Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say. Casting a lingering glance over the sensuous curves of Peugeot’s pretty RCZ coupé, I have to confess I am smitten with its exquisiteness.

The beautiful Peugeot RCZ GT HDi 163

The RCZ is French marque’s first coupé based on its small-medium range since the demise of the 304 Coupé back in the 1970s. And what a return to form.

After years of pursuing styling themes that migrated from cars resembling slippery but pretty bars of soap to the more wide mouthed and weird offerings of late, Peugeot is reinvigorating itself with passionate design. The curvy and detailed RCZ is the best exponent of this new design language so far.

At first sight the uninitiated exclaim that the RCZ is little more than an Audi TT clone, but the reality is there’s little more than a passing similarity between their silhouettes. Yes, both are based on their respective brand’s ‘C’-sized platforms (A3 for the TT and 308 for the RCZ) and both feature unique coupé bodywork, but that’s about it.

Audi’s second generation TT is an evolution of the original’s Bauhaus theme, with simple, elegant lines. The Peugeot is a much busier looking car, with visual interest on every surface of its bodywork. So where to begin?

Aggressive styling themes help form the shape of the nose

The RCZ’s nose initially appears to be the same as the 308’s but a closer inspection reveals they’re very different. The former’s bumper is more aggressive in its look with sharper angles shaping the outer edges of the still wide grille. Here the width works though, hinting at a throbbing engine beneath the bonnet requiring a massive intake through which to suck in huge volumes of air. The nose panel above features a very prominent central bump, the lion rampant badge sitting proudly on a plinth in its centre. Beyond that, the bonnet panel is a completely different pressing to the hatchback upon which it’s based, wrapping over the back half of the front wheels to partially form the wings, giving a semi-clamshell appearance.

Both front and rear wings are heavily sculpted, the panels bulging out like an athlete’s muscles shrouding the 19” alloys.  And beautiful wheels they are too – a design called Solstice, finished in satin black with a silver rim. On this Nero Black example of the RCZ they were a perfect accompaniment.

Muscular wings and wide doors dominate the RCZ's flanks

Between the wings lies a single, large side door (this is a proper coupé after all, not a 4-door pastiche of one), its frameless glass featuring a little kick-up at the trailing edge that leads into a small triangular side window for rear seat passengers. Above the window line, a beautifully contrasting arc in satin silver, framing the glass below but also providing a fiendishly clever styling element. Those arcs appear at first glance to be the actual roofline of the RCZ, gracing it with a much lower stance. But it’s an intriguing slight of hand, for between them, the roof and rear window is shaped and actually sits above the line of the arc.

Beautiful double curvature of the roof with strong silver arcs framing the side windows

Immediately the double curvature of the roof hints at earlier work from Zagato and the closed Shelby Cobras of the 60s, where the roofs of the racing coupés were bubbled outwards to provide room for the driver and passenger to wear crash helmets comfortably. The RCZ takes that styling element and draws it right down through the rear windscreen, eventually flattening out at its base ready to join the bootlid. It’s by far the Peugeot’s most attractive feature, which anthropomorphically speaking bears an uncanny resemblance to the curvature of the back of a woman; the swell of the rear wings below mimicking her hips… and I better stop there.

The elegantly drooping tail features a pop up rear wing to increase high speed stability

Where the flattened, somewhat elongated bootlid begins, those silver roof arcs meld attractively into the tail’s line, even featuring a pair of vestigial flying buttresses as if to give a nod to the elegant 406 Coupé of the 1990s, which also employed their fitment.

The RCZ’s tail droops – elegantly and not apologetically – featuring two oversized light clusters which illuminate with LED technology and look stunning at night. Between them lies an electrically assisted rear wing, that pops up at speed in two stages negating lift that might be created as the Peugeot’s velocity increases. This can also be raised or lowered using a button located near the handbrake.

