France has an excitement problem - can it be solved?
Electrification, Restomods and a fast Renault Zoe; will it be enough to save sporty French design?
The Renault Clio V6, Peugeot 205 T16, Citroen DS - these names should resonate with you as the pinnacle of French car design. What happened to them? France's car industry appears to have lost its flourish for excitement. One of the most important countries in the automotive world is pandering to buyers who like SUVs over hot hatches despite showing that it still wants to have a little bit of fun. Is it time to revive their withering enthusiasm and possibly revisit some old classics?
When cars were at their peak.
France's car industry was a pioneer in the automotive world creating some of the most revolutionary cars. They built a century of beautifully designed and expertly engineered vehicles such as the aforementioned Citroen DS with its disk brakes and self-levelling hydropneumatic suspension which improved ride quality. Their styling was and, to some extent, still is on-point; the flamboyant curves and aerodynamic shapes were like no other. From the turn of the 20th century, they were already a remarkable engine of production. Cars like the incredibly rare Bugatti Type 57 and Delahaye Type 165 come to mind as they embodied the eccentric styling of the 1930s.
They launched dependable and affordable cars for mass production which worked well and drove people to buy them. Vehicles like the Citroen 2CV sold in the millions and executed their functions perfectly; they acted as military vehicles, commercial vehicles and family cars - and they looked pretty good doing it. I could go on and on about the rugged dependability and usefulness of Peugeots or the iconic looks of the Renault 4 but let's get to where French cars changed for the better, when they went a bit mad.
Yes, the 1970s and 1980s saw sports cars come out of France which catalysed a change in how we view sporty vehicles. They became (relatively) affordable with the introduction of some of the first hot hatchbacks. Partnering the Golf GTI and Ford Fiesta was an array of small and fast French automobiles which evolved up until very recently. Does the Peugeot 205 GTI ring any bells? It was this group of cars that every new driver aspired to own; they were speedy and good-looking and, thanks to their modern reputation, are now ludicrously expensive. The legendary Group B rally class helped this hatchback revolution by providing rare homologation specials like the Renault 5 Turbo 2; they were the pinnacle of chic and attainable performance.
Furthermore, some of the first sports cars came out of this era. Renault subdivision, Alpine were churning out some legendary vehicles like the A110, A310 and A610 (noticing a naming pattern here). The delightfully quirky Citroen SM graced our presence; the luxurious nature of the brand with its suspension and ride quality was blended with the brilliant engine and internals of Maserati, who they owned at the time. It was a prosperous time for us enthusiasts as we saw the rise of French performance as it tried to match that of Germany and Italy.
The 1990s continued this trend with a new crop of hatchbacks and the occasional supercar. Lesser known companies like Monaco's Venturi Automobiles sold their cars from 1984-2000 and Bugatti released their legendary EB110 supercar (famously owned by racing legend, Michael Schumacher) which gained great notoriety until the company's liquidation in 1995. The hot hatchback market continued its triumph; Renault's Clio was even fettled with by the F1 team, Williams. Millionaires and performance-craving hooligans alike jumped at those cars.
Their concept cars all pointed in the right direction too; Peugeot showed off an all-out V12 supercar in the early 2000s called the 907. Even in the modern era, aerodynamic concepts like the Citroen GT made us enthusiastic for the future. But alas, it wasn't to be.
All the while, they were prominent in the racing scene. From the beginning of motorsports, they gained notoriety with some of the most iconic tracks and cars. They were part of rally, endurance racing and F1 with Renault, Peugeot and even some long lost brands like Talbot and Matra. Oh, and lets not forget when Renault put an F1 engine in an Espace - that was awesome.
Speaking of which, I think I've sussed out when all of their designs fell apart and it begins with the Espace. It was the first purpose built MPV and was designed with luxury and space in mind. There is sufficient evidence to claim that it was where the ethos of the car changed; where people began to like the idea of MPVs. It had seats for 7 people which were roomy, foldable and even removable; the huge amounts of practicality and room made it resemble a van with an '80s limousine parked through the middle of it. It wasn't a hassle to drive or use - the agile nature of such a behemoth was welcome and people were genuinely intrigued by this new concept. It ended up that they favoured the height and size of these vehicles over everything else and the SUV was born.
the slow decline of genius French design.
Where did it all go wrong? As the 2000s beckoned, we saw a steady decline in car quality. This was a generalised issue across all cars of this era - France was one of the worst affected as manufacturers like Peugeot favoured cheap production and, frankly, terrible design because it sold more. The loathsome 3008 reared its ugly head and the fairly pathetic 206 Cabriolet blinded an entire generation of petrolheads. The car market changed and makers started to lose money - they panicked. Their new models sold well but car enthusiasts lost interest; the higher ride and more space of SUVs took hold and French cars (like most other countries) descended into that dark void of dullness.
However, it wasn't all doom and gloom yet. A slim line of vehicles were still produced by designers who let their fun side take hold on occasion. Renault in particular developed some legendary vehicles like the Clio 182 or track-focussed Megane R26.R which favoured driving pleasure over practicality. The racing scene also continued to see the presence of Renault in the Formulas and Peugeot in Le Mans up until 2012 when their success was dwindling and they finally pulled out.
