Vive la France … Vive la Différence!

As well as sampling a 308 SW, our correspondent’s spring break in France also presented a chance to get the local perspective on how the indigenous competition measures up.

Yes, I did just take a photo of the cover of the magazine lying on the carpet in our spare room.

When in France, I always take the chance to go to a Maison de la Presse and search through the car magazines. In recent years, this has allowed me to discover publications dedicated to ‘classic’ Citroëns, Panhards and other wonders, proving to myself and sceptical family members that there are others out there with a passion for the quirky and yet banal.

I usually also buy a more mainstream monthly, and more often than not it’s L’Automobile; on this occasion, I bought the March 2018 issue.

L’Automobile is, to my mind, the closest that France has to Car Magazine. Having written that, in some respects I think that I am doing it a disservice these days. It may be my poor understanding of the French language, but I don’t find that it has the same quipping, forced irony that has developed in Car for many a year now, a style inspired by the Clarkson era Top Gear, I have always thought. It’s also a bit more consumer-focused than Car, rather than for the enthusiast. Overall, I enjoy reading it.

A source of amusement is the blatant if dead-pan delivery of jingoistic bias.  It’s really quite refreshing, if bemusing, to find that almost all of the benchmarks are PSA or Renault made cars with only the odd accreditation of a VW group or BMW product – the marque with the ‘three pointed star’ doesn’t feature at all, nor does Ford, nor Opel.

My reference here is to the feature in the ‘Guide d’Achat’ section called ‘Le Top du Neuf’ – a photo of the relevant pages is included in the body of this article.

Here is a selection of podia among the different classes:

Petites (superminis)

  1. Peugeot 208
  2. VW Polo
  3. Renault Clio

Compactes (‘Focus’ class)

  1. Peugeot 308
  2. Renault Mégane
  3. Seat Leon


  1. Citroën Grand Picasso
  2. Peugeot 5008
  3. Renault Grand Scénic
A view into the automotive soul of France? Or, just a bit of harmless support for the home team?

I could go on, but will spare you. The great thing about this exercise for me is mapping the development of my reaction to these listings. Take the Compactes, for example. Having recently driven a 308 and also given the overall view I have been consistently fed by the UK based automotive press, I immediately scoffed at the idea of the 308 being rated best in class.

My received knowledge was that the benchmark would be … well, a VW Group model. Then I started to wonder why I thought that, and to consider the case for the 308 … or the Mégane. The French duo definitely have a different flavour to them; warmer, softer, more emotional.

The 308 is a good car, worth consideration, and I wouldn’t not recommend it as such. However, would I rate it better than, say, the Golf, or the Astra, or Octavia, which do not get a mention? On balance, no, I think not and so my first reaction was probably justified.

As for the Petites, no chance in my mind is a 208 better than …  the Ibiza (not even listed – the Polo gets the No.2 slot instead). Or a Fiesta. In fact, GTi aside, I think I’d prefer a C3. The 7-Places list is not so far off, perhaps, although I am surprised that they rate the 5008 behind the Picasso (recently renamed ‘Spacetourer’, so I have read in Auto Express) given that the Pug is newer, in the zeitgeist form of a pseudo SUV, and that the related 3008 ‘wins’ the SUV class prize on the same page, dumping the X1 and CX-5 into silver and bronze positions.

Only the Routières (mid-sized saloons) class features a German winner (Audi A4 – although the Talisman beats the Superb into 2nd and, moreover, I suspect that the new 508 might go straight in at No.1 once it has been driven and tested by the L’Automobile team).

The Citadines (City cars) class is won by the KIA Picanto (Twingo second,  Aygo 3rd (ahead of its PSA cousins)); and, no French badged car at all is represented on the podium of the Cargos Discount (cheap estates[?]), although the Dacia Logan MCV is in at ‘2’ behind the Octavia Combi and ahead of the FIAT Tipo SW.

Now, I am fully aware that certain UK automotive publications also display local bias. Autocropley in particular bats rather enthusiastically for JLR and other manufacturers with interests in the UK (most recently, I have noticed it giving a number of warm embraces to Vauxhalls).

Car frequently and bemusedly awards top slot in tests to JLR models, which are hugely more expensive than their comparators, even though the main body of the test would have led one to believe that they were being whipped by the Audi, BMW or Tesla also in play. It has been especially generous about the overpriced, overweight and yet undernourished E-Pace of late.

Of course, it is harder for UK-based magazines to show a bias as there are no indigenous, mass manufacturers any more. I do recall in the 80’s how Autocar, Motor, and What Car? were ludicrously positive about the Metro, Maestro and Montego and then, later that decade, placing the R8 Rover 200 at the top of its class (which I personally believe was far less of a suspension of disbelief – the 200 was a competitive model, thanks mainly to Honda’s input). Car – then edited by one Steve Cropley – even described the under-developed Maestro at launch as ‘Very good – later it might be brilliant’.

So, maybe the local bias shown by L’Automobile shouldn’t have been such a shock to my  system. However, the nonchalant way in which the journalism just defaults to making the French-badged models the benchmark did feel that way. On reflection, maybe they are not that far off and they certainly feel more relevant in the context of living in or at least staying in France.

