19 July 2013

A French road trip in style

Given the choice between taking a seven-year-old Ford Focus and an admittedly borrowed but shiny new Peugeot RCZ on a 1,500-mile trip through France, it was hardly a tough decision to make.

A chance conversation at a press lunch resulted in Peugeot lending me its latest sports coupé for my 10-day jaunt through western France. It wouldn’t be a test drive as such – just the opportunity to see how the low-slung RCZ sports coupé would cope on narrow winding country roads leading to hilltop villages as well as long stretches of motorway.

It would be a little while before I could show off this really quite beautiful car, however. The “dolphin-blue” RCZ sat patiently below deck during the civilised overnight crossing on Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to St Malo. And then it went straight to the underground car park of the Grand Hotel des Thermes while we explored the underrated port of St Malo. But finally the car had a full six hours of being on view – and duly admired by passing motorists – as we headed south through the Pays de la Loire’s lush green countryside and Poitou-Charente’s endless sunflower fields towards the Dordogne.

I could see why the car turned heads. It resembles the Audi TT in shape and design, but has none of the WAG stigma attached. It’s also considerably cheaper than an equally tooled-up TT: mine was the six-gear GT HDi with all the bells and whistles and its on-the-road price is just over £25,000.

It was also immediately obvious that taking a fuel-efficient diesel on a long road trip was a good idea. The display showing the remaining miles before the next fill-up actually went up as we cruised along the motorway; the car was dutifully calculating that a steady speed along a smooth road was doing wonders for fuel efficiency. In fact, I didn’t refill until after 550 miles, and there was still fuel left in the tank.

I could also set the speed limit to prevent me from unwittingly breaking the law. Going at breakneck speed along French autoroutes is becoming a thing of the past, I’ve noticed over the years – at least among French drivers. Satnavs aren’t allowed to show locations of speed cameras any more, but then I had no desire to go above the 80mph motorway limit. And the car’s low position gave me the impression I was going much faster than I was.

It was only on the rather bumpy D roads towards my destination near Bergerac that I noticed that the extra-wide tyres and 19-inch wheels made the ride a bit harder. But then on the stretches where single-lane carriages briefly opened into two lanes – uphill, as they invariably do – the engine’s power made overtaking easy work.

We could nip past lumbering Dutch caravans that clogged the roads leading to the Dordogne’s most popular medieval villages: Beynac, Les Eyzies, La Roque-Gageac, Domme. Sunflowers lit up the fields along the D roads between the half-timbered village houses of Issigeac and Monpazier’s handsome arcaded square. These roads were quieter, made for pootling along – which suited the RCZ just fine.

The car would have plenty of time to glide through its six gears as we sped along the motorway through Limousin on the way north to the Loire Valley. The landscape flattened out somewhat as we reached villages along the confluence of the Loire and Vienne rivers, broken up occasionally by limestone ridges housing troglodyte caves. The car was getting heavier by this point, as the temptation to stock up on Saumur reds and rosés was proving too much. Luckily the boot was much bigger than you would expect from a coupé, with two narrow seats in the rear adding extra room. Indeed, the whole interior was remarkably spacious, with plenty of legroom and comfortable sculpted front seats.

There was just enough time to fill the boot to capacity with a last-minute shop near Calais before the return ferry crossing and the drive home. I was hoping against hope that the Peugeot driver might get lost on his way to pick up the car. Sadly he didn’t.

Images © Adam Batterbee

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