The most recent crop of interesting cars appears to have been the last for a while. Citroen's DS line created its DS3 Racing, a sporty supermini with stickers rivalling a fighter jet. Meanwhile, the GTIs of Peugeot made a return with some stylish models of their 208 and 308 cars. Renault continued with its legendary Clio Cup and Megane RS; all of these cars sported notchy manual gearboxes and plentiful power and pleasure. However, it wasn't to last, everything except for the Megane was axed; it was the only car to be renewed. Though, they did create a Trophy-R version which was retailed at a whopping £72 thousand.
However, some good came out of this: the famous Alpine brand made a return with a modern A110 utilising the same Inline 4-cylinder engine as the Megane. Despite the lack of a manual gearbox, it's a brilliant lightweight sports car. There were multiple renditions of the A110, all of which delighted journalists and buyers alike. It's one of the few cars out there that I'd genuinely like to own and it shows that we don't always need big, heavy cars. There's a time and place for a huge 4X4 with loads of space and capability, but sometimes we just need something small and sleek. For more on this, watch James May's review of his Alpine which was posted on Drivetribe's YouTube channel and is linked below.
This article isn't just a rant about how French cars were exciting and are now dull, I genuinely like the styling and overall engineering of their modern cars - whether it be the light clusters or the digital dials, there's something good to come out of them, the designer's talents are just wasted on boring cars. I wish that they'd devote a section of it for the good stuff; I want to see sports saloons and hot hatches by the dozen. It's obvious that the SUVs bring the money for these companies to continue, just give us some more interesting cars in return. Today's models are not as good as they can be, but will tomorrow's be better?
Well there may be a light in the darkness for us petrolheads on its way very soon. Yes, some of you may find electric cars unfavourable but it is the future and it may help us with our French predicament. The first inkling that things are changing comes from Peugeot; they recently announced their return to the endurance racing world by pledging to compete in the Hypercar class of WEC from 2023 onwards. This is, of course, brilliant news because we're finally seeing them take pride in their racing heritage. Following on from this, they revealed the first car to grace their new Peugeot Sport line - the 508 PSE is a sports saloon/estate car with a 3-cylinder hybrid powertrain. Now, it's not a V12 supercar, but that isn't what you should be expecting - the AWD car carries 360HP so it's nothing to shy away from and we've already seen from Toyota's GR Yaris that small engines can still be brilliant fun. It's unlikely it will leave reviewers in collective awe or will outsell its competitors from elsewhere but it's a start; maybe we'll see more coming to their lineup in the future.
Their manufacturing rivals, Renault, have teased plans for their electric lineup in an attempt to fully electrify their cars by 2025. There are some really cool concepts in their display with models like the Trezor GT car, the Dezir Coupe, and a very cool looking Zoe E-sport. But, the most exciting car to come out of this reveal was a fully electric Renault 5 hatchback concept. Could this be the return of one of their greatest models?
This also means that their subdivision, Alpine will get a full revamp as well to meet the 2025 quota. They've already teased an image of their new models which include an SUV, hatchback and a new electric version of the A110. This chassis is being co-developed with the lightweight masters at Lotus Cars who are creating a lighter battery for their cars and Renault's. So, we may still see a small and light sports car after all. We're also getting an Alpine hot hatch (probably similar to the Renault 5 concept) - how cool is that? Especially because recently, Alpine has been merged with the Renault Sport brand; this means that all Renault sports cars now come from Alpine. They're obviously still competing in WEC and F1 so they can only continue to advance their designs and possibly challenge Peugeot in 2023.
There is another resurgence in the form of some of their classic cars. Restomods like the Renault 5 Turbo 3 from Legend Automobiles gives us hope that we can still experience classic French sports cars in the modern world with new equipment and up-to-date modifications. This then means that their petrol cars can still be seen and experienced even if the main manufacturers are turning to electric powertrains.
Another interesting event that occurred earlier this year was the merger with the Stellantis N.V Group. It was a large multinational deal including Italian-American conglomerate, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles and France's PSA Group. This means that Peugeot, Citroen and DS Automobiles are now aligned with brands like Dodge, Lancia and even Maserati. Will we see something exciting come out of this partnership? Only time will tell.
What can we see in the future?
I've mentioned electrification a lot in this article because there is a blunt truth: electrification or hybridisation is the only way for France to extract themselves from this drab lull. With changing times and stricter laws coming into effect in Europe, it is not politically or financially viable for them to build loads of V8 coupes. In fact, the bleak reality is that they'd be better off to just build dozens of electric SUVs and Crossovers. Though, it does seem that designers have come to their senses and are actively diversifying their models more and looking to make their brands more stylish and sporty. No longer shall the name Peugeot invoke an image of a dull pensioner who rides the clutch pedal and struggles to navigate double mini roundabouts - like that hilarious Top Gear piece from years ago.
I also really hope that these French brands try to revamp some of their older models in a modern form so that we can see some cars that have been lost to time or did not get their time to shine when they were launched. I'm not against electrification in this case as it does seem to provoke brands into giving us something fresh and interesting. If they can blend the dramatic styling of today's cars with the technology of tomorrow's, then why shouldn't they make a resurgence.
After all, France was a pioneer of the automotive world and the ambiguous electric future opens up a whole host of possibilities for changing the automobile as we know it. Audi have already shown that without an engine, they can have an adaptive wheelbase - what will the French come up with and how cool will it be when it finally arrives? Thanks for reading this summary of how far French design has come and how far it has to go. I hope you enjoyed and please consider liking, commenting and following.