Peugeot RCZ v Audi TT v Volkswagen Scirocco

Richard Meaden
19 Dec 2011

The curvy new Peugeot RCZ battles its most talented coupe rivals, the Audi TT and Volkswagen Scirocco

It’s easy to be dismissive of coupes. After all, any car that has humble origins yet places look-at-me style uppermost in its list of priorities runs the risk of being branded vacuous and superficial, at least by keen drivers. Call it Victoria Beckham Syndrome.

Truth be told, when I got the call from evo HQ and was handed this assignment, I could feel those dismissive thoughts flash through my mind. I mean, Monkey Harris gets the plum MP4-12C gig while I get a trio of tarts’ handbags to mince around in. A less magnanimous man than I might feel affronted.

But after two days driving my favourite roads, some surprising straight-line performance benchmarking at the Millbrook Proving Ground and a bit of hoonage at the Bedford Autodrome, I’ll be forced to reconsider those early feelings of disappointment, for this will prove to be a thoroughly enjoyable test. Pre-judge these cars at your peril.

Feeling excited about driving a new Peugeot is not an emotion I can recall having in an awfully long time, but the prospect of getting to know the RCZ has me pretty keyed-up. Like you, I’ve read good things about it, and while it’s worth remembering those initial launch impressions were gained while driving on smooth Spanish tarmac, there’s every reason to expect a driving experience to match those indulgent curves.

The Frenchie will need to be on its mettle, as ranged against it are two German protagonists that between them have pretty much come to define the sub-£30K coupe market. Having Audi’s 2-litre TFSI TT and VW’s 2-litre TSI Scirocco not only gives the turbo 1.6-litre RCZ the toughest possible test, but it also tees-up a fascinating in-fight between the two VAG coupes. Let battle commence.

It feels right to take the RCZ home the night before the test. I’m a stranger to the new Pug so need plenty of wheeltime, but even if I knew it like I know the TT and Scirocco, I think I’d still go for the keys to the Peugeot, for it’s easily the most seductive. Coupes are designed to make a statement and the RCZ’s confidence and originality speak volumes for the French brand’s recent renaissance. Everything conspires to draw your gaze, from the arcing aluminium cant rails and optional carbonfibre roof panel to that magnificently curvy rear window and chariot wheels. No question, the RCZ looks spectacular, but then in range-topping, £25,595 GT-spec so it should.

Inside it’s the most premium of the trio too. A leather dashboard and matching door cappings (both from the options list) lend it a genuine air of quality, as do the similarly upholstered seats (standard on the GT). OK, so the effect is let down somewhat by the leather on the seat cushions already showing signs of stretching, but the overall ambience more than lives up to the exterior. It’s an easy car to warm to.

The early-morning drive to North Wales is typically tiresome, but the Pug and I are firm friends. The little 1.6-litre turbocharged motor more commonly found in the nose of Minis is smooth and eager here in 197bhp tune, with a character that encourages you to use the revs. The ride feels a little stiff, but the trade-off is an encouraging sense of immediacy and plenty of front-end grip. Less promising is the steering, which feels curiously light at low speed and numb once you get going. Still, there’s not much chance to load the steering up on the M6, so I’ll reserve judgement until we rendezvous in Wales and do some proper driving.

The white Teutons are ready and waiting for me as I pull into the Shell station at Betws-y-Coed. After a quick chat we take a cross-country route to the beach at Porthmadog. Having endured almost four hours of arterial grind, I reckon I’ve earned another stint in the RCZ, so I stick with the Pug for the half-hour dash to the coast.

On these tight, nadgety roads, the RCZ driving experience is dominated by the steering. There’s a slightly artificial feel to the weighting. It’s hard to explain, but imagine the steering column being gripped by something with varying degrees of tightness to create some resistance to you turning the wheel. At low speed it feels almost as though it’s not being gripped at all, then as speed builds the resistance increases, but not in direct relation to road speed or lateral loading.

You rarely feel like you know how hard the front-end is working, or how much grip is in reserve. In truth you don’t need to, for the answer is ‘lots’, at least through medium- and high-speed corners. In today’s cold, patchy-wet conditions it’s through the lower-speed corners that the RCZ’s steering leaves the most to be desired. You find yourself taking a couple of bites at each corner, feeling for grip with each nudge of the wheel. With time and familiarity you do begin to adjust and compensate – or ignore – what it’s telling you, but it’s a source of nagging frustration.

It’s a shame because in every other respect the RCZ is a fine car. The engine is a fizzer, and though it doesn’t feel as immediately grunty as the VW or Audi, it counters with a punchier top end. Traction is good (perhaps because of the comparative lack of torque), and so is the damping when body control – and not ride quality – becomes the priority. Clearly someone at Peugeot has started to get their suspension mojo back, but they need to find some pliancy to go with the grip and agility.

The gearshift is a fraction snaggy and the throttle has an annoying dead phase in its travel, which makes stop-start driving more tricky than it should be. Do you feel inclined to get stuck in and drive hard on a good road? Yes and no. If you’re prepared to keep the engine working hard it certainly has the pace to entertain, but it has its work cut out sticking with the more muscular Audi and VW on give-and-take roads. The balance of grip, power and braking ability is well matched, but it’s pretty inert, so while there’s no question the RCZ is effective, progressive, poised and exploitable, it’s also fair to say exuberance is in short supply.

