As motoring brand ambassadors go, it doesn’t get much sexier than Peugeot’s RCZ. The striking coupé, with its low-slung stance and double bubble roof, is in-the-metal proof that mainstream marques can build aspirational, desirable models, too. Three years after its local launch, DEON SCHOEMAN drives the updated version.
When Peugeot revealed a striking two-door concept at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show, few people would have wagered on the handsome but radical coupé making it into production. Two years later, the Peugeot RZC was unveiled in production form, and by April 2010, it was on showroom floors.
Had the RCZ been the doing of a small-scale specialist sports car maker, its transition from concept to reality would perhaps have been less surprising. But that a mainstream automaker like Peugeot would be prepared to build a specialist coupé took many pundits by surprise.
Three years later, RCZ production has already surpassed the 50,000 mark, vindicating Peugeot’s decision to build it. Based on the 308 hatchback platform, the coupé is a good example of how distinctive styling and mainstream mechanicals can be fused into something truly special, without the exotic price tag usually associated with designer products. That it shares its mechanicals with something as pragmatic as the 308 also means that maintenance and running costs are no higher than the car they were culled from. In that sense, the RCZ is a sports car for the people, at least in relative terms.
The original RCZ featured a bold, gaping grille, a design trait shared by several other models in the French marque’s line-up, including the 308 hatch and the 3008 crossover. But Peugeot’s design language has since become less verbose, so to speak. The new 208, for instance, features a cleaner, tidier front end. The updated RCZ mirrors this move to stylistic sanity. The grille has become smaller and tidier and has swapped the egg crate treatment for subtler, horizontal bars. A curved lower air intake is highlighted by slim, bright daytime running lights. The result is a visually elegant and more cohesive appearance, and one that may also prove to be more enduring over time.
While the front end is, therefore, all new, the rest of the shape has remained unchanged, and rightly so. The proportions still favour a low-slung, wide-tracked look that places particular emphasis on the sculpted flanks and the pronounced swagger of the haunches. The roofline draws a smoothly arced line that originates in the A-pillar and intersects the bulge of the rear fender. The resulting roof arches, highlighted in a metallic finish, represent one of the RCZ’s defining design traits.
But it’s the roof itself, with a so-called “double bubble” that extends into the rear screen, that is the design’s focal point. It highlights the fluid shape of the coupé’s profile, while introducing a certain classic sports car aesthetic quite unique in the mass-production context. The rear remains virtually identical to the first-generation car. The rounded derriere could be considered a little soft by sports car standards, but rather than voluptuousness, it adds muscle to the RCZ’s presence.
Inside, those familiar with the RCZ will find that very little has changed. The high-backed seats still offer firm but comfortable support; the finishes and materials still look and feel the upmarket part; and the standard features list sets a luxurious tone. Perhaps the most significant improvement is the upgraded infotainment system, which comprises satellite navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming and telephony, FM tuner, and both an analogue auxiliary audio connection, and a USB port for flash drive and iDevice connectivity.
Despite the presence of two occasional rear seats, the RCZ is very much a two-seater, with space for extra luggage, or small kids, at the back. However, there’s no shortage of luggage space. The boot is huge by sporty coupé standards, and the 380 litres of cargo space can be extended to 760 litres by folding those silly little seats down.
The turbocharged 1.6 litre engine powering the RCZ must be one of the most successful small-capacity, high-output power units on the market. As before, the four-cylinder is credited with 147kW and 275Nm, and drives the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox.
New to the revised RCZ range is the 115kW version of the same engine, but paired with a six-speed auto transmission. That combination sounds more like a wafter than a goer, but will suit those boulevard cruisers more interested in the car’s visual appeal than its dynamic capabilities. The diesel model offered previously has been dropped from the line-up.
However, for me, it’s the 147kW manual gearbox model that has always shone brightest, and in that regard, nothing has changed. The engine feels willing, the gearbox action is slick and positive, and there’s even a nice, rorty exhaust note as the revs rise.
The chassis settings are far from hard-core sports car, but still taut enough to ensure ample feedback and tidy responses. In fact, the Peugeot folk have got the suspension just right: compliant enough to soak up the worst of the bumps and ruts, but with a firmness that counters body roll, and allows the car to corner with flat assurance.
Perhaps its just because I haven’t driven an RCZ for some time, but this latest version feels gutsier and sportier than I remember. It’s swift rather than rapid by sports car standards, with a zero to 100km/h sprint time of 7.5 seconds, and a 240km/h top speed.
If you know your stats, you’ll notice that the top speed claim is 5 km/h up on the original RCZ, but that the acceleration time is identical. There have also been slight gains in fuel consumption and emissions levels, although it has to be said that the RCZ is a petrol-hungry beast if you make full use of the engine’s lusty potential.
But for me, the most engaging aspect of the French coupé is its immediacy and responsiveness. Despite its smooth road manners and its inherent composure, it’s able to communicate its every move with an honesty and a purity of purpose that ensures absolute involvement. Plus, you don’t need to drive at a million miles an hour to enjoy it!