French manufacturers are undoubtedly making a better fist of fighting off the VW Group hegemony than did their British counterparts. And, for all their faults, I say, “long may that continue”.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

12 thoughts on “Vive la France … Vive la Différence!”

  1. Nice read Mr. Robinson and your carpet down there looks lovely.

    Aaah that bias that turns every French car into the benchmark to beat. It’s part of the reason I hang out in anglo-saxon publications and websites. But the newer, non-heritage websites are better at being more realistic I’ll admit.

    The difference between magazines now and in 1986 ? At least now they’d admit that anything French above the C-segment is definetly not the benchmark and is going to be a tough sell: There is a recurrent if rare “joke” amongst french car enthusiasts that paraphrase the typical French car-magazine articles referring to any forthcoming French haut de gamme.
    This has been the template for 20 years. Before the car is launched and spy pictures starts to appear it goes along the lines: “Peugeot/Renault/Citroen is putting the final touches to the sedan that will beat the Germans at their own game. The carmaker has worked hard to ensure the newcomer will have a quality that matches the best in the segment and this could well be the car that ends the German dominance”.

    Cut to when the car is finally launched and the magazine will usually admit, after the first road tests: “Although the car’s handling is one of the best and it has the biggest boot out there and despite the carmaker’s best efforts the car still lags in the quality and finish department and will not threaten the established players in the segment….”

    I suppose the reason they always oversell the upcoming car is to sell as many magazines as they can (and please the carmakers who sell ads on their pages too maybe ?): They probably know they broach a touchy subject whereas a deep inferiority complex regarding French Haut de gamme cars definetly exists and what better way to pick the interest of potential readers than promising, ad nauseam, a French Premium Renaissance that will, once and for all, challenge the German hegemony.

    My favourite has to be L’Auto-Journal. It’s bi-monthly, so comes out more often than L’Automobile but above all they’re the best when it comes to information about upcoming French cars. They’re clearly in cahoot with the French carmakers because they consistently get their photoshops and renderings of future cars exactly right a long time before the launch. They’re well known to not only give the best indication as to what a future French car will look like but they usually also have a goldmine of information regarding other aspects of the future car.

    AutoPlus is a rag…..but a rag I’ll always look fondly on. I haven’t bought it in years but this was the first car mag I bought as a kid and to this day, I remember how excited I was when I bought my 1st one (and only their 3rd or 4th issue I think).
    It had the first spyshots of the future XM on it and it looked….incredible and terrifying at the same time due to the imposing camouflage that still gave a peek as to how weird the car will be.
    I bought AutoPlus every tuesday religiously for many years (hell I was even known as the AutoPlus guy at school lol). It was cheap, about 1 euro at launch, and therefore perfect for a kid with pocket money and I suspect kids and teens may well have been a big chunk of their customers (I use the past tense because….internet now). Because once you grew up, you realised the info in there was flimsy and at times dodgy (they have good quality renderings of future cars but always speculative and NEVER how the real car will really look like) so as you get older you’d upgrade to L’Automobile mag or l’Auto-journal.

  2. Does L’Automobile carry much coverage of the industry itself and individual employees these days?

    Mr Cropley uses interviews to bat for the home team, recalling an earlier age of deference and flattery in order to soothe away potential criticisms of the latest Jaguar or Vauxhall.

    “Before we go, are there any other particular features of this wonderful motor car that you would like to bring to the attention of our loyal readers?”

    1. Hi, I am not sure I can answer your leading question on the basis of one edition a year. That said, I really enjoyed the 26 page supplement supporting … sorry … featuring the launch of the new 508 as it included interviews with the lead designer, the project manager, etc. There was also an interesting and illuminating piece on sales of 508-sector cars across Europe and the proportion of those sourced from France (so, remember how in the early 80’s, Renault started producing less French cars so as to broaden sales of them outside of France … well there is plenty of evidence based on the existing 508 and Talisman (and C5, although that car is no longer in production) that indicates that the said maladie still exists.

      Compare in general with the miserable, 8 page, expanded listicle in Car to accompany the launch of the new Focus with the almost old-fashioned approach in L’Automobile with the 508 and one can conclude that only one of these two publications is actually interested beyond the obvious about new model launches.

  3. I´m interested in how Ford and Opel are seen in France. They aren´t obviously French, more Euro-American. The Mondeo especially now seems more like a US transplant. That Opel is now a part of PSA must complicate things because they traded more on their German character. Whither Wir Leben Autos now? Who buys Fords in France? Who buys Opels?

