peugeot changes tack like an electrical current that’s been re-routed at the flick of a switch. The body control is strong, it takes a clumsy push to get the nose to run wide and those seats are far more supportive than the VW’s chairs. The 208 was good, but this is a far more serious bit of kit. I’m impressed.
The brakes are better than the Scirocco’s too, and boy they should be given the size of the discs and giant four-pot calipers gripping them. The pedal feel inspires confidence that’s not misplaced: this thing could stop on a Daim, even if it was melted all over the road. Again, in isolation, the Scirocco’s brakes would seem fine, but the microscopic gaze of the twin-test eye reveals them to be inferior. There’s some superb suspension tuning going on here by the French team, and a belts-and-braces approach to braking, certainly. But there’s something else at work, too. Take a look at the kerb weights: the Scirocco weighs in at a stout 1364kg, meaning the RCZ is nearly 84kg lighter.
Does Peugeot get things all its own way? No. The RCZ’s engine hurls itself to the redline with gusto and pushes out a decent tune on the way. It feels more energetic than the VW’s gruffer 2.0, but there are times when the Pug’s lack of cubic capacity becomes apparent, times when you’ve exited a corner, dropped the hammer and are waiting for the boost to arrive, times when a seven-speed dual-clutch ’box would be a godsend. And that’s despite the 243lb ft torque peak supposedly being available all the way through from 1900rpm to 5000rpm. And while sub-6sec to 62mph might be serious performance for a Peugeot, it’s nothing revelatory for a modern coupe. The RCZ never feels outrageously quick.
There’s some torque steer too, an almost inevitable side effect of fitting a proper mechanical limited-slip differential without applying sophisticated electronic controls to it, as on the latest Golf GTI’s optional Performance Pack. The older Scirocco doesn’t have that option, and makes do with a brake-based fake LSD. It does a good job of reining in its 258lb ft with little steering corruption, but it can’t hold a candle to the real thing.
Gun the RCZ R through a bend and you never quite get that physics-defying ‘walking stick round a lamp-post’ feeling you get with Renault’s Megane RS 265 Cup – or at least we didn’t on these roads. Maybe it was the surface, or my clumsy right foot, but sometimes both wheels would spin up together and send the front end away from the apex rather than lunging towards it. There’s no doubt though that in a straight fight across Monte Carlo Rally country, the Scirocco was left in the Pugs’s wake. The RCZ R is a handy tool, no question.
But it’s not just the full chat stuff that the Peugeot gets right. We might like to imagine that we spend all our time bouncing off the limiter down A-roads emptier than a Renault showroom, but these cars have to work on real roads too. And the biggest shock of the test is that the RCZ’s simple fixed-rate dampers provide a more supple ride than the Scirocco’s adaptive shocks in any of their three settings. The RCZ’s ride often feels firm, but it does so without bothering you with the short-wave tremors that the Scirocco seems intent on passing on. Sticking with the liveability theme, the Pug should also cost significantly less to run, its impressive 44.8mpg and 145g/km CO2 tallies comfortably outshining the VW’s 35.3mpg and 187g/km efforts, and standard-fit satellite navigation saves another grand.
For many of you, however, there’s an even more practical consideration that will make the outcome of this test redundant. If you’ve got no kids, and even fewer friends, the fact that the Peugeot’s back seats are as realistic as a pantomime backdrop won’t be an issue. For everyone else, the Scirocco chooses itself.
Even if you don’t need those back seats, the Volkswagen has much to recommend it. If push came to shove, and I had to drop my own money on one of these (having inexplicably decided not to buy an 18-month-old Porsche Cayman instead), I’d be tempted by the Scirocco too. But the Peugeot – better value, cheaper to run, more exciting to drive and, to many eyes, better to look at – puts up a formidable fight.