x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Peugeot: the French lion finally roars

Peugeot has been a brand living off past glories, but with the RCZ Kevin Hackett finds a breathtakingly good-looking car, with a price that defies the quality it offers

One of the most attractive cars in years for the French badge, the Peugeot RCZ looks and drives like a more expensive vehicle.
One of the most attractive cars in years for the French badge, the Peugeot RCZ looks and drives like a more expensive vehicle.

Concept cars: don't you just love 'em? Always unveiled at the world's most glamorous motor shows, often to punch up the image of a brand that's looking a bit long in the tooth, never to end up in the showrooms. Like some four-wheeled broken promise, they get us all worked up and all for nothing. Every so often, though, something genuinely different is wheeled out, and the response is so overwhelmingly positive that to not put it into production would be tantamount to commercial suicide. And it's this scenario that was responsible for the car you see here. No, your eyes aren't deceiving you, this really does have a lion for a badge.

Peugeot hasn't produced a genuinely desirable driver's car since the 1984 205 GTI. The situation within Camp Peugeot was getting more and more desperate until this came along. Unveiled as a concept at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2007, the public went nuts for it, and it's easy to see why. Low, squat proportions, more curves than a race track and a "double bubble" glass roof that seamlessly blends into the rear window; the chances of a production version that looked as stunning as this were slim at best. But Peugeot knew the car had to be built.

And here it is, barely changed at all from the original concept model. But as it's based on the humble underpinnings of granny's favourite, the 308, there was always a high risk that the RCZ would be all mouth and no trousers - that it wouldn't drive the way its looks suggest. This car is breathtakingly good looking when you see it for real, and way more exotic than its low starting price suggests - £20,450 (Dh111,000) in the UK. Peugeot has chosen to launch the RCZ from a most extraordinary, avant-garde hotel, the Marqués de Riscal near Bilbao in Spain. Designed by possibly the world's most famous architect, Frank Gehry, its most striking visual element is its multi-coloured twisting mass of titanium that passes off as a roof. It's quite mad, ugly to many, yet still you can't take your eyes off it. The RCZ, too, holds your gaze but for an altogether different reason. You can't believe this is, it's a ? a PEUGEOT!

It's a 2+2, with two small seats in the rear, where there's room for a couple of kids but not much else - best to think of this as a sports car and not a people carrier. The glass roof is mesmerising, set off by an aluminium arch on each side and the bulging, muscular front and rear sections are perfectly executed. Inside, things aren't quite so adventurous. It's all very nice and streets ahead of the rest of Peugeot's models, but it just looks a bit ordinary. Well built, mind, with a quality of finish to rival the Germans.

There are two engine variants to try today - the 1.6L, 200hp petrol motor, which will be introduced this summer, and the diesel, which went on sale in May. Funnily enough, that model isn't here. There will also be a 156hp, petrol engine available. Anyway, I grab the key for the THP 200 model and head for the hills to give it a good spanking. If you ever want to visit a region in Europe where you're guaranteed spectacular, perfect-condition roads with little in the way of police patrol, this is where you need to head for. It's driving nirvana here, I'm on my own and there's plenty of time. So I choose a route of some 300km that will take me through astonishing scenery on proper, empty roads that have lots of hills and bends. Lovely. And once I'm out of the sleepy villages where locals are wont to walking in the middle of the roads for no particular reason I put my foot down and see just what the RCZ is made of.

The engine note is surprisingly gruff for such a little motor and that's due to some trick engineering that allows certain noises to enter the cabin, much the same way that a Jaguar XK does. It keeps the car's occupants entertained without disturbing the wildlife and really does work well. Thankfully, there's performance to back up the sounds being filtered through and the engine punches above its weight with a satisfying sense of urgency.

It's not ballistic, but it is quick. Once the roads become twisty and my confidence in the car builds, I'm able to carry a lot of speed into corners with a quick dab on the brakes before powering on out of the bends. The only drawback I'm finding is that the windscreen pillars are too thick and I have to move my head around to see the corners of these challenging roads. The drive is enormous fun, though, and this little car simply grips and goes with a slingshot action that befits its overtly sporting design.

The cabin is roomy and airy, the seats nice and supportive. However, that glass roof is lined in a black material that can be a bit oppressive. But you'll always be looking ahead in this car, not staring up at the clouds, and the driving position actively encourages you to take the RCZ by the scruff of its neck and give it a throttling. In fact, I have to keep reminding myself that this is a 1.6L, not a 3.0L V6 - if it was fitted with an engine like that, Peugeot could wipe the floor with the TT, the Scirocco and practically any other small coupe you could call to mind.

Peugeot is insistent that economy and low emissions top the agenda here, and that bigger, more powerful engines are not what this car is about. On one hand, the petrolhead in me sees that as a missed opportunity because the chassis feels like it has so much more to give, but on the other hand I see the sense in that stance because the company wants to appeal to younger drivers, and this will be cheaper to run and maintain than a junior league supercar.

So, a result on all fronts then. A seriously desirable car - one with a lion on its bonnet that doesn't send its driver to sleep. Who'd have thought? If you do buy one, just be warned: even in a place where Lambos and Astons cruise the streets and nobody bats an eye, you'll be the centre of attention. For this is the latest supermodel, and it would seem that everyone, from young kids to old ladies, is spellbound by its beauty. Prepare to be seduced.

Peugeot doesn't have information on availability or pricing specifically for the UAE yet, but the RCZ will be available here with both petrol engines with automatic and manual gearboxes. motoring@thenational.ae