    1. When in France, I tend to see more Opels than Fords – in particular the Astra. The more I think about Opel within the bosom of PSA, though, the more I question what it is for? I note now that, at last, Vauxhall’s are being advertised more in the UK – especially on radio of all things, and that the emphasis is on the Britishness of the brand; it’s very probable that people don’t see the incongruity of what are essentially German designed cars of what is now a French company being pushed primarily for their Britishness. I am afraid that Rover keeps coming front of my mind …

  4. It’s amazing how L’Automobile matches the impressions I had when I lived in Lyon for two months in 2017. French cars ruled everything up to the C-segment; the only exceptions were for the Fiat 500, some Dacias and the occasional Audi A3 and Auris estates. Above it, they seemed to have a rule of thumb: if you need an executive car, get an Audi (a brand that seemed to outsell its German counterparts by a 7:1 ratio). My Airbnb hosts had two Peugeots (one 106 and one 208) and a 2nd-gen Scénic. In Nice, I was hosted by a family whose brand-new A-Class was the sole car, with a beautiful two-tone Vespa completing the garage.

    508s, Latitudes and C5s, with some Infinitis in the mix, were the cab cars of choice and it seemed they had no private owners at all. And I was pleasantly surprised for some Mustangs, as driving a Mustang in France, in my book, is some sort of a style statement… maybe it has something to do with that Serge Gainsbourg song, too. As for other Fords and the Opel lineup, they’re probably seen as dumb cars that have no signs of Frenchness or generate jobs in France.

  5. What’s wrong with a little trumpet blowing? And what’s new with the French deciding to ignore external influences? If only the UK had manufacturing brand of its own that we could enthuse about. JLR is Indian, after all. But this is the closest we’ve got so good on Autocar for their clarion call. And if it helps sell a few more magazines then so be it. It’s still a publication I’ll buy and trust. The recent edition informing us of JLR’s financial woes, even though every one made is sold yet they still loose money. 21,000 Velar’s made in the year’s first three months but only 8,000 XE’s.
    As for the new 508, the rear end elicits a pleasing homage to the Mustang and a positively delightful stance, far better than the never seen Arteon. Bring it on

  6. What amuses me all the time is that taking German cars as a benchmark is considered ‘natural’, also outside of Germany, but everything else is always ‘jingoistic’. True, French and Italian cars have lost their way in the upper segments, but has it always been like that?
    If we look at the upper middle segment (D/E) in the seventies, we find the 504, for example. This car certainly didn’t have to hide behind an Opel Rekord or a Ford Granada. What it might have lacked were the bigger engines, but mind you, this was a time when Audi probably just started thinking about going ‘big’ and develop a 5-cylinder engine, and while BMW had nice engines and a sporty demeanour (if one likes that), their cars were quite basic otherwise and certainly not an example of solidness as was a Mercedes (still in a leage of their own at that time). The Citroëns were probably were a bit too far off then to be really comparable to anything else and suffered from old and weak engines, but where would you go to look for a benchmark in comfort and active safety?
    Later on, French progress in this class was only marginal, so they lost terrain against the Germans – although one has to say that the XM scored very well even with Germanic buyers. Before its electronic gremlins became known and were handled very misfortunately by the manufacturer.
    In the segment below, up until the Xantia and 406, I’d also conclude that they were a valid and equivalent offer to everything that came from Germany at the time. One especially has to mention the practical side, with their focus on comfort and spacious estates. I’m not commenting on Renaults entries in these markets, as I don’t know them well enough.

    In this light, I find NRJ’s observation that upcoming French cars are heralded as “finally up to their German rivals” somewhat bemusing. It’s not as if they are coming from nowhere and try to get where the Germans are, it’s actually the other way round: they were there and lost the plot.

    1. Number 100 is appalling. It may not be a “hot” car but it is fairly new, looks good and inexpensive. PSA can’t be pleased with such a result.

  7. A bit surprised Astra is so low.
    Here in Normandy it does sell, but is eclipsed by Corsas. Adam and Karl are nowhere.

    Of course most buyers are in the chauvinistic tramlines so sleepwalk into whatever Renault is offering. The even more conservative go Pug; a bit unconventional? Citroën for you. Flashy too? DS.

    Older Scenics, Xantias, Xsaras and 406s have not rusted away, and many approach 400k km. Clios are commoner than dog dirt on the pavements.

    However, this hasn’t stopped Dacia from increasing sales, with four models especially popular as they’ve added electronic handling controls to what is basically an old platform. There’s even a 1.2L 125bhp turbo petrol. And if you don’t want a Mitsubishi or Nissan mud-plugger — read as “I own lots of valuable agri-land” there’s a Dacia Oroch 4-door pick-up. I often get four Dacias in a row passing my gate.

    I’m not sure which Dacias are sold in the UK.

    Now, the MB Onesey: they do sell, but as a status marker: the mayor might have one, alongside his 508. And a few retired couples to show they’ve done well in the pensions lottery — or. as with the big Porsches etc, on a finance deal where you never actually “buy” it.

    But the fastest growing outsiders are from SE Asia/Japan: Hyundai, Toyota, Suzuki. Some might now be made in Europe (haven’t checked). Honda have dropped off a cliff through lack of models.

    The excellent Skoda range holding firm with cognoscenti. They may only be VWs, but don’t feel like them: cabin space seems bigger and better organised.

    Taxis are mainly the big van-with-windows: because most are for longish journeys from stations, so lots of luggage to stash, plus kids, buggies, dogs etc.

    For print mags, try YoungTimers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: