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Car reviews - Peugeot - RCZ - 1.6 147kW coupe

Launch Story

2 Sep 2010

PEUGEOT'S corporate catch cry is 'Motion + Emotion', and no car could reflect this branding better than its new RCZ Coupe.

Every buyer – and there will be only 22,000 a year globally, for that is the factory production limit – will be strong on emotion, drawn by the arching curves that promise speed, style and escape from the everyday spreadsheet-and-ironing humdrum.

The 2+2-seat RCZ, based on a heavily modified 308 small car platform and armed with a trio of engines developed in league with BMW, is all about the experience, rather than raw performance.

Muscle car it ain't, but the two premium engines – a 147kW direct-injection turbo 1.6-litre petrol four-cylinder and a 2.0-litre 120kW HDi turbo-diesel – can hold up their heads in most company.

Quiet, smooth and efficient, the RCZ allows the owner to hammer the highways and byways with a relatively clear conscience, returning fugal fuel consumption figures that shame many heavy-handed performance cars.

It certainly won't be capable of blowing away anything more exotic than a V6 family sedan, but when you look this good, do you need to try?

Nimble rather than eye-watering on its rather mainstream suspension set-up, the RCZ has enough cornering pizzazz to satisfy most urges, weaving along the sinuous test roads with easy competency.

Only near the limit does this 308-based front-driver betray its origins, with understeer making its presence felt, earlier, it must be said, than benchmark small cars such as the Mini Cooper or VW Golf GTI.

The ride is firm but without pain, and pleasantly refined, too. Built – unusually for Peugeot – at contract builder Magna Steyr's factory in Austria, the test cars betrayed no obvious blemishes, either by eye or ear.

With a steering wheel that adjusts for both reach and rake, the RCZ accommodates even tall drivers with reasonable ease. Despite its low-riding silhouette, headroom is adequate for 180cm folk, partly because the unique “double bubble” roof conveniently rises above the collective scones of the driver and passenger, dipping towards the middle of the car.

This flowing form – highlighted by brushed aluminium beams curving like the Sydney Harbour Bridge from the bonnet to bobtailed boot - encompasses the rear glass in a tricky production manoeuvre that requires a special glass moulding technique comprising high temperature and careful cooling.

While Peugeot claims this bent glass shows no signs of refraction through the curves – and that is true – distortion across the pane is evident, giving the rear view a slightly fuzzy overlay.

Crouching forward like a cat ready to pounce, the RCZ was most definitely a show stopper at the media launch. Maybe it is the hard-to-achieve blend of muscular form with feminine curves, all sitting wide and low to the road like a scaled down Le Mans sports car.

The leather-bound sports seats do justice to the exterior's glory, snugly holding the occupants in place, while elbow room is surprisingly abundant, thanks to the extra width built into the body compared with the 308 donor car.

If we have one complaint about the ergonomics, it is the lack of space between the clutch pedal and the footrest, causing the side of your shoe to catch on the pedal each time you lift hoof to grab another gear. Not good. How someone with feet the size of Ian Thorpes' paddles would get on, we can only speculate.

We could, of course, choose the six-speed automatic, but that means dispensing with much of the hard-edge performance of the premium engines, making do with just 115kW on the cooking model - more than 30kW less than the premium petrol engine and a pile of torque less than the turbo-diesel.

Many drivers, however, will be willing to make this sacrifice rather than labour over a gearstick in metropolitan traffic. It also has the benefit of manual mode, should the mood require it.

We ran out of time to sample the automatic on our drive program, so that will have to wait until a longer test on home territory.

We did, however, revel in both of the premium powertrains, loving the revvy 1.6-litre direct-inject petrol four that owes so much to BMW. Fun rather than fantastic, this diminutive engine gives the illusion of supersonic projection, even if its straightline speed – zero to 100km/h in 7.4 seconds – is hardly in exotic territory.

We would find it tough to choose between that free-spirited funster and the all-torque diesel, as the Peugeot-developed 2.0-litre diesel powerplant is sublime – quiet, creamy and barrel-chested. Foot down, we go.

That this diesel and the top petrol engine are not available with an succinct automatic transmission is shame, but blame France, not Peugeot's Australian importer. This means that so many people will miss out on the ultimate RCZ experience.

They will, however, be able to cast their gaze around the sublime cabin, where French style seems to meet German quality, even though we suspect no German had a hand in it.

The big analogue clock in the centre of the dash might be a step too far, but just run the hand over the soft leather-look dash material, with its cross-stitched edges, and all is forgiven.

In a world where the spokes of steering wheels have become crammed with more controls than the average space shuttle, the RCZ's is noticeably naked all the cruise control and other functions are hidden behind the leather-clad sports wheel.

This makes it difficult for the novice to learn on the run, but the idea is for the owner to learn the functions so they can be adjusted by feel, becoming intuitive so the eyes stay on the road. We like the concept.

Less likeable is the rear seat accommodation, which Peugeot describes as “occasional”. We did not even attempt to try it. At best, it will cope with a couple of kids, but this is par for the course in these small coupes.

The space is better used for luggage spill-over on those weekend trips down to the beach shack – on a long and winding route. With no sat-nav available, you will just have to forge your own path.

With no spare wheel and only a can of compressed something to fix a flat, it also might pay to sign up for roadside assistance.

And don't hang on for a convertible version – Peugeot says none is in the offing. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, because without that unique roof, the RCZ might lose a lot of its rakish charm.

And that charm will be central to the RCZ experience, as buyers who want something more powerful, more sporty or more practical are unlikely to apply.

If they do, however, they will find precious few rivals to shop the RCZ against, as only Audi's more expensive – and more accomplished – TT Coupe really fits the bill.

But at $54,990, the Peugeot RCZ is pretty much in a class of its own, offering a stylish alternative to small cabrios from Europe at about the right price.

The RCZ is clearly no firebrand, but in the same way that the first-generation Mazda MX-5 reinvigorated the small open-top sportscar market, Peugeot might well put the spunk back into small coupes, with a happy blend of 'Motion + Emotion”.

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