Peugeot RCZ

The new RCZ augurs well for the next generation of Peugeot hot hatchbacks

Picture the scene. A one-off, almost irreplaceable concept car has been let loose on the public road by the man who built it. Inside are two people, neither of whom is an employee of the company whose car it is. The driver (me) is enjoying the power and the pep, revelling in the fact that this concept car, unlike many, not only works, but works convincingly well.

People point, jaws drop – for some have seen this neat little coupé in the motoring press and can't believe they are now seeing it for real. I am trying to get past a slow cement lorry, and splatters of cement have formed on the Peugeot RCZ's unique, show-car bonnet. It's a surreal moment.

The car is returned to its creator. You must make a production version, I say, and so does everyone else who encounters it. What better way to rekindle Peugeot's lost art of style and driving fun?

Now, two years later and encouraged by the positive vibes, Peugeot has done just that. It looks almost exactly like the concept, right down to the double-bubble roof and rear window shaped to match. The bold rails that form the roofline were aluminium in the concept car and are aluminium-clad in the real thing, and you can have the roof in real carbonfibre if you like. There are changes from the concept, but they are mere details.

As a concept, it was known as 308 RCZ, because it was based on the 308 hatchback, but with wheels set further apart on the axles. This is still true, and the dashboard is still clearly 308-derived, albeit with posh leather and a smart clock in place of the central air vent. The air of luxury tells us this is a "premium" coupé – costing from £20,450 to £22,750 – perfectly placed to compete with the Audi TT whose profile it obviously resembles. But look past the leather upholstery and the metallic accents and you'll find hard plastics for the middle section of door trim and the glovebox. That's a pity.

The RCZ does look exotic from the outside, though. It's a neat, taut coupé with minimal rear seats and a self-raising rear spoiler, and in black with black wheels and the black chrome roof-arch option it looks particularly purposeful. Three engines will be offered, a 2.0-litre turbodiesel with 163bhp for the CO2-watchers, and a pair of 1.6-litre, direct-injection, turbo petrol engines with 156 or 200bhp. Part of a joint venture between Peugeot and BMW, similar engines are also found in Minis, but this new 200bhp unit uniquely combines variable valve timing and lift with a twin-scroll, fast-response turbocharger.

Most recent tales of sporting Peugeots have been laced with regret at a once-great talent lost. But Peugeot's newest family cars (308, 3008 and 5008) do show a return to form with their combination of precise steering and a supple ride. So I am optimistic as I settle into the seat of a diesel RCZ and head for the hills.

The dashboard may be 308-like but the driving position is lower-set and more sporting. Straight away some optimism is rewarded, because this RCZ is smooth, quiet, supple over bumps, and accurate in the steering. The engine pulls with the gusto expected of a modern turbodiesel, yet it spins more freely than most and sounds as if it enjoys the process. This is a promising combination of engine and sports coupé, but something is missing. Could it be just a little sharper when turning into a tight bend? Could it give its driver just a little more chance to balance the flow of power and steering on an interesting road? Rehabilitation isn't complete yet.

And so to the RCZ 200 THP, with that new turbo engine and a standard-fit Sport pack. This includes a slightly smaller steering wheel which should clearly be standard, because it's one reason for this car's greater flickability on tight, twisty roads. Another is the lighter engine, a third is that the front suspension uses stronger pivots on a stronger subframe and so feels crisper and more direct in its responses.

And yes, this is it. This is the Peugeot that puts things right, the Peugeot that augurs well for the next hot hatchback that the company has hinted is on its way. The engine pulls with crisp-edged energy, and the way this RCZ copes with one of the best driving roads I have ever experienced (in the mountains west of Bilbao) will stay with me a long time. This is one entertaining car, a car which involves you in the art and science of automotive dynamics in the way a TT just does not.

I'd have one over any TT, because it's just as well made, it's more fun and it costs less. Convinced? You should be.

Specification

Model: Peugeot RCZ

Price: From £22,750 (range starts at £20,450). On sale now

Engine: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 200bhp at 5,500rpm, 206lb/ft at 1,770rpm

Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 146mph, 0-62 in 7.6sec, 39.8mpg official average, CO2 159g/km

The Rivals

Alfa Romeo Brera 2.2 JTS: £25,440.

Another concept car makes it to production, but is let down by Alfa 159 saloon dashboard and tepid performance. Looks dramatic, has usable rear seats.

Audi TT 2.0 TFSI: from £26,245.

The obvious RCZ rival, and this cheapest, front-wheel drive, 200bhp variant is also the best TT to drive. Less fun than RCZ, though, and more expensive.

Volkswagen Scirocco 2.0 TSI: £23,540.

Similar engine and underpinnings to TT but much more entertaining. Looks great, has habitable rear seats, is deservedly popular.

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