By Jonathan Crouch
Peugeot's strong history of sporting cars was successfully revived with this one, the RCZ. A gorgeous 2+2 coupe with curvy lines and a line-up of punchy but affordable engines, this sporting model brought new life to its brand when originally launched in 2010. Peugeot significantly updated it in 2013 to create the facelifted version that we're going to evaluate here as a potential used car buy. This is still one of the most striking choices you can make in the search for a sports coupe of this kind on a reasonably affordable budget.
Just over two hundred years ago, two brothers, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Frederic Peugeot, took a brave decision. They would set up a company in their father's corn mill that would first sell saws and tools and go on later to sell bicycles, motorbikes and cars. More than 55 million vehicle sales and two centuries later, the lion emblem originally adopted to illustrate the strength of the teeth of the brothers' handsaws adorned the most exciting machine the French company had ever created. One designed very much to sharpen its sportscar credentials. The exclusive, yet affordable RCZ.
Back in the early Nineties when Peugeot used to dominate the classic Le Mans 24 hour race, it also used to dominate the market for affordable sporting cars, the 205 GTi the must-have shopping rocket of its day. It died in 1993, along with Peugeot's involvement on the track and the Gallic brand was never quite the same. Until the launch of this RCZ coupe in 2010. It was based on the humble underpinnings of the company's first generation 308 family hatch and appeared just after this famous French marque had at last once again triumphed in Le Mans, overtaking Audi, whose TT sportscar this RCZ was designed to see off in the showrooms. Here, we were told, was the new face of a very different company, its first passenger car badged by name, not by number, and, we were promised, the first in nearly twenty years to rekindle the bite of the Peugeot brand.
In the years following, we saw some of that potential fulfilled but enthusiasts were still left wanting more. To try and satisfy them, Peugeot facelifted the RCZ in 2013 to create the version we're going to look at here. A year later in 2014, they added a flagship RCZ R variant to the range, powered by a more potent 240bhp version of the 1.6-litre THP engine. The RCZ was finally phased out early in 2017.
What You Get
At this car's original launch back in 2010, it was prettier than anything else you could get for the price. Who would argue that it still is? This is one of those rare things: a motorshow concept car - in this case the 308 RCZ of 2007 - brought almost unchanged to production reality. This is a shape simply dripping with beautiful detail, most notably with the deliciously voluptuous rear window where two perfect curves of glass merge seamlessly with the twin humps of the roof, this car's so-called 'double-bubble' styling signature. It looks sensational, offering a handcrafted feel with enough wow factor to make a pricier Audi TT seem very ordinary indeed.
As for the aesthetic changes made to this post-2013 facelifted version, well, we're not sure they were needed, but at least they were done very subtly by original stylist Boris Reinmoller. There are bonnet lines intended to create a more compact feel, emphasising an updated satin-finished marque emblem. Also satin-finished are two added chrome front grille bars, shaped like 'Samurai sword blades' according to the designers. They certainly enliven a central air intake extended on each side by daytime running lights, each created from six LEDs and subtly sculpted in the form of claws.
Move inside through the large doors and you'll find an interior Peugeot was rightly proud of. The driving position's low-set and sporting but on base models, the lovely prominent circular clock and assorted metallic accents aren't quite enough to completely divert your attention from some of the hard plastics - on the glovebox lid for instance - that are a legacy of a 308-derived dash. Still, the leather seats included on higher spec models lifted the ambiance and many original owners wisely fitted the extra-cost integral leather pack that extends hide to the upper part of the dashboard, making it all feel properly premium.
And practicality? Rather improbably on a car of this kind, it is something of an RCZ virtue, despite the fact that unlike its immediate rivals, this Gallic sportscar has a boot rather than a rear hatch. On this evidence, it is perhaps a better way to go, for before you start folding seats, this RCZ's 384-litre luggage capacity is significantly greater, than that of an Audi TT and on a par with the apparently larger VW Scirocco. There's another 30-litres of space under the floor too. Fold the rear seats and the total luggage capacity figure rises to 760-litres. You might be tempted to keep them folded too as, unlike the VW, this isn't a place you could reasonably seat two adults - not unless you had something against them anyway.
What To Look For
What to Look For
We came across quite a few reliability and quality issues in our RCZ ownership survey, so you'll need to shop carefully on the used market. We came across reports of squeaky brakes, rattly exhausts, internal rattles, a grinding sound on brake application and a knocking sound on the front suspension. On one car, the hill start brake kept sticking on and the overheating warning light kept illuminating. On another, the owner experienced oil leaks, water leaks, had to fit two new clutches and experienced faults with the sat nav and the stereo. One car had its thermostat sensor fail, had an oil leak from the gearbox and had to have sections of its exterior chromework replaced. On another, the cylinder head had to be replaced, along with the coms module, the boot release, the sat nav screen and the temperature sensor.
