At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, car design is fundamentally about proportion and detail, and a combination thereof. Some companies can do both, others excel at only one. For the past few years, Peugeot hasn't mustered much skill at either. How could this happen? For decades, the French company had these two qualities in abundance. Thanks to a long-running association with Italian design house Pininfarina, the company turned out saloons, estates, hatchbacks and coupés that were drawn with a deft economy of line. The Peugeot 'face' was a mix of slim grille, slanted headlights and a modest badge, all of which added up to give the car a hint of a smile, and a rather Gallic, seductive one at that.
Shortly after the beautiful 406 Coupé of 1997 - one of the best-looking production cars of its era - Peugeot styling fell off a cliff. Trim bodywork was fused with garish brightwork, giant headlights and giant yawning maws, turning a Peugeot showroom into a convention of basking sharks at an all-you-can-eat buffet. These oversized details wouldn't be so bad if they hadn't been married to an unhappy set of proportions right across the range. The perversity of all this lacklustre product was exacerbated by the stream of well-turned out concepts that continued to flow out of the company's own design studio, implying that elegant cars were just aching to get out.
Finally, the tide is turning and Peugeot's taskmasters have admitted they dropped the ball in terms of design. Recent cars and concepts, from the svelte new 508 saloon to the EX1 concept shown at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, have been among the more refined designs to grace the global stage in recent years, especially coming from a big manufacturer. The company's studios have also been unafraid to mix it up, proposing designs that range from the 907, a big, classic GT akin to a contemporary Ferrari, to the fabulously sleek 908RC limousine.
The RCZ also began life as a concept, the 308 RCZ (hinting at its prosaic, hatchback-based underpinnings), first shown way back in 2007. But unlike some of the rather more fanciful design visions, the RCZ was engineered from the outset to be a production possibility. And that is what we have here, a chic four-seater coupé clad in self-consciously outré clothing. Perhaps we have the Audi TT to thank for the RCZ's profile – three simple intersecting curves that speak more of image than function (ironically, given the vaguely 'Modernist' form they aspire to) – but it's success in its own right.
Inside, the RCZ is rather more stock than bespoke, but it's a very pleasant place to be, with all the thorough functionality we've come to expect from a contemporary car and no ergonomic oddities. The 'double bubble' roof profile and broad rear screen means looking backwards is an airy experience, unlike many of its peers. And while we still have some issues with the sculpture around the radiator grille and badge, this is the kind of car that grows on you, slowly but surely.
The Peugeot RCZ is billed as a 'Sports Coupé', although in truth it's only mildly sporting. A slightly more powerful model is already on the market, while a hybrid concept version is also waiting in the wings. But most importantly of all, it's a crucial waypoint in the revival of one of the great historic car companies.