France‘s Long History of Executive Car Failure
If at first you don’t succeed…
By Andy Bannister
I had one of those head-turning moments the other day, when I saw a sleek and beautiful car I didn’t immediately recognise, a very long five-door with a coupé profile. Then it dawned on me I’d experienced a rare sighting of Citroën’s C6, the ultimate example of that noble tradition – big French cars that just don’t sell.
That’s not to say the C6 is a bad car, in fact probably quite the reverse. It’s an elegant vehicle, with a cossetting interior and ride, and is arguably Citroën’s most successful piece of large car styling for many years, harking back to the glory days when models like the DS and CX looked like spaceships compared to the boxy offering of other manufacturers.
It is just that for decades now French manufacturers have been stubbornly persevering in spite of overwhelming evidence that big cars from France simply don’t succeed with buyers. Depreciation as steep as Mont Blanc has frightened off all but the bravest customers.
In spite of this, Peugeot and Renault as well as Citroën still produce cars which in theory at least compete with the all-conquering Germans. Of course, President Nicolas Sarkozy needs some suitable home-built transport to whisk him to and from the Elysée Palace, but one look at the streets of Paris itself demonstrate most luxury car buyers have headed off to Audi, BMW or Mercedes showrooms in droves.
Wind back time more than 30 years to 1975 and Peugeot and Renault were both launching, for the first time in many years, new luxury cars. Thanks to a joint venture with Volvo to produce a new 2.7-litre (PRV) V6 engine (the self-same unit used in the ill-fated De Lorean sports car, no less), the two rival French makers were able to compete in a potentially rich new market.
Peugeot, purveyor of solid middle-class saloons like the 504, almost pulled it off with their first effort, the square-cut luxury 604, which still looks quite handsome today. Renault opted for a big five-door hatchback, the 30, which was rather more ordinary in appearance, and was soon undermined by the launch of a downmarket sister, the 20, which initially featured a small 1647cc engine in the 30’s body. Long-term, neither the 604 or the 30 were a great success, and mainly succeeded in hitting sales of Citroën’s CX.
A fourth French marque also dipped a toe in this part of the market and produced yet another spectacular failure. Talbot, the company created by Peugeot from the ruins of Chrysler’s European arm in 1979, committed corporate suicide with the launch the spectacularly unsuccessful Tagora model. This boxy executive car for the 1980s with its all-plastic interior sank without trace and helped take Talbot down with it.
Far from learning from these early setbacks, however, a succession of French luxury cars have regularly limped onto an unimpressed market right up until the present day.
Peugeot’s 604, having initially died without replacement, was belatedly succeeded by the incredibly bland and boring 605, which was popular with taxi drivers but few private buyers. Mercifully there was no 606, but Peugeot currently tops its range with the 607, which appears unfeasibly long by European standards and looks about as good a long-term investment as real estate in Afghanistan just at present.
In the 1990s Citroën used Peugeot’s near-invisible 605 as the basis for its rather more radical-looking luxury offering, the angular XM. Even its name celebrated failure, evoking as it did memories of the gloriously-unsuccessful Maserati-engined Citroën SM luxury coupé of the early 1970s. The XM sold for more than a decade and was the ultimate eccentric’s choice, making most sense in its very roomy wagon version, but is best remembered nowadays for poor reliability and for being almost impossible for its hapless owner to trade in without losing a small fortune.
For Renault, the poor reception accorded to the hatchback 30 back in the 1970s did not prevent it clinging to this concept to the present day. The 30’s successor, known as the 25, had a role to play in an abortive French attempt to seize a slice of the lucrative American market, through the ill-fated AMC-Renault tie-up. Ironically, having snapped up AMC it was Chrysler that would end up having to try and sell the Canadian-built offspring of this venture. This featured a Renault 25 body reworked as a stodgy sedan, and rejoiced in the name of Eagle Premier.
In Europe, meanwhile, the 25 was replaced by an equally bland hatchback for the 1990s, the Safrane, which true to form failed to make any impact on the market even after an emergency facelift intended to inject a bit of character. Renault then decided to take a very different tack with its two most recent offerings, which came to the market together in 2002.
One, the Renault Avantime, flopped so quickly it had the unusual distinction of making the Talbot Tagora look like a success by comparison. The Avantime was a brave, some might say foolhardy, attempt to answer a question no-one had ever posed – what would a 2-door luxury MPV coupé look like? The answer was like nothing else on earth, particularly around the upright rear window. Unfortunately for Renault, almost no-one on earth wanted to buy this brave attempt to break the executive car mould and it fizzled out after two years.
This would not have been so bad if the Safrane’s true successor, the Vel Satis, had been a success. Slightly less radically styled than the Avantime, this five-door hatchback, still on sale in some markets today, still manages to be one of the more peculiar sights on the road. It is particularly notable for its unusual frontal treatment, and its steeply-raked wrap-round rear window.
Now Renault is so close to Japanese partner Nissan it might do well to study the success of that company’s Infiniti division in designing desirable, upmarket cars and selling them from posh showrooms where buyers aren’t tripping over customers doing a deal on a 1.0-litre hatchback.
Meanwhile, if only Citroën could do something to prop up its used car prices, the C6 might have a lot going for it for those exclusivity-seekers who find there are just too many Bentley Continentals or Maserati Quattroportes on the road.
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