What I'm seeing, and am about to drive, is (visually if not quite actually) the front half of Peugeot's new 207. Same giant smiley grille, same slanty, pointy headlights, same giant lion badge. And, indeed, same engine: the 168bhp, 1.6-litre turbocharged unit that will power the fastest 207 in the imminent new range.
Meet the Peugeot 20Cup, a bonkers three-wheeled concept car revealed to the world's first at last September's Frankfurt show. It comes from the same fertile brain - that of Peugeot designer Jean-Christophe Bolle-Reddat - which dreamed up the 907 V12 supercar, the last creation of Peugeot's old styling studio. The 20Cup is the first to emerge from the new one shared with Citroën at Vélizy.
This new direct-injection turbo engine is significant in itself as an all-new collaborative venture between Peugeot and BMW, for use in the next-generation Mini. It's in standard production form, I am told, and this will be the first chance to try it out.
The 20Cup is, you'll notice, an open sports car which doesn't even have a meaningful windscreen. And it's raining, causing rooster-tail fountains of spray as the 20Cup traverses the Mortefontaine test track near Paris - a lot of spray, especially as the rear wheel a) has no mudguard and b) is wide enough to belong to a Le Mans racing car. Which, actually, is where it came from.
Are we witnessing a crazily-morphed new take on the ancient Morgan three-wheeler? Not quite; the 20Cup has front wheel drive, whereas the Morgan was pushed along by its single rear wheel which also did most of the braking. Which wasn't much if you were descending a wet, bumpy hill, as I once discovered for myself. Why does it always rain when I drive mad three-wheelers with no protection from the elements?
Now it's my turn to drive. Helmet on, climb on to the cocoon-like carbon-fibre monococque that is the main reason for the 20Cup's sub-500kg weight and consequent considerable pace. It's a bit of a battle to slot myself in there are no doors and I'm having to lower myself into the duck-tape-upholstered, expanded polystyrene seat as I lean on the central shoulder-level spine that divides driver from passenger.
Now I'm installed, the steering wheel is plugged back into position and I can discover which button does what. The steering wheel is more rectangular than round, with a central display which is supposed to stay level even when the wheel is turned. Right now it's a little off-kilter, but this is a concept car and it's surprising that so much of it works at all. But Peugeot is good at that. Its concepts usually do work, while those of some other carmakers are purely for show.
The display currently shows lateral and longitudinal g-force, speed and the gear I've selected, although there are other parameters in its repertoire. The gears are selected by button, upchange to the right of the display, downchange to the left. It's a sequential-shift transmission, but harder-edged than something like an Alfa Selespeed or Citroën Sensodrive. It's a type normally used in a racing car; Peugeot 206 RCC used this one in a French one-make racing series.
So there's a conventional pedal for the fierce racing-clutch, needed for moving off and advisable for gearshifts on the move to smooth the bangs and clunks of engaging dog-teeth (there's no synchromesh in a racing gearbox). Down goes the pedal, in goes first gear with a ker-chunk, a good dose of engine revs to avoid stalling and off we roar. The engine is pulling with gusto and no sign of any of the response delay you sometimes get with a turbocharger. Into third gear now and let's see what happens when I floor the accelerator.
Quite a lot. The three-wheeled mutant hurtles forwards and, to my surprise, the power finds its way on to the wet track with little wheelspin or the tugging at the steering often found in a powerful front-wheel drive car. Does this augur well for the forthcoming 207's road manners? It would be good to think so, but the connection is tenuous at best because the 20Cup has its own racecar-like wishbone front suspension rather than the 207's struts. How the 207 behaves is something we won't discover until the launch in March.
One system the 20Cup does have from the road car, though, is the steering. You might expect a three-wheeler with strong motorcycling overtones to have almost handlebar-quick steering, but no. This I discover when I turn around the loop at the far end of the test course and jam my right hand between the steering wheel and that central spine. My turn turns out to be very untidy indeed.
A couple more laps now, during which I discover that the 20Cup's transmission has the hyperactive kangarooing of a racing car when you try to trickle along slowly, and that it scoots around corners with much more stability and aplomb than you might expect.
