Is the new Peugeot RCZ Pugnacious enough?

Published: 22 March 2010

Snare a copy of April’s CAR and you’ll be able to read contributing editor Jethro Bovingdon’s take on the Peugeot RCZ, which was pitted against the VW Scirocco and the Audi TT, on a climatically bipolar triple test near Peugeot’s HQ in eastern France. A period of just over 24 hours saw the trio of cars bathed in glorious morning sunshine on dry tarmac, chew through mountain-top pea soup, sluice along sodden autoroutes, and finally slither through a blizzard which appeared with all the warning of a Jehovah’s Witness ringing your doorbell.

The TT is the RCZ’s most direct rival (and ostensibly its inspiration), so having driven our test car from Audi’s nerve centre in Ingolstadt some 400 miles to the French rendezvous, I was in a handy position to assess the worthiness of Peugeot’s new model as a credible (and cheaper) challenger to Audi’s highly successful coupe, and to see if Peugeot has built a real sports cars once more.

The RCZ is an important car for Peugeot - a very important car. Having boldly binned its iconic GTi badge last year, and using a non-numerical model name for the first time, the French manufacturer has declared a hefty split from tradition with the RCZ.

The seminal 205 GTi made Peugeot’s sub-brand the stuff of legend (which the company acknowledges was especially true in the UK), but a succession of disappointing modern GTi models dulled the badge to the point where it became an unmitigated marketing device, rather than a continuing bloodline of feisty sports cars with both fizz under the lid and character in the chassis. The last of the breed is the 207 GTi, which does the easy part with a 175bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre engine, but fails to complete the package thanks to unbalanced handling characteristics and a jarring ride.

When Renault is making sublime pocket rockets like the Clio Cup, simply clinging on to past glories isn’t going to cut the mustard for Peugeot. It was a bold move to drop the GTi badge, but, on this argument, the right one.

Peugeot’s current flagship coupe, the 407, pushes the “sports car” tag to the limit. The modern automotive anomaly that is the diesel coupé finds its most bedraggled form in the 407. Peugeot reacted to the demands of its clients by dropping petrol engines from the range altogether, effectively making the car a less practical repmobile more than it is a sports car. No matter how powerful or lag-free diesel engines become, the limited rev range and soul-free soundtrack make stirring an oil-burner’s ‘box down a country road unrewarding at best and a chore at worst.

If sportiness starts with aesthetics, the RCZ is off to a flyer. Next to the current TT, which lacks the purity and simple Audi-ness of the original, the Pug is the better-looking car to my eye. It’s low and wide, and the pronounced and purposeful wheel arches, the hockey-stick window line, the swooping hoops over the cockpit and the beautiful double-bubble roof add up to a powerful, sleek form. The back end is very long, and echoes a mid-engined supercar shape, but the pop-up spoiler balances the roundness of the rump.

The front end seems garish in comparison. That face might suit a 207, but padded out it looks a little ungainly, not aided by the clumsy-looking front bumper and massive lion badge, which sits gleaming and gaudy like an Ali G neck-chain. For some shapes, small is beautiful, which is why I’d say the VW Polo looks neater and prettier than its Russian-doll big brother Golf, and the same applies here. For the most part, though, the RCZ lives up to the “affordable supercar” image optimistically proffered by the Peugeot team that joined us for the test.

While materials inside don’t match the TT for quality, and the seat leather in our test car was already baggy in places, it is a cabin that makes you want to drive, and drive fast. On the move, steering is noticeably heavier than the TT, but it is communicative, and torque steer is more gradual and less intrusive than I’d expected from our 2.0-litre diesel (sigh) test car in damp conditions. The brakes have more feel than the TT’s, but then Audi stoppers are generally less progressive than a pomade-wearing Latin teacher. During my brief fling behind the RCZ’s wheel I felt well connected to the driving experience, and the back end seemed to have been invited to the party, unlike the 207 GTi, which was criticised for following its nose all too literally. A brief drive, but so far so good.

I can’t beat around the bush any more, and have to mention the engine. Sadly we couldn’t get our hands on the turbocharged 1.6-litre 200bhp model, and had to make do with the 2.0-litre HDi with 163bhp. Appraising the RCZ with a diesel engine was like being blindfolded and passing your hands over the Venus de Milo wearing a pair of woolly gloves. There were hints of good - even very good - things, but without the liberty afforded by a couple of thousand more revs and a rasping engine note (further enhanced by an optional acoustic duct on petrol versions), it was impossible to fully engage with the RCZ’s driving experience.

At just £2300 more than the 156bhp non-turbo 1.6, choosing the blown model is a no-brainer. So, surely the 200bhp model will put the RCZ firmly into proper sports car territory? Certainly Bovingdon’s smile after a quick passenger ride in the more powerful car would suggest so, but perhaps that was more relief at being out of the diesel RCZ than delight at the petrol version’s outright ability, because the turbocharged petrol car hardly provides a whirlwind of pace, on paper at least. The range-topper cracks 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds – slower than the 207 GTi by half a tick. The original 1.9-litre 205 GTi broke the back of 60mph in a similar time to the RCZ, but in a smaller, less cosseted and less engineered car, that felt quick. In a modern, broad, precision-tooled coupe, it does not. Of course speed isn’t everything, but it matters.

It’s the power-to-weight ratio that is the problem. Although much has been made of the RCZ’s hi-tech materials including an aluminium bonnet/front wing unit, 141bhp/tonne is a miserly figure for a top-dog engine. The optional carbonfibre roof at £1330 will help, but not by a measure great enough to dump the second or two this car needs to slash from its 0-60mph time. If we look at like-for-like power, the 197bhp TT completes the benchmark dash in 6.6 seconds, and that is part of a range that also includes a 3.2-litre V6 and the 335bhp RS.

The RCZ is derived from the 308, but in equivalent 1.6-litre turbo guise, the coupé weighs 25kg more than the hatch, and 161kg more than the TT. The RCZ needs to add power, or lightness, or both, if it is to be a real sports car contender. The existing engine can produce more power, such as the 211bhp variant in the Mini John Cooper Works, but a coupe of this size needs more cubic centimetres to start with, rather than squeezing more horses from a unit designed for a hot hatch, which, sadly, will be the more affordable and therefore more likely approach should a hotter RCZ be made.

For the moment the RCZ is as much a flag-bearer as a sports car. The giant Peugeot badge on the nose testifies to this – the company knows the car will attract looks, and wants to convert that into a brand image to lift sales across the board. A small, understated badge would have created more intrigue anyway, as well as looking much more refined. The RCZ has lots to be excited about, but it needs to be let off the leash before it will give past glories a run for their money.