Once upon a time, if you were looking for a big, comfortable, fairly well equipped, often quirky, usually reasonably priced car, French was the default option.
Since then, in the UK and Ireland at least, choices of big French cars are dwindling. Citroen have axed the C6, and rumours abound that the C5 will not get a replacement – the crossover DS5 being the defacto successor, Peugeot has merged its 60x and 40x lines into the 508, and Renault won’t sell a hatch/saloon larger than the Megane/Fluence.
Since the early days of car manufacture, French brands were known for their large luxurious cars. Citroen, pre-war, concentrated production on the Traction Avant. Later variants of this included Hydropneumatic suspension on the rear wheels, something that would be applied to all four on the DS.
The DS, needless to say, is an icon of French motoring. Effortlessly elegant, it must have looked like a spaceship when launched in 1955. It is the kind of car that, when US TV shows want to portray a Parisian scene, they find a European-style cafe on a film set, plonk a DS in front of it, and show the Eiffel Tower in the background. Such was the purity of design, that the car lasted 20 years with minor facelifts, though by the ’70s it was looking a little dated.
The CX was a modern take on the ’70s executive car, inspired by the BMC 1800 design from Paninfarina. Ultimately, the CX was launched during the 70s fuel crisis, development nearly bankrupted Citroen and Peugeot took over their sister company – for better or worse, depending on which enthusiast you ask. The XM was the successor to the CX, a return to Citroen’s core values, with just enough quirkiness to keep the hardcore fanbase, fearing a watered down proposal, happy.
Peugeot was known as the French Mercedes-Benz, back in the ’70s. The 504 and 505 were compared to the W123 in terms of ruggedness, the latter often being used as a bush taxi in Africa.
Renault, post-war, had focused on small cars. In the ’60s it tied up with Nash and sold the Rambler Classic as it’s Luxury car, though not for RHD UK. This was the initial shoots of the AMC tie-up. Later they had some success with the 20/30 range, which led to the 25, a Robert Opron-designed executive hatchback, with a wraparound rear window giving a notchback shape. The 25 chassis later lent itself to the Eagle Premier, from which the Chrysler LH platform was derived, and it could be suggested that the Chrysler 300/Lancia Thema 2 are successors to the 25…
Towards the end of the ’80s, the CX, 25 and 505 were getting long in the tooth. The XM, while futuristic when design and launched in the late ’80s, aged very quickly, especially when during it’s lifetime the likes of the Ka and Focus moved car design forward into the 21st century. A plan was afoot to facelift this, with C5/Xsara facelift style googly headlights. Luckily this never saw production, but the interested can see the result in the Conservatoire.
The 25 was replaced by the Safrane, which many felt looked too close to the Laguna. Similarly, Peugeot launched the 605 which could be mistaken at first glance for a 405. Most mainstream manufacturers had abandoned the E segment altogether, leaving that kind of thing up to the Germans. The French pushed on, with the C6, 607 and Vel Satis. Quirky choices, comfortable buses.
Though they were getting overly complex.
AROnline’s Richard Kilpatrick detailed his C6 woes. It wasn’t just the car, but the dealers who were by now corporate entities used to servicing the lower end of the range. Buyers were scared off by what they saw as overly complex suspension, which on models of the second generation C5 wasn’t fitted. If rumours are to be believed, the C5 wont be replaced. Initial talks with GM around basing the next generation model on the next generation Insignia platform fell through, PSA wish to promote Citroen as both a budget brand, and the DS brand as a premium brand, leaving the DS5 – a crossover-style car with harsh suspension, as the ‘big car’ offering.
The 607 was a bit of a mish mash, it looked like an elongated 307. It drove well enough, and while it would not be mistaken for a 406 or 407, sales were slow. The effective replacement was the 508, which also replaced the 407.
Renault in the UK tried to sell the Vel Satis to little success. Buyers weren’t sure what to make of the sub-MPV tall saloon car looks. They have now left the E and now the D-segment here, having withdrawn the uninspiring third-generation Laguna. Interestingly, it does offer an E-segment saloon in France – the Latitude, which is a re-badged Renault-Samsung. Talks with Mercedes-Benz about creating an ‘Initiale Paris’ luxury sub-brand, with a Mercedes-based saloon fell through. The name shall now be a specification on Clios. Renault, through it’s tie up with Nissan, can push buyers towards Infiniti models to fill this gap.
What can be done?
The traditional big French car is now represented by the DS5 and the 508. Other manufacturers are pruning their D-segment saloons, though Peugeot is having some sales success to fleets. The DS5 represents the future of this market – crossover inspired cars moving away from the traditional three-box/fastback low sleek saloons and hatches. Renault is rumoured to be looking at Nissan’s success with the Primera replacement Qashqai.
Brands and Sub-Brands are getting realigned too. Renault shall now sell small, basic cars as Dacias, leaving the main brand to move upmarket. PSA wishes to move Peugeot upmarket, Citroen as the budget badge, but also the DS sub-marque as a premium brand. Future DS models shall probably follow the DS5 lead.
What of a comfortable big car though? These models are trying to emulate the Germanic sales success by compromising ride comfort to focus on Nurburgring lapping handling. This was a complaint of the last Laguna and the DS5. There is one manufacturer though, which does still focus on comfort: Jaguar.
The new XJ has been compared to the SD1, but I see a bit of CX/C6 about it too. The 508 has been accused of aping the XF. Jag use the PSA HDi engines, as found in Citroens and Peugeots. So, you want a big car with traditional French qualities? Buy British.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.