Why did the french lose their je n’est c’est quoi? and how can they regain it?

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broken down renault

It feels odd that one of the stories gathering the most steam from the Frankfurt motor-show is the excitement over Renault’s new talisman estate, which on looks alone seems to be a very pretty and well thought out design. This must be the first time in years that a none small car from the Boulogne factory has got anyone in such a state. The sad fact is that it isn’t just Renault that has been struggling to capture the imagination of the buying public but its all of the big 3 that have been stuck in a rut since the late 90’s. French cars of this generation have gained poor reputations, whether due to designs on either end of the ridiculous to dull spectrum or due to misplaced prestige aspirations or possibly just due to the image that they aren’t built particularly well any more. This is a real shame as from history France has brought us some of the most ingeneous, interesting and dynamic cars of the last century. So where did it all go wrong? , and what hopes apart from the talisman has Citroen, Peugeot and Renault got on the horizon to bring hope of a new French renaissance.

A brief history


All 3 manufacturers have forged there place in history in 3 very different ways to remain relevant in the market place through the difficult years where Simca, Panhard and Talbot simply couldn’t. Renault gained ground by becoming the experts in clever packaging, producing what I believe to be the first modern car. Now many people claim the most important car of the 20th century was the original mini, due to its transverse engine allowing an amazing amount of space for the size, but with issigonis’s marvel came one major flaw, the boot. The saloon boot of the mini could become a real pain in everyday use, I owned one as my first car and as soon as I needed to transport items as well as people at the same time, tetris style packaging became very interesting. Today its rare to see a car without a hatch, but when Renault introduced the 16 in 1965 it was quite novel, it wasn’t the first hatchback by any means but arguably it was the first one to get it right. Place any c-segment car next to the 16 and its clear to see the similarities, the focus, golf, astra , civic etc all owe their existence to some extent to Gaston Juchet’s great design. Now the c segment has always remained popular where saloon cars have seen a fairly sharp decline in sales recent times, but the c segment is nothing compared to the most popular of all, the super mini and guess who came up with the first true supermini? yup,Renault again. When people think of the France’s people car they wrongly imagine the tin snail but the 5 easily outsold the 2cv in its shorter lifetime and was by far more important to the development of the motorcar. The car proved to be so well packaged but it was also given a ride and drive that only France at the time could produce in a small car. The five was so perfect that it gave Renault a real problem when it came to eventually replacing the car, in fact much of the five lived until the early noughties underpinning the first retro design car the original twingo. Renault were full of great ideas in the 20th century I mean look at the espace, europe’s first mpv which again is another market that generates alot of sales. But what happened to this mary poppins bag of tricks? how did the range become so stale so fast?

1965-renault_16_boot  MK1-Renault-Espace-1980s

If Renault were making cars for the not too distant future then Citroen were making cars for a different zargon-esque dimension. Citroen in the 20th century created some of the coolest cheap cars from the farmers favorite 2cv family to the max power boys saxo, but it wasn’t just the cheap end of the market Citroen comfortably fought in they also made some of the greatest luxury cars of all time. Andre was an inventive type and he saw the potential in monnocoque construction extremely early on in the development of the car, his company also created one of the greatest suspension systems ever envisaged that neither Mercedes or Rolls Royce could better (they both eventually licensed the technology of hydropneumatic suspension for many years) . But the use of hydraulics didn’t just make the ds,gs,cx,bx and xantia (particularly the activa) more comfortable than the competition but it gave a real safety advantage , it made braking sharper and when things go wrong as they did for french president Charle de Gaulle it could even save your life.


140 Bullets and 3 flat tires couldn’t stop this godess

Citroen often fell victim to its eccentricities and did require bailing out of a sticky situation with Maserati by Peugeot, but not even they could sanitize the company too much (until the 90’s at least), and Citroen arguably created the first truly desirable turbo diesels in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I feel that Peugeot to a certain extent survive on Citroen at the moment as they still seem to produce cars that are popular, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made their fair share of mistakes in recent times.


Peugeot-504-Africa1 peugeot_404_cabriolet

Finally we reach Peugeot, well unlike the other two Peugeot have never been too inventive but what must seem strange to the owner of a ten year old 307cc is that Peugeot had a reputation for building dependable and stylish automobiles. If you travel to Africa you will see the place is littered with old 404/504’s which are still very much in service , nothing apart from a w123 comes close for classic reliability. Peugeot formed a relationship with Ferrari favorite Pininfarina early on but also created some brilliant designs by themselves such as the timeless 205 (pinin only helped with the convertible). Peugeot did learnt fast that they couldn’t fall into the trap of making dependable but dull cars ( the Japanese at the time could do that cheaper ), so in the 80’s they transitioned into making some of the greatest drivers cars of a generation, the gti’s and mi16 were in another league to most of the competition thanks to a chassis and suspension set up guru, but all this trickled down to the more basic cars and even the diesels. Until the late 90’s at least Peugeot’s really could provide you with the drive of your life, but then at the turn of the 21st century everything seemingly just turned to cheese, but more of that next.


So what went wrong?

bx  ororion

Firstly when looking into what went wrong if it did I think I must argue the point that it could have been more to do with the competition than it was to do with the French as a whole. For example lets take Ford who for most of the 20th century made money on ‘bread and butter’ car’s, they built products that usually had old but tested components and very conservative styling, so in the late 80’s if you drove an Orion and BX back to back the bx would feel a million times more modern, however in the late 90’s if you pitched a Xsara against a focus the results would be very much reversed. The Japanese started to design the cars as well as engineer them and even the descendants of the bl legacy Rover experienced a few hits in the 90’s and it wouldn’t be too long till even the koreans could make a car you would desire for more than just pricing. German auto’s which were also starting to really look at the lower ends of the markets must have made a big difference, and when Vw managed to build skoda and seat up the situation must have become incredibly difficult.