The £24,450 Scirocco is the sleeper of the group. It’s the most hatchback-like in looks, despite that frowning face and the pinched hips. White doesn’t do it any favours, but it remains an attractive shape. Badge snobs will see it as the poor relation of the VAG duo, and nowhere is that better evidenced than the interior. The bucket seats spice it up a little, but the instruments and satnav/radio switchgear lack the Audi’s quality and design flair.

Yet I’ve been looking forward to driving the Scirocco as I’ve never failed to enjoy driving them in the past. It rams home the importance of good steering within the first mile. Compared with the RCZ, it just feels with you, honest and transparent from the off. Having switchable dampers signals the Scirocco’s sporting focus, and this translates to the dynamics. It has strong bite, fluid responses, a great sense of connection and immediate hustlability.

On cold, damp tarmac it has some traction issues in the first two gears, but the poise of the chassis and a slickness to the controls makes you feel much more inclined to drive it hard. It soaks up the punishment and makes easy work of roads that have been the undoing of many a supposed supercar. It feels like a good, supple hot hatch, with a bit of playful throttle adjustability to reward your efforts, but not so much it’ll bite you. Given it’s a well-dressed Golf GTI, that’s no great surprise.

It wasn’t so long ago that VAG’s 1.8T engine was one of the most boring you could drive. But the 2.0 TSI (or TFSI, as it’s called in the TT) has genuine character, with impressive lugs of low- and mid-range torque coupled to a smooth and eager top-end. It sounds good too, rasping as you work its 207bhp hard. That makes such a difference to your mood, encouraging you where a dull engine would poor cold water on your emotions. It feels quick too, especially when you’re holding an intermediate gear and relying on the elasticity of the delivery to haul you out of one corner and stretch to the next. Millbrook will be interesting.

It’s not often you’ll read comments on interior space in evo, but a glance over your shoulder when sat in the Scirocco reveals its trump card: four useable seats versus the small-kids-for-short-journeys 2+2 configurations of the RCZ and TT. Unless you have the luxury of a dedicated family car, that makes the Scirocco much more practical. Sorry, we’ll get back to business shall we?

If the TT suffers from anything it’s ubiquity. You see them everywhere. Audi’s refresh of the shape in 2006 finessed some of the quirkiness away, but where the trend-setting original was starting to look its age, this second-generation TT has a certain timeless elegance. If there’s a criticism it’s that it swamps its 18in wheels. Nevertheless, this £27,130 Audi still looks like a class act. The interior is typically excellent in terms of layout and switchgear quality, but after the lavishly leather-lined RCZ, this particular TT seems pretty basic, with acres of finely textured soft-touch plastic on show. It’s great as plastics go, but can’t match the feel-good factor of leather.

After the Scirocco, the TT immediately feels softer and less eager to turn-in. The similarly powerful (208bhp) but much gruntier (258lb ft) 2-litre TFSI engine delivers its performance in a familiar manner, but the TT struggles for traction where the Scirocco and particularly the RCZ put their power down more cleanly. Clearly the TT’s taller gearing isn’t enough to contain its 50lb ft advantage over the VW on a damp road. Perhaps this feels all the more out of character in an Audi because we’ve become so used to the total traction of the quattro models. Regardless, this front-drive TT is the least keen of our group to make quick direction changes, thanks to a soft set-up and a front-end that never quite seems to key into the road. It’s a feeling that means you’d swear the Audi has the skinniest tyres here, when in actual fact it has the widest.

It’s testament to the overall ‘rightness’ of the TT that you can still have a lot of fun. It’s easily as quick as the others point-to-point, but you find its limits earlier and have to manage turn-in bite and drive around the lack of traction. I liken it to the enjoyment you get from hustling a hire car faster than it wants to go. That’s meant as a compliment, even if it doesn’t sound like one. Road test ed Barker agrees: ‘I think it’s very well pitched for its target audience. It all matches: the weight of the steering, the slenderness of the wheel rim and the delicate feel through it, and the way it rolls and pitches. I really enjoy the way the TT drives.’

These aren’t out-and-out drivers’ cars in the Renaultsport vein. They trade hardcore behaviour for everyday malleability, and there’s no question this gives them a certain easy-going appeal and more accessible limits. Don’t think this means tardy cross-country pace, though, for any of these three would give a more sporting front-wheel-drive car a hard time on difficult roads. In this respect they’ve all been a pleasant surprise.

There’s a cracking coupe amongst this trio, but it requires a fantasy fusion of the RCZ’s sensational styling and lavish trim, the TT’s integrity and cohesion and the Scirocco’s polished dynamism. Judged in isolation the Peugeot’s instant desirability makes it hard to resist, even if the driving experience needs many detail improvements to fulfil its obvious promise. The TT is the default choice for many and with good reason, for even in this quite basic specification it’s an impressively capable machine. However, only the Scirocco takes things to the next level in terms of ride and handling. It might not turn as many heads, but in a magazine dedicated to the thrill of driving, the Scirocco has to win.

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