First impressions count for a lot but that doesn’t mean they’re always right. If they were I’d have handed back the keys to Peugeot’s new RCZ R with a feeling of disappointment.
The first few miles of my test route were an alarming combination of squirming steering accompanied by the sort of ride quality that has Harley Street osteopaths rubbing their hands in glee. My heart sank as I came to the conclusion that Peugeot Sport had overcooked the RCZ.
You can partially blame the driver though. Finding a good route when you’re on unfamiliar roads can be a lottery and this time my numbers hadn’t come up. I’m not sure I could have picked a worse selection of roads in those first few miles.
Slowly things improved. We found roads that were smoother, quieter and better sighted. Here was a chance to put down the RCZ R’s prodigious power (all 270bhp from the turbocharged 1.6) and revel in the sensations it provides. And oh my, it delivers some exciting sensations.
Let’s start with the steering. Sat between the front wheels is a Torsen differential, a mechanical device designed to shuffle torque from one spinning wheel over to the other side. Great on dry, smooth tarmac but with 330Nm to contend with the diff was always going to struggle on cold, greasy, crumbling tarmac.
At first the sensations from the writhing steering wheel make the RCZ R feel like a proper handful. What it’s actually doing is talking to you in a clear and concise way that’s missing from most modern cars. It tells you when the front wheels are struggling for grip so you can back off the power or when they’re nicely hooked up so you can confidently dial in more. Get it right and you feel the differential helping to tighten the line and slingshot you out of the corner.
It’s one of the most communicative setups I’ve driven for some time. You need to keep your wits about you on bad roads but if you wanted a relaxing drive you wouldn’t be looking at a car like this.
On to the suspension. Yes, it’s unrelenting in its firmness and it asks for a lot of patience from driver and passenger. The pay-off is a handling balance that has been missing from Peugeots for a long time.
The springs are stiffer at the front by 14% and rear by 44%, while the ride height drops by 10mm. Revised dampers do an admirable job of removing any vagueness from the ride and as a result the RCZ always feels controlled, not nervous or skittish.
The RCZ always had good stance but in R trim it looks really hunkered down. The delightful arch-filling 19-inch wheels reinforce that look and come with a set of low-profile asymmetric Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres painted onto them.
The sharper setup makes the RCZ R feel much more engaging on the road but it’s on track that it really comes alive. Dive into corners and the RCZ stays flat while the Goodyears give ample grip. Lift off the throttle or brake late into a corner and the rear wheels start to slide. Not by much (unless you make a real mess of things) but enough to keep you alert and ready for the occasional tiny correction on the steering. This was never on the cards in the standard RCZ but now the whole chassis feels like it wants to play.
Then there’s the engine. Peugeot Sport have worked wonders to extract 168bhp per litre and the upgrades are significant. A reinforced engine block, new twin-scroll turbo and exhaust manifolds, stronger conrods and new forged pistons designed by Mahle Motorsport, the company who has provided pistons to the last 20 Le Mans winners.
The result is 270bhp at 6000rpm and 330Nm of torque available from 1,900 all the way to 5,500rpm. You could stay in a high gear and make use of that broad spread of torque but the real fun is in the upper reaches, where the engine really comes alive. On the road it feels fearsomely fast, surging through the gears with an insatiable appetite.
And the noise! The exhausts have been tuned to amplify the noise and you’re treated to a combination of a loud bark accompanied by a metallic howl as the engine surges past 4,000rpm. The noise settles at low speeds but compels you to make the most of each gear.
As crazy as it seems, the RCZ R actually has the most economical petrol engine in the RCZ range. It’s officially a greener choice than the 156THP, with figures of 44mpg and 145g/km, and already meets Euro 6 standards.
Finally there are the brakes. All that performance would be of little use if the anchors weren’t up to the job but fear not, the RCZ R is extremely well endowed. At the front are 380 x 32mm discs gripped by red 4-piston Alcon calipers, mounted to an aluminium hub for improved cooling. They feel mighty on the road and on track they easily withstood four fast laps.
The only thing that spoils the party is the interior. Tracing its roots back to the previous-gen 308, the RCZ’s cabin is looking increasingly dated. The pop-up sat-nav’s display is poor, there’s no touch-screen interaction and the fit and finish of plastics isn’t up to scratch.
On the plus side the leather-lined dash is spruced up with red stitching and Peugeot’s leather and alcantara seats are superb. The odd-shaped gearstick has been lifted from the 208 GTI, Peugeot Sport logos adorn the sills and there’s a slightly tacky looking plaque on the center console. Oh, and the delightful analogue clock remains.
So how much do Peugeot want for this ultimate RCZ? The asking price is £31,995, £5k more than the 200THP, for which you get the mechanical upgrades, those excellent seats, sat-nav and xenons included in the price. Obvious competitors are the Audi TTS at £36k, which offers less power but four-wheel drive, while the FWD experience is similar to the £26k Renaultsport Megane 265. Is it worth nearly £32k? I would say yes, the mechanical upgrades are enough to justify the price increase. If you’re not convinced take a test drive and let the R do the talking.
The RCZ R is a clear demonstration that Peugeot have remembered how to build fast and exciting cars. It is more in-your-face than the 208 GTI and it leaves me wondering what Peugeot Sport could do with that car. And what of the new 308? We’ve already seen a concept 308 R and there is talk of a lesser 308 GTI. Whatever the future holds, if Peugeot can work the same wonders on those cars as they have with the RCZ R then we’re in for a treat. Just make sure you pick some decent roads before you go for a drive…
|Performance & Economy||Peugeot RCZ R|
|Engine||1.6-litre turbocharged 4-cyl, petrol|
|Transmission||6-speed manual, front-wheel drive|
|Power (PS / bhp)||273 / 270|
|Torque (Nm / lb.ft)||330 / 243|
|0 \u2013 60 mph (seconds)||5.9|
|Top Speed (mph)||155 (limited)|
|CO2 Emissions (g/km)||145|
|Combined Economy (mpg)||44.8|
|Kerb Weight (kg)||1,280|