Hands whirling out before her, eyes fixed on mine, words quickening, Sophie Gazeau, colour and materials stylist for the Peugeot Exalt concept that you see above, is hitting her stride.
"There is more than one way to do luxury. A top-end leather handbag that has aged is more highly prized than one that has come straight out of the shop. Wooden furniture that has marked through use is said to have character. We hear a lot about authenticity, but what is authentic about a piece of wood that has 1000 layers of lacquer on it, or real leather that is treated so much that it looks like plastic no matter for how many years you use it?"
Her passion runs deep, but so would yours if you’d battled through intense internal design competitions to earn the right to lead the direction of one of Peugeot’s most important concept cars in recent years.
The Exalt is more than an alternative take on the five-door luxury car. It is both a symbol of the rebirth of the brand and a steer on what the firm sees as a gilt-edged opportunity to establish itself in the lucrative luxury car market. And don’t snigger at that last statement; the fact that it’s on display at the Beijing motor show is no coincidence, because Peugeot is well established in China, and Asian car buyers are notoriously ready to embrace new ideas.
That Peugeot bosses sense opportunity should be no surprise. The company entered the Chinese car market as early as 1985, and although that joint venture faltered, a second initiative kicked off in 1992 with Dongfeng, now China’s second-largest car maker and, in a twist of fate, a major shareholder in PSA Peugeot-Citroën following its recent financial struggles.
The benefits of a strident premium brand have already been reaped via Citroën’s DS arm, which is enjoying stratospheric success among Chinese buyers. Now Peugeot wants in on the sales act and, most important, the profit margins that follow. Brilliantly – beautifully – it also has the confidence to realise that it must achieve its goal by offering an alternative to what’s already out there.
Nominally, this 4.7m-long saloon-cum-hatch, with its unusually low roofline of just 1.31m, is meant to grab your attention for far more than its innovative looks. A plug-in hybrid, it has the same 1.6 THP engine that powers the RCZ R, but the four-cylinder petrol engine’s 266bhp is supplemented by a 67bhp electric motor mounted on the multi-link rear axle.
It is also built on a version of the EMP2 platform that underpins the next generation of PSA vehicles, including the Car of the Year winner, the Peugeot 308. All good stories, you would think. But if I tell you that in almost four hours with the car and a succession of interviews with five of its creators, not one of them mentions either its powertrain or platform, you’ll start to get a sense of the priorities.
"We spent 18 months creating this concept, at least six months longer than usual for a concept car," says Gilles Vidal, Peugeot’s style director. "The body shape and proportions are especially complex, and we needed to pitch the balance of the styling just right. This is a car with a story to tell."
To ensure that the Exalt achieved his goals, Vidal pitched 10 exterior design teams against each other to meet his brief, and four interior teams also did battle. Internal competitions to lead design projects are not unusual in car companies – but to pitch quite so many people head to head is.
“The Onyx supercar concept was our guiding force,” says Vidal. “That set the design philosophy, and especially the principle of having an emotional relationship with a car that sets it apart, led by the use of materials. At this end of the market, you are not buying the car because you have to. You are buying it because you want to.
"The Exalt is very distinguishable as a modern Peugeot – look down the side and there are just three lines, as is our DNA – but we also sought to pick up on details that would make the design unique. We have the heritage to build this sort of car with total authenticity. The echoes of the 504 coupé are no accident. We’ve shown that we can do simple lines with depth and animation successfully before.”
From its panel-beaten body, evoking the spirit of 1920s car making, through to the so-called shark skin material that adorns the rear end, cleverly improving its aerodynamic efficiency to allow it to cut through the air, the Exalt wilfully blends contrasts with the goal of redefining luxury for the modern age.
Classic, elegant piano-key-inspired switchgear offsets a digital control panel that rises from the centre console, for instance. Simple, elegant fabrics, carefully created to avoid all but the smallest amount of visible stitching, sit alongside ornate, hand-crafted (and in places knotted and cracked) wood that fills much of the interior, peaking with the striking carved lion and bamboo piece set in the front passenger door, from where it is most visible to the driver. And note how driver orientated this car is.
China’s luxury car market has long been dominated by sales to buyers obsessed with rear legroom but, says Gazeau, that is changing. "Today, China is about conspicuous wealth and travelling in the rear of the car, but we are challenging that," she says. "We wanted a car that would inspire its owner to drive and enjoy it, that offered touch points that were ultra high-tech, but others that were a link to their homeland and history, that would stir their soul."
Vidal is in no doubt that the Onyx and Exalt form part of a journey for Peugeot. After all, a mass-market brand can’t just hope to redefine the luxury car sector overnight. But a foothold in China and a changing landscape among post-recession car buyers elsewhere might just provide the opportunity that Peugeot is looking for, both to break free of established conventions and to boost its battered profit lines. And if it can achieve that, who’s to argue that the automotive landscape won’t be richer for it?
We also know the Exalt could spawn a China-only production car soon, so Peugeot's vision of the future could become a reality after all.