(approx based on a 2015 TCZ 1.6 THP 200 excl. VAT) A pair of brake pads are between £27-£43 for cheap brands and up to around £55 if you want an expensive make. A pair of brake discs start in the £33 to £38 bracket, but you can pay up to £58 or even up to around £90 for pricier brands. A drive belt is around £7-£12 but you can pay up to £72 for pricier brands. Air filters sit in the £9-£14 bracket. Oil filters cost between £3 and £6 depending on brand. A fuel filter is around £5-£7. A wiper blade is around £17. A headlamp is around £100 but you can pay up to £166 for pricier brands.
On the Road
Though the emotive looks aren't quite as racy once you take a seat inside, it's still hard not to approach a drive in this car without a sense of anticipation. What exactly will a coupe that looks like this really feel like to drive? If you've done your homework before slipping behind the wheel, your expectations might be tempered a little by the reality of the fact that the RCZ's underpinnings aren't those of a hardcore sports car. But so what? That's the case in just about any affordable performance machine and it's certainly true of this model's most obvious rivals, Audi's TT and Volkswagen's Scirocco.
You might though, still be forgiven for expecting that such a futuristic shape would clothe something a little more hi-tech than the kind of front driven, torsen beam-suspended set-up found on any ordinary family hatch, in this case borrowed from Peugeot's Focus-sized MK1 model 308. But as other brands have proved over the years, the ingredients available matter a lot less than the way that they're used.
And the signs that they may have been used rather effectively in this case come the first time you venture off the highway and begin to flick this little lion from lock to lock. Here is a car involving enough to make an ordinary Audi TT seem really rather dull. Like the TT, it has a pop-up rear spoiler, this one activating in two phases, first at a shallow 19-degree angle at 53mph, then at a more overt 34-degrees should you be driving on a road where 96mph is possible.
More important is the news that on your favourite back road home, this car will feel light and alive, corner flatly and provide plenty of grip at the front end. Are there downsides? Yes of course, but they aren't too many and they're not especially significant. The firm ride you'd expect but it can fidget over the poorest surfaces. The 6-speed manual gearbox is positive but slightly notchy (one reason why, at lower order petrol level, some buyers might want the optional 6-speed auto). The steering, though accurate, could be more responsive. And it could feel faster, a legacy of the long-ish gearing there to control running costs and the high-ish weight.
The speed sensation thing is obviously most noticeable on the least powerful variants. Most choose the THP 156, that figure being the braked horsepower output, enough to see sixty mph from rest in 8.3s on the way to 133mph. The alternative is the Sport HDi 163, with a 2.0-litre diesel that's nearly as eager, making sixty two in 8.7s on the way to 137mph. For us though, it would be tempting to dig a little deeper into our budget and get a mechanical package far more in keeping with the promise of those striking looks - that of the top THP 200 model.
Here you get the same BMW co-developed 1.6-litre turbo unit used in the base petrol version, but in this case teased out to 200bhp, repositioning this as a 150mph car. The benefits of going large don't stop with the extra 40bhp either. THP 200 buyers also get extra bracing under the engine for added stiffness and response, upgraded brakes, plus re-tuned suspension that's crisper and more direct, as well as the smaller steering wheel, the shorter-throw gearshift and the sound system package that emphasises the exhaust note, all of which really should be standard across the range. As a result, though this model's 7.6s 0-62mph time is just 0.7s quicker than the THP156 petrol variant, the complete package is very different: try it before you settle for anything less.
Or better still, find yourself the top RCZ R variant. With 260bhp on tap, again from the same 1.6-litre petrol turbo engine, this was at launch the most powerful production model in Peugeot's history, derived from the RCZ Racing Cup track car.
This was a really classic piece of design. Some initially dismissed it as a cheap copy of Audi's TT, but for us, they're dead wrong. This is its own car with its own very distinct sense of style. Which fortunately didn't change much in this improved form. Reliability issues that Peugeot never quite solved mean you'll need to shop carefully, but if you find a good RCZ, you'll get yourself a very desirable yet very affordable coupe.
It's the kind of car that few of those who buy will ever have expected to be able to own. Exotic yet accessible, it's still a compelling package - and a fitting tribute to an enduring brand.