A couple of years ago, TopGear published a piece suggesting that, with the appearance of such cars as the Kia Cee'd and Hyundai i30, Peugeot was becoming the new punch-bag of Europe. That the Koreans were becoming German; that the French in turn were becoming Korean.
Somewhere in downtown Paris, a small atomic explosion sent shockwaves as far as the offices of Peugeot UK, from where two emissaries were hastily dispatched to take the author of this article out for lunch and persuade him, on pain of death, that his prophecy for Peugeot's future was inaccurate. That Peugeot had a lot to be upbeat about. Which was bollocks.
See our exclusive pics of the Peugeot RCZ
In fact, the only glimmer of hope on a horizon dotted with gloom and anxiety was the 308 RCZ Concept. And that didn't look very plausible from a company that couldn't even build a convincing three-door hatch.
Flash-forward to Spring 2010 and here it is, virtually unchanged in its rapid evolution from radical and stunning concept to production reality. The RCZ Sports Coupe is about to go on sale, tasked with saving Peugeot from itself, giving the brand a gigantic hypodermic injection of sex; inoculating it from Euro-box obscurity.
Will it? Can it?
As the person who wrote the aforementioned obituary on Peugeot, I'd still insist that the RCZ has a lot to do. But that it just might be up to the job.
What Peugeot is attempting to achieve with this unprecedented product is pretty clear. Style is everything. Style comes before performance, practicality or pricing. But this is OK, because this is very French.
In truth it's what we've all wanted Peugeot to do for ages, in much the same way that sisterly Citroen has been making imperfect but daring products for years in its part-maligned, part-admired, C-range. They may be a wee bit shit, but dammit they're stylish so we don't really care.
And style, here, is in abundance. The RCZ is one of a tiny handful of cars that cost hot-hatch money but have the visual impact of something four or five times the price. And of that handful, none really runs the RCZ close. You're forced to double-and triple-take this car, absorbing the unlikely curves, supercar stance and balance. It still looks like a proper show-car, oozing with improbable, even impossible, design ideas like that double-bubble roof that runs seamlessly into the curved rear window. And yet here it is, in the metal and glass, with the driver's door ajar and the keys in the ignition. A Peugeot you can actually desire.
Frequent comparisons with the Audi TT don't hold any water when you get close to the RCZ either. It's far more exciting than that. In fact the car it most closely resembles is probably Volkswagen's Beetle-based Sixties coupe, the Karmann Ghia, a timeless shape that gets more desirable year-on-year. These are good footsteps to be following in.
There are a few flaws, however. From the front, where the RCZ is obliged to borrow various Pug Family character traits, the untrained eye will just see a 207 or 308. Staying loyal to your design direction has its pitfalls when said direction is a bit wishy-washy. And how excited can anyone be expected to get about another car with a lion on the bonnet?
Prejudices aside though, this car is still a stunner, and hopefully that alone can be enough to overcome the hurdle of Peugeot's own badge.
To which end, the company is deploying an unusual tactic. And some might suggest a risky one. It's encouraging its punters to heavily customise their cars at the point of purchase. To demonstrate this, our top-of-the-range test-car has been delivered in black (photographers' nightmare) with matt-black stripes running the length of the car. These look dreadful. To make matters worse it's also been fitted with the sort of alloys that you normally see advertised in the back of lads' mags alongside smut-pedalling chatlines and penis pumps. To us, the RCZ is about understatement and class. Audrey Tatou, pale-skinned and coquettish, not Audrey Tatou dipped in bright-orange WAG juice. Try to look beyond the adolescent aftermarket trimmings you see here though, and there is real class to be appreciated.
Inside, the defibrillation of Brand Peugeot is less dramatic, in that most things are familiar. It's a nice cabin environment, particularly because of all the light that the huge rear glass area allows in, but it's not got the heart-thumping appeal of the exterior. A meaty, flat-bottomed steering wheel makes some big noises about the RCZ's dynamic abilities, but other than that, it's business as usual.
Turn the key and the absence of drama continues, the promises of that race-inspired steering wheel already beginning to feel slightly hollow in the hands. This top-of-the-range ‘GT THP200' RCZ has a 1.6-litre engine that returns 200bhp. And that's as big as they come. It doesn't sound like much, and it isn't.