Citroën_Xsara_in_St_Trond    or  focus

Nowadays a Countries reputation in making cars can be as or more important than the companies own reputation, this allows the Germans who we see as fastidiously efficient to make poor cheap cars that sell consistently well, where Italian and French cars can be good but struggle with an international reputation of perhaps being a little lazy. I mean can you remember this recent campaign by Citroen (I doubt this advert was used in France)

but like many stereotypes unfortunately usually a grain of truth is found, in the 90’s Psa had cars out like the 306/xsara and 106/saxo that consistently in their relatively long lifespans spent time at the bottom of the JD power and reliability rankings. The cars dynamically were very good, class leading even and the press raved about them, but as soon as the public got a hold of them the electrical and mechanical gremlins started to come through. Also much of the re-engineering to make the saxo and 106 in right hand drive for our market was ill thought out leaving the driver with an offsett pedal set which could really p*** you off on a long journey (Having experienced constant service station break stopping with my mates saxo). I also remember my dad looking at 2 one year old c5’s in the early noughties that had a curious habit of lowering random rear windows for no reason at all, leaving him to buy a Laguna instead which in his words was the worst car he ever owned, I mean remember this situation with the mk2 megane?

Its almost as if Renault became over obsessed with built in obsolescence as a means of making money, the quality today does seem to be on the rise which is a good thing but even in respected cars like the new 308 there are areas where others have gone further. Take the new psa range of Adblue diesel engines which pre empt the banning of diesel cars in many cities in mainland Europe , they are great engines like all french diesels are but there is no easy way to refill the additive when it runs out meaning its a dealer only job where most of the competition have a much simpler and obviously cheaper system. Is it accidental or is it for financial gain that psa ommited a simple filler for the additive? well that’s for you to decide but its an oversight which in a few years time could create some very unhappy consumers as the main reason anyone would buy a diesel over the amazing new era of turbo petrol’s is to save money.

In 2009 the french were very happy at the bottom of the Jd power customer satisfaction survey


Reputation has been a killer for the french but I think another point that must be made is the misunderstanding of brand values from the start of the century, Peugeot started seeing themselves as an upmarket manufacturer and made many of their cars more expensive compared to the competition. This would have been all well and good if the cars were well built and dynamic but most of the cars were neither and arguably in this market Citroen the traditional lower end stable has been more successful with its Ds range of cars (and the c6 deserved to do better still).


Renault also fell into the prestige trap, but actually their problem has been dull cars which have been really unrewarding to drive (not my words Carol but the words of topgear magazine) , they did have a go at inventing new markets with the bizarre and interesting Avantime and Velsatis but these cars were more in the mould of a classic Citroen than a Renault.

laguna or 05

Peugeot and Citroen both had a go at reinventing the car  themselves with the 1007 and pluriel but both of these cars were much worse than Renault’s attempt, the 1007 was all based on a gimmick of electric doors on a jazz sized car (and yes they do go wrong)  and the c3 pluriel which was aimed to evoke images of the 2cv,  ended up being impractical and ill thought out (the complete opposite to the brilliant 2cv).

even at the motorshow launch you couldnt getting past having to dump the pillars on the floor


I think it is a mix of National reputation, improved competition and dodgy designs/manufacture that has led to all 3 companies being in a position where they’ve had to reduce the ranges available in our market (especially Renault) , but should they do a lancia and call it quits in what is famously a tough market to crack?

The new French Renaissance


Thankfully I think all 3 companies are in the best position in years to mount a comeback in the Uk , I feel for one thing alot of the competition is losing steam, Ford are now chasing the prestige market which I think will be their downfall, Vauxhall’s adam hasn’t really been well received and the lower end viva isn’t all that cheap. The Japenese haven’t really made an interesting car (bar the religion of mx5 and Hondas recent return to sporty cars) that has properly captured the buyers imagination for some time. But also the French have been really looking into the design of the cars, Peugeot have started to build cars properly again and with the rcx and 208 gti they have recaptured some of the dynamics they were famous for in the 80’s. The new Fractal concept will also hopefully move the design language forward and away from the frumpy looks of the moment.

fractal Peugeot_208_GTi_30th_Anniversary_front

Renault have always had success with the Renault Sports (bar the new auto clio) and I hope this translates into the new alpine sportscar that is on the horizon, but im actually more taken with the new twingo which shares much of it’s development with Mercedes (smart). It takes me back to the days of the old R8 and I am really surprised they don’t advertise the rwd-ness of the car more and I pray Renault change’s its stance on making a hot Gordini edition. I also know the Talisman will never set foot in blighty but much of what makes it looks work is being transported into the new Megane which I beleive is the first truly good looking Megane (4th time the charm) and we know that Renault Sport are going to make a stonker out of it.


And then there’s Citroen, well im not a fan of the c range although I do really like the ds car’s but all of the range is completely eclipsed by the new cactus, I think its chuffing Brilliant and I cannot think of one modern car that I would rather own. So if the French are up to the challenge I think in ten years again they could be the kings of the car’s that real people actually drive and that makes me very happy indeed.



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