It's all happening at the front, though; the rear wheel does little more than stop the tail from dragging along the ground. In a four-wheeled car rear suspension geometry can be designed to help point a car into a corner. It doesn't happen here, so for all its visual madness the 20Cup is not so exciting to thread through a slalom. Instead it's all about the pace that comes from the light weight, and the craziness of driving half a car. It's a great way to introduce the 207's face to the world, though.
If the 20Cup is a flight of fun-car fancy, then another rapid, handbuilt Peugeot with a nod towards being a production car is a very serious creation indeed. It's not unusual for a journalist to ride in a current World Rally car, but the day I drove a Peugeot 307 WRC, as the Peugeot team closed the door on its WRC involvement to concentrate on Le Mans, will be etched in my mind for ever.
It began with a ride next to the runner-up in the 2005 World Rally Championship, Marcus Grönholm, whose ability to discern the grip potential of gravel, mud and rocks and dust - oh, the dust! - has an infinitely more optimistic calibration than my own. Slither-bang-scrape-slither we go, and at one point an eerie silence below as we fly through the air, launched from a crest and pointing directly into the sun
I feel ill, head battered in my helmet, neck straining against the g-force, lunch tasted all over again during that sickening jump. Regular navigator Timo Rautiainen, whose seat I'm in , sits almost on the floor so has not much of a view ahead, especially when airborne. He is, apparently, immune to motion sickness.
Then it's my turn to do three laps of this fabulously slithery, noisy and three-dimensional rally test stage. I'm strapped into another 307 WRC, and am delighted to discover that the driver, at least, is positioned where he can see the road ahead.
The 307 is superficially the same shape as a 307 CC road car, but the once-openable roof is welded shut after a structure-strengthening roll cage has been welded in to place. And, as is usual for WRC cars, this 307 has four-wheel drive and a turbocharger for its 2.0-litre, 300bhp engine. That sounds an ample but not stupendous amount of power - a 34mm intake restrictor, demanded by the regulations, is why - but then there's also the 515lb ft of torque to consider. That is why these things are so fast.
We're far away from a regular road car here. The suspension is massively strong, and allows both huge wheel movements and a surprisingly supple ride (softer suspension means better traction on the rough). Inside, the dashboard is an approximate carbonfibre copy of the original and there are all sorts of alien switches, levers and displays.
Chief rally engineer Yannis Loison, sitting to my right, turns a rotary knob on the centre tunnel to the "road" position. "We'll start off with this while you get the feel of the car," he's saying through the intercom. "Then we go to Max A and you'll have all the engine power."
Sounds good to me. "Road" gives me a speedo in the central dash display, deemed unnecessary when at the max in Max A, but there's no rev-counter, just a green change-up light. Ah yes, gear-changes. Like the 20Cup the 307 has a race-type sequential gearbox, controlled via two rings on the steering wheel (one in front for upshifts, one behind for downshifts). But this time there's no need to use the clutch once moving.
We're off, a footful of revs ensuring I don't stall, and the unreality of my run with Grönholm hits me all the harder. Here I am in the same type of car but driving at speeds normal to you and me. It's still amazing what punishment the 307 can take underfoot, though, and it's proving surprisingly easy to drive.
Satisfied I'm not about to kill us both, Loison switches to Max A. And now the lion roars as a torrent of torque is hurled earthwards and I get a sudden taste of a Grönholm-like mindset. This is more like it; wheels scrabbling, stones flying, dust everywhere. We hurtle over the crest and fly not for several seconds, true, but a satisfying instant, and now here's the hairpin left.
Brake, brake, brake, turn hard into the hairpin, marvelling at the grip these soft, chunky tyres manage to find. Then back on the power, to feel the tail swing round in a perfect drift ready to point the Peugeot up the next long, slithery, four-wheel-drifting right-hander, full-power, instant upshifts just a thumb-stab away. I feel like a hero, but the four-wheel drive system's electronics are the true masters of the dust-churning ballet, channelling exactly the right amount of torque to each wheel to do the job.
It looks spectacular from the outside, yet it's amazingly easy on the inside. But doing it at a Grönholm-matching pace is another matter altogether. I always thought that these guys had supernatural talent. Now I know they have.Reuse content