Fans of French cars are usually pretty easy to spot. They’ll be the ones leafing through a car magazine or hanging around a Peugeot, Citroen or Renault dealership with a look of mild sadness and disappointment on their faces. New French cars have been, on the whole, pretty disappointing for all of us in recent years, but particularly for French car nuts whose loyalty remains undimmed, and who still believe that France will give us another DS or 2CV (below). We all hope it will.
Why do French cars attract such loyalty? Mainly because the best ones meld a set of really appealing attributes. First, a good French car is affordable; sold at the kind of price we might all reasonably afford. Even the bigger, more expensive good ones – the DS, the CX – weren’t unobtainable, and if you couldn’t afford it at first then the staggering depreciation big French cars suffer meant you soon could, until it became a classic and the price rocketed back up.
Second, a great French car should be an innovative, idiosyncratic piece of design. Both its architecture and its engineering detail should display the kind of left-field free-thinking you want to buy into and be associated with. It should look striking and fresh, but doesn’t have to be beautiful.
Third, it should be practical. With a few admirable exceptions, a good French car can be your only car; its design smarts should make it easier to use every day, and much of the satisfaction of owning one comes in the slow revelation of how well it fits your life. It was only after a couple of months of Kangoo ownership that I realized the big plastic cupholder in the boot was designed to take a wine bottle, and picnics were instantly slightly better as a result.
Lastly, it should, of course, be great to drive. Not immensely powerful; in fact the best ones often have the least grunt. Instead it should goad you to make the utmost of whatever power it has, with lightness, quick steering, a fluid ride and grip that gives way progressively, and, ideally, at the back first: the Peugeot 306GTi-6 is the absolute master of this.
And there’s also a bunch of stuff a good French car needn’t be or have. It won’t rely on a snooty badge for its appeal. It doesn’t need a cabin trimmed in oak and veal-skin, or stuffed with more gadgets than Dixons; in fact a little roughness-round-the-edges is kind of desirable.
There are a few French cars that reflect all of these values and which everyone knows: we’ve already name-checked the Citroen 2CV and DS; you’ll know the Peugeot 205GTi and the Renault 4 too. Others might not be as familiar; if you don’t know the Citroen Traction Avant, the HY van or the Mehari (below), Google them and prepare to be charmed.
So if the qualities that make a great French car are so clear and bright and simple, why isn’t every French car great? Because assembling a car that hits all of those bases is deceptively hard, and getting harder. It’s tougher to be truly innovative now than forty years ago when so many more cars have been made, so many more ideas already tried, and so many restrictions placed on how a car should crash, and therefore be built in the first place.
It’s also hard to defy the trend towards bigger, heavier, better-equipped, more solid-feeling cars, led by the German marques. The relative recent success of the French and German car industries makes it clear what most buyers want. But the majority aren’t always right. Sadly, when it goes chasing them and tries to build a German car the French car industry is at its worst. See the Renault Safrane and Peugeot 607 for evidence.
But let’s not get too downbeat. Every so often, the French car industry still produces an utter corker. (Well, Renault does, anyway: since Citroen was swallowed up by the more pedestrian Peugeot in the ‘70s its design and engineering genius has been suppressed.) In the eighties, Renault created the people carrier with the Espace. In the nineties, it created the mini-MPV with the launch of the Scenic. Both created whole new market sectors, left their rivals racing to catch up and made literally millions of family’s lives easier. This decade, Renault has produced a series of scorching hot hatches. It currently offers the Clio 197, described by one magazine as ‘the Porsche 911 GT3 of the hot hatch world’, and the utterly insane and barely legal Megane R26R, with its roll cage, plastic windows and semi-slick tyres. Can you see Volkswagen building something similar? Not really.
Renault has also, to its credit, tried really, really hard in recent years to produce a truly original car but ended up going way too far. There was the windowless Sport Spider and two versions of the mid-engined Clio V6, which was hilarious to drive but a little too eager to swap ends in the wet. There was the Vel Satis executive saloon, which tried so hard not to be a BMW 5-series, and ended up with a great interior but weirdly contorted styling as a result.
And there was, of course, the Renault Avantime (above), that mad coupe-meets-MPV with two doors, four seats and awesome views through its long pillarless side windows and moon-roof; it wasn’t great to look at, but it was glorious to look out of. There had never been anything like it before, and given how badly it was built and how poorly it sold, there never will be again. It was exactly what fans of French cars like me thought we wanted, until we got it.
But there’s hope. Renault has just launched the new version of the Kangoo (below), which may be a little better-padded than the old one but is still the clearest carrier of French car DNA. Don’t be fooled by the fact that most are driven by mad old ladies with dogs: Gordon Murray, creator of the McLaren F1, has two.
Renault also has radical electric-car plans, and is bringing its low-cost, five-grand and surprisingly good Dacias to more western European countries, and maybe eventually the UK. For economic and environmental reasons, the world is coming back around to the idea of affordable, practical, light, frugal and fun cars: France just needs to start making more of them.
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