On the move, the RCZ feels no different from a warm French hatch, which is essentially what it is. There is an artificial feel to the steering that, although accurate and reasonably responsive, detaches car from driver. The gear shift is fairly fast and accurate. Nothing ground-breaking, but still an improvement over the firm's traditionally rubbery gearboxes, always the most subversive flaw when trying to convey a sense of either quality or sporting prowess.
Open up the RCZ and you'll notice a suspiciously impressive exhaust note. It's a butterfly valve that operates under heavy acceleration, emitting a slightly harsh but nevertheless addictive bark from what is otherwise an immensely quiet powertrain. And the car feels quite quick with it, but nothing more.
Up a winding mountain road, however, the RCZ's composure allows your confidence to build, and its fine balance and light controls make for some rapid and involving progress. It's still in the vein of a mildly hot hatch, but is no less rewarding for that.
Ask if Peugeot has any plans to offer more grunt in the future, and the answer is firmly in the negative. It seems the marque's agenda is a green one, with small capacity and low emissions to the fore. Already being trumpeted as the natural evolution for the 1.6-litre RCZ is a hybrid powertrain, providing more power for less gas, and the sporting advantage of (battery) driven rear wheels. In the meantime there is also a 163bhp 2.0-litre HDi dieselcoming on stream: torque, economy and, we suspect, too much weight over the front end.
The cheapest way into RCZ ownership will be the 156bhp ‘Sport', and that comes without leather, any electric toys and with the smaller 18-inch wheels. That's £20,450 on the road. Not cheap. Another £4,500 will get you the car we have here, minus the daft wheels, metallic paint, silly stripes, carbon wing mirrors (or carbon roof panel that even we didn't have), black calipers and on and on, ad infinitum.
In other words you can customize until you drop, but hopefully you won't. After all, it'll cost you another £515 just to have that leather-trimmed dash, which any £25k sports car would probably look rather meagre without.
You'll need to spend judiciously and tastefully here to end up with a viable alternative to the heavyweight Germans that dominate this segment.
Even then, whether or not the RCZ can mix it in a more premium market is difficult to say. The 200bhp car costs slightly more than the faster and dynamically superior 2.0-litre Audi TT and around £4,000 more than the VW Scirroco, which is still a stunning car to look at, and one with far more convincing rear seats.
But if enough of us get on board then half the battle is won, for what the RCZ can and must do is haul Peugeot out of the doldrums, where it's been languishing for as long as most people can remember. Late Nineties 406 Coupe perhaps? Here, at last, is a car with a proper Gallic shrug about it. A car that flicks its spent Gitane at the TT as it parps off into the Parisian night. Something like that at any rate.
Immensely pretty, comparatively practical with its big, saloon-style boot bolstered by a fold-flat rear bench, and even reasonably economical to own and run if its residuals don't take too much of a hammering, this could be one of those quintessentially French cars that slowly, quietly, become icons.
Arriving in France to drive the RCZ, we had to rent a car at the airport to get to Peugeot HQ. The amiable and bi-lingual twenty-something Frenchman behind the desk, seeing that we worked for TopGear, began talking cars.
Loathe as he was to say anything so unpatriotic, it turns out he didn't actually like French cars anymore. Worse still, he'd bought a 207CC a year ago and quickly got shot of it when everything started going wrong. Since then he'd been after something Japanese.
Until, that was, he'd seen oneof the very first RCZs in the airport car park the day before and was utterly blown away. Full of questions we were unable to answer, he was already answering one of ours. That enthusiasm was palpable. As it was in scores of people, young and old, who we encountered later with the car. One drop-dead girl with a razor-sharp bob and a fag on the go performed an emergency stop in her battered Nissan Almera to better take in the rear of the RCZ. And you don't get a finer endorsement of a car's kerb appeal than that. This might be the start of something for Peugeot. Fingers crossed.
On your drive for: £439pcm
Performance: 0-62mph in 7.6secs, max speed 146mph, 39.8mpg
Tech: 1598cc, 4cyl, FWD, 200bhp, 206lb ft, 1421kg, 159g/km CO2