We ought to rename this site Le DTW. After yesterday’s Peugeot review we now have a whole slew of early 90s French cars under the spotlight.
In 1991 L’Automobile ran an article assessing the comparative strengths of the main three French brands, Renault, Citroën and Peugeot. It was a huge group test: 24 cars. The magazine passed judgement on the main classes and in this article I will pass judgement on the 1991 verdict. Were L’Automobile’s assessments in line with mine? Or indeed yours?
In the small car class, the Renault Clio faced off the Citroën AX and the Peugeot 205, the last one in its fading days. Up a class, the Renault 19 opposed the Peugeot 309 and Citroën’s new ZX. After that, the wilting BX was matched by the Renault 21 and Peugeot 405 (with another four years left in production). Finally, the haut de gamme cars, the Renault 25 against the Citroën XM and Peugeot 605 sisters. You will notice that in 1991 the PSA group cars were only partially aligned. Overall, the French market encompassed a good degree of diversity despite the common culture and common market they shared.
Starting with the little ones, Renault’s Clio had more or less just gone on sale, replacing the venerable Renault Super5. I have to say that 27 years later I still see the Clio as somehow inauthentic, a rather indececisive-looking car. Its dashboard is unresolved: a large box in the centre for HVAC and the radio, sitting uncomfortably next to a rounded binnacle.
In comparison Citroën’s AX makes more sense though it´s far from special. Peugeot’s car belonged to the previous decade – nice to look at but made of brittle plastics. L’Automobile liked the Citroën’s construction and driving position. They approved of the 205’s improved performance (75 hp) roadholding and comfort. For Renault the best parts were the roadholding, comfort, interior space and performance.
Citroën’s main demerit involved heavy steering. Peugeot lost points for its poor equipment, interior quality and non-adjustable steering column. In sum, the Clio carried the day: a modern motor, modern coachwork and the most space. The AX came second and not surprisingly, the 205 came last.
I’d reverse that order and take the 205 first due its astonishing ride and handling, its roomy package and classically pretty bodywork. Citroën’s car was light but too cramped and the Renault lacked any character plus it had a woeful interior. Look, please, at that image above.
Going up in the world we turn to the Renault 19 GTS, the Peugeot 309 GR and the Citroën ZX Avantage 1.4. It is remarkable to think Peugeot hadn’t entered the Golf class more decisively by 1991 – the Golf had been winning sales since 1976 with a formula the French even invented. For the Renault 19, the remarkable comfort gained approval. The “Peugeot” impressed with its performance and Citroën had its dynamic quality of the “first order”.
Telling against the cars: Renault had something expressed in French as “comportement trop sage” which translates usefully as “too wise behaviour”. The Peugeot’s interior was unwelcoming and the Citroën’s interior dinned and drummed and hummed.
And the winner is … the Citroën. Number 2 was the Peugeot (quite a surprise for a half-hearted Peugeot) and Renault trailed. The Peugeot’s low price helped. What do I think? Oddly, the Peugeot is the most appealing, probably because it’s an oddball. The dashboard is truly horrible though, one of the very worst of the era as in deathwish bad.
To the middle class we now direct our focus: three quite different expressions of the French middle market but only one of them clearly imbued with French panache: the BX 16 Image. Renault’s 21 GTS Manager scored for its roadholding and feedback. Peugeot wooed with its road-holding, comfort and brakes. Citroën gained credit for its suspension and vivacious motor. Black marks accumulated for Renault for its heavy steering and stodgy brakes. For Peugeot the downsides involved heavy steering and its slow gearbox. The elderly BX lost ground on account of its high price and overly assisted brakes.
Who won that one? Peugeot on account if its overall consistency (nothing stood out overall – how very Peugeot). The R21 had some weaknesses but was a close second. Finally, the BX achieved an honourable third. Again I reject the order and would always choose the BX then the Peugeot and finally the Renault but the toss up between the Peugeot and Renault is close. Details like the upholstery and driving position and ashtray placement might determine the actual result.
Haut de gamme
Finally our journey up the ranks of French cars concludes with the semi-fresh PSA sisters XM (24 Valves) and 605 (SV 24) who are going to pull the pig-tails of the ageing Renault 25 (V6 Turbo). The R25 gained the judges’ approval for its excellent performance and high specification. Peugeot pleased for its remarkable handing and very good comfort. And Citroën scored for its intelligent suspension and very good comfort. Dragging the cars down: Renault lost for its “ageing handing” and the absence of an automatic gearbox. Peugeot dropped stones for its
“agriculural motor” and the absence of an automatic gearbox. Finally, the XM earned disapproval for its distinct Citroën personality (that is what they wrote) and… the absence of an automatic gearbox. That last point about the absence of automatic gearboxes is constant among the three cars. Does it make sense to refer to a feature that does not constitute a comparative disadvantage? I think not.
Out of those three cars, L’Automobile picked the Peugeot 605 for having the highest dynamic capability of the three cars. Its handling and road holding were “exemplary”.
The RAC seems to agree: “This was a very fast and sweet-handling car, though 200bhp through the front wheels could become a challenge in the wet. Yet, with that amazing magic carpet ride which only Peugeot’s chassis wizards seemed able to create, you had a very special car”.
L’Automobile did not consider the XM’s suspension any better than the 605 and they hated the steering and parking brake.
For the last re-judgement I must recuse myself as I own an XM. I can say that the Peugeot’s reported excellent ride and handling make me curious to try the car someday. I can only ask why it was that Citroën did not achieve an even better result with their oleo-pneumatic system.
And having driven an R25, I can report it to be a smooth, spacious and cossetting car in a way the XM isn’t – not that the XM is uncomfortable. It’s a wonderfully useful and comfortable car and it has another vibe about it, inside and out. Citroën’s ride is harder than the R25 while the R25 rolls a bit more. I like the overall softness of the R25.
To conclude, we discover in 1991 a very much more distinctively French car market and, as we know, since then all three firms have given up on the large saloon. However, Renault’s Espace does cut some mustard with me – the absence of the rear central armrest notwithstanding. It is a very special looking car indeed. Out of this pack of cars I would say, being frank, two stand out for their enduring appeal: the 205 and the BX and curiously both of them lost in their categories.
** It’s a dark photo of a darkish car on a dark day in a dull place. There aren’t a lot of profile photos of the 405 and since I took this myself I thought I would use it.