The French carmaker's finest Le Mans legacy is a fun-to-drive coupé that puts Audi's TT in the shade, writes Fifth Gear's Tiff Needell
As I write tens of thousands of British race fans are setting off on their annual pilgrimage to campsites just outside the small French town of Le Mans. There they’ll pitch tents, light barbecues and begin to build pyramids of empty beer bottles before settling down to watch the greatest race of all – the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Unfortunately, fans knew before they travelled that a much-anticipated duel was not going to happen. After five years of titanic battles between the mighty Audi and Peugeot turbo diesels, the French manufacturer pulled the plug on its racing programme at the start of this year. Earlier enthusiasts had predicted another German winners’ parade, with myriad cars and teams battling for the honour of being next best or leading a slower class.
While Peugeot can console itself with memories of one great Le Mans win in 2009 and doubtless all sorts of technical advances learnt during the campaign, we can also be more than happy for another race legacy – the Peugeot RCZ.
With the styling of a mini Le Mans car and a driving experience to match, the RCZ is a coupé that provides bundles of fun for a sensible price. Equally happy gently cruising around town attracting approving looks or being launched onto country lanes for an enthusiastic drive, it has something for everyone.
The car’s cab-forward profile and double-bubble roof give it a classic sports car look even before you climb in and sink down into the seat of the racy cockpit. With the top of the windscreen low in front of me, giving a pillar-box view, I could be back in one of my own LeMans racers again whistling down the Mulsanne Straight.
The model I drove was the best of all, the RCZ THP 200GT, with its 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine producing 200horsepower and instant throttle response whenever demanded.
The steering wheel is free from an oversupply of buttons and ahead of me are four dials that tell me all I need to know –revs, speed, temperature and fuel. There’s even a clock in the middle of the dashboard so I don’t have to strain my eyes to decipher tiny digital displays.
A notchy, six-speed gearbox slots from gear to gear with a rewardingly positive movement, and the steering feel and responsive handling belie the fact that this is a front-wheel drive car. A high clutch pedal was a constant niggle but only a minor complaint, doing little to spoil an otherwise highly enjoyable experience.
With room in the back for a couple of teenagers, who can gaze skywards through the sloping rear window, and plenty of boot space, the RCZ is also remarkably practical – with the rear seats folding forward if it’s more luggage rather than extra people that you want.
While Peugeot no longer goes head to head with Audi at Le Mans, the RCZ is a direct competitor for the Audi TT – a competition where, I believe, it’s a clear winner.