There are two regular trim levels in the RCZ line-up, Sport and GT, with a more expensive matte grey painted Asphalte limited edition currently topping the range. Both Sport and GT versions are available with a 1.6 turbo petrol engine in two states of tune (156 and 200bhp) or a 2-litre turbo diesel, as tested here. All models have a 6-speed manual gearbox, with the less powerful petrol model also having the option of a 6-speed automatic.

Prices range from the Sport THP 156 at £21,245 up to the GT THP 200 at £25,945 – the limited edition Asphalte, also with the 200bhp engine, is just under £30,000 and limited to a mere 40 examples in the UK.

Inner Beauty

Grab the RCZ’s chunky door handle to enter the cabin and you’re greeted with a smart interior upholstered in acres of stitched grey leather. Not only does it cloak the seats, but the majority of the dashboard moulding and tops of the door cards, providing a luxurious and high quality ambiance.

Welcome to the RCZ GT's leather-lined cabin

The dash itself proves to be a minor disappointment in terms of its looks though and is one area the TT will score over the Peugeot. Audi has bestowed its small coupé with a unique dashboard, offering an enclosed cockpit feel to reinforce the sporting message. Aside from the leather covering and a large analogue clock replacing the central air vent, the RCZ shares its dashboard with the 308 and with it comes an MPV feel to the interior.

A leather jacket and big watch don't disguise the dashboard's 308 origins

Although the controls are easy to reach and feel very pleasant to use, the dashboard and windscreen feel a long way away, meaning you don’t feel snugly confined as you do in many sporting coupes. Initially, this does detract but the longer you spend with the RCZ the more you realise it suits the character Peugeot is trying to convey. That said, you can’t help but wonder that had greater resources been available, would they still have tickled the 308’s interior or provided an all-new one.

The RCZ’s build quality feels of a high standard, with no apparent squeaks or rattles from the mouldings. Inevitably there are some harder, less attractive plastics inside but they tend to be in the lower extremities where your fingers rarely venture.

Interior stowage is not a strong point, with slim gaps and bins here and there for odds and ends and a reasonably sized central storage bin, featuring a sliding armrest, supplementing the small glovebox.

Bucket front seats with integrated head rests lend a sporting air to the cabin to counter the dashboard’s best efforts, looking great and offering both support and comfort on long journeys. Both are electrically adjustable offering a wide range of movement and permitting a low seating position in the best sports car tradition. The embossed Peugeot lion logo in the upper seat backs looks tasteful rather than twee.

It's probably best you don't even attempt to get in here unless you're less than 5ft tall

The rear seats are something else entirely. Still upholstered in the soft grey leather, the pair of back seats look flat and unappealing, with limited legroom available too. Even edging the front seats as far forward as they will go doesn’t liberate much more room. The whole operation of climbing in and out of the back seats with any sense of dignity will no doubt be featured on a future episode of Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed, the process being hampered by the fact that only the seat back tips forward, with the base remaining resolutely put.

Anyone of anything near adult proportions may as well forget any notions of sitting there for a journey – such is the angle of attack of that sloping rear screen that, despite its curvature, not only will your head be touching the glass, but so will the back of your neck due to bending forwards at such an acute slant. Best leave these to children and think of the RCZ as a 2+2 rather than a proper 4-seater.

The RCZ reveals its more practical side

The back seats do fold to extend the luggage compartment, although when you open the boot to reveal a surprisingly capacious (for a coupé) 309l of space, you’d rarely need to. The boot’s deep and very sensibly shaped too making it a usefully practical proposition.

In GT specification, the RCZ is generously equipped. In addition to the leather interior and heated sports seats, it also features front and rear parking sensors, automatic lights and wipers, cruise control, dual zone climate control and Bluetooth connectivity for both phone and music player functions.

A Satisfying Drive?

As soon as you set off in the RCZ on any kind of journey, there’s an immediate sense of well-engineered precision about the driving experience on offer. The controls communicate clearly and effectively through driver’s palms and feet, engaging you effortlessly in what it has to offer – so much so it feels unrelated in this respect to the 308 donor car.

