By Tim Grey
In most areas of life there is nothing a Frenchman would least like to be than German. But for some reason, when it comes to cars, the French can’t help but pine for efficient Teutonic engineering with precision and common sense.
Oh, sure, Citroen trades on its futurist concepts and love of left-field innovation, but as for Renault and Peugeot, they’ve produced some of the most bland Euro hatches and sedans of the last decade, all in the pursuit of making a Gallic Golf or a Parisian Passat.
So when Peugeot hinted at a rival to the uber-successful Audi TT sports coupe earlier this year, my heart sank faster than the Rainbow Warrior.
Once again, the French were going to try to be German and the result was not only going to be bland, but EU bland — that special level of blandness reserved for when the cultural lines of competing European nations are completely blurred beyond meaning.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
The Peugeot RCZ certainly wouldn’t be in existence if it were not for the success of the TT, but beyond why it’s on the market, the RCZ couldn’t be any Frencher if it came with a free beret and a signature fragrance.
Peugeot has taken real design risks with the RCZ and in the process re-discovered its flair for the first time since it decided to bin its famous GTi badge (which, no surprises for guessing, is now set for a return). Its double-bubble roof is so unique to be instantly iconic, while its perfectly formed rear is so sublime it makes up for what can look like a rather bulbous nose.
In pictures that nose can make the car look too big and busy up front, almost as if the centre of balance is slightly too far forward, like a Porsche Boxster. But in the flesh the RCZ is actually surprisingly petite and makes perfect sense from every angle.
It puts the MkII Audi TT in the shade the way that current model makes its blocky predecessor look like a life-sized toy car.
Looks, of course, aren’t everything.
The coupe segment may be the one hairdressers like to frequent, but even here handling and ride count.
The TT isn’t known for its dynamism on the road, despite the fact the range ($86,900 upwards) starts with a potent 155kW turbo under the bonnet, but the 245kW Nissan 370Z ($76,000-$81,000) is a more competitive driver’s car.
Any fan of French action films will tell you, however, that when it comes to getaway cars its usually a Pug being driven by the men with Gitanes sticking out of their balaclavas.
Peugeots used to be known for their ability to deliver precision handling dynamics, rather than precision diesel economy, and the RCZ grips the road and tackles corners in a way which harks back to the brand’s heyday.
The RCZ employs “Inverted Pseudo” McPherson strut suspension front and back, all linked in to an anti-roll bar, and the results — combined with weighty, communicative steering — are magnificent.
Of course, on New Zealand’s roads, such flat-stanced control can translate into a bumpy ride, but find a long stretch of winding road as I did on the way to Akaroa and the experience is sublime.
The RCZ hasn’t got the same firepower as the TT, instead using a smaller 1.6 litre turbo petrol which produces 115kW at its 6000rpm peak. Don’t go thinking you’ll see benefits at the other end, though.
With a claimed combined economy average of only 7.3L/100km the RCZ is also not as economic as the base TT.
Calling the lightweight RCZ under-powered, though, is inaccurate, especially as it can do the 0-100kmh dash in a highly respectable nine seconds.
In fact, the only thing which held back my test model from throwing itself into every corner with gusto was its six-speed automatic, which tended to be too grabby for my tastes.
To get the most out of the RCZ I’d opt for the six-speed manual. Intriguingly, both are priced at $64,990 to undercut the competition, but Peugeot hasn’t skimped on specification to maintain its margins.
Sound insulation could be better — although it is certainly not as bad as the 370Z. The interior is awash with extra elements, from full-leather upholstery and electrically adjustable and heated front seats to hands-free bluetooth capability and dual zone climate control.
Where Peugeot might be saving its pennies, however, is in the car’s conversion to the right-hand-drive market.
Until the media volume controls were discovered behind the bluetooth stalk, hidden itself behind the steering wheel, reaching the radio in the centre console was a bit of a stretch — the console definitely felt angled towards the front passenger.
But overall Peugeot has resisted the urge to make the RCZ as spartan as its price tag, with the most intriguing feature having to be the button for the active rear spoiler. Press it and the smooth lines of the boot up-end into a slim downforce device.
As its name suggests, it is an automatic feature which activates at speed anyway, but for me it epitomises the playful individualism of the RCZ — like the rest of the car it provides real flair.