There’s a weight to the pedals that makes them feel meaty but without being too heavy. The brakes respond with a strong initial bite, but allow for good control for modulating deceleration effectively for sharp bends and roundabouts.

The accelerator too is quick to respond offering a most undiesel-like snarl as it rafts along on a torrent of torque, surging forwards much more rapidly than the official 0-60 figure of 8.7 seconds suggests and on to a respectable top speed of 137mph.

Making progress in the RCZ is a pleasure too, the clutch offering a precise indication where the optimum bite point is and the stubby manual gear lever being a joy to manoeuvre between the six ratios. Each gear selection hits home accurately and slickly.

Steering also provides a fine amount of feedback, telegraphing with clarity the traction and direction of turn of the front wheels. The heavier diesel engine up front doesn’t detract from the driving experience, the steering remaining neutral on roads which bend in different ways in rapid succession before eventually pushing out with understeer as the throttle’s opened with greater vitality. The wheel is well weighted too, not being over assisted but perhaps feels a smidgen too wide across its diameter.

As a consequence, it handles well offering a considerable amount of fun that simply isn’t there in the 308. One aspect of its hatchback sibling that is carried over is the surprisingly comfortable ride quality. Naturally, the suspension has been firmed up to promote greater poise negotiating bends and cruising at high speeds, but around town there’s a pleasant degree of compliance, offering a fine ride comfort. It also introduces a negative side effect in terms of its ability to iron out a rapid succession of undulations, especially at speed, where the suspension’s suppleness seems unable to remain totally composed. There’s always going to be a ride and handling compromise in any car and this one doesn’t detract too significantly. The RCZ provides a fine ride most of the time and an engaging sporty feel when demands are made of it.

A diesel engine? Under a coupé's bonnet?? Welcome to the 21st Century

Now that we’re (almost) all over the shock of hearing that characteristic diesel-engined rattle from under the bonnet of a rakish coupé, it’s easy to appreciate how well suited the 2-litre common rail turbo diesel unit is to the RCZ. Not only does it provide brisk performance but a fantastic level of refinement and economy. Having driven earlier versions of the Peugeot-Citroën HDi unit, it was clear that whilst they were frugal, they were also somewhat rough and lacking in urge. Not so here. And the claimed average combined cycle of 53.2mpg seems rooted in the real world too – a jaunt down the A1 at a steady 70mph suggested a figure in the high 50s on the trip computer, making it a fine choice for longer commutes.

Verdict

To dismiss the Peugeot RCZ as either a TT clone or a 308 in a pretty new set of clothes is short-sighted and unfair. Whether you prefer the RCZ’s more curvaceous style over the TT’s simplicity is a matter of personal choice, although the Audi does have a reputation for being more reliable longer term and is also likely to have better residual values too at trade in time, despite Peugeot’s huge strides recently to rectify its previous quality maladies.

It would also be unfair to expect the RCZ to be a fiery out and out sports car given its starting point. In reality it’s more of a petite grande turisme (rear seat space apart) offering a comfortable, yet engaging driving experience.

RCZ - proof Peugeot is back in both styling and driving dynamics

What the RCZ represents is proof that Peugeot has finally found its way again in terms of producing elegantly styled cars that are a pleasure to drive and here, with the combination of generous GT specification with a powerful and economical diesel engine, it represents a great choice.

Thumbs Up: Curvaceous styling, high quality of build and materials, powerful and economical engine, comfortable ride

Thumbs Down: Question marks over long-term reliability need to be disproved, residuals, carry-over dashboard from 308

Quick Facts

Model Tested: Peugeot RCZ GT HDi 163 FAP

Top Speed: 137mph

0-60: 8.7sec

Average fuel consumption: 53.2mpg

CO2 emissions: 139g/km

Engine size: 4/1997cc common rail fuel injection, turbocharged diesel

Power: 163bhp

Torque: 240lb/ft

Price: £25,395 (April 2011)

All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2011

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