An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 5

Let’s review the reviews of the 604 and maybe go a little further.

(c) blog-moteur

Having looked (in the last instalment) at the engine from the strategic and the cost-accountant’s point of view, I turn now to how it compared in road tests. The matter of performance is far from clear. Conventional wisdom now has it that the 604 couldn’t move fast enough. A look at reviews spanning from 1975 to 1983 shows a more complex story than this.

In 1975 Motor claimed the carburetted SL was the quickest of a group of likely competitors which included the BMW 520, Ford’s Granada 3000, the Jaguar XJ 3.4, the Renault 30 and the Volvo 264. In 1977 Motor Trend felt the car was only just about able to keep up with American traffic, adequate but not brilliant.

This remark was qualified by noting the 604’s handling was far above average which, as mentioned above, made up the speed deficit quite pleasingly. In 1977 Car found the carburetted 604 SL to be slower than the Mercedes 280E and BMW 728 but only by a matter of half a second. It won the test overall so the slight tardiness did not hold the vehicle back.

A year later the fuel-injected version of the 604 was found to be as fast as the overtly sporting Lancia Gamma and faster than Rover’s rakish 2600. It wasn’t until 1983 that Ford’s re-engineered Granada and the all-new Volvo 760 (also with the PRV engine) outsprinted the 604, but only by 0.7 of a second. In brief, the car won two join firsts, a decent second place and a respectable third.

A conclusive decision on whether the 604 was, in fact, a bit too slow off the mark depends on what crop of cars and what year one has in mind. It also depends on whether one thinks the buying public sets the same store on half second differences in performance times as do motoring writers.

What one can say is that for at least five years, the 604 was more than quick enough for most people’s needs. On the main road, the 604 driver had crushing superiority over the majority of small and medium sized mainstream cars. It was comfortably twice as fast as a 1975 Ford Escort and convincingly swifter than a VW Golf.

It looked bigger and more imposing too; anyone left looking at the vanishing red glare of the 604 tail lamps would have felt demoralised.  Humourously, according to some tests, the 604 was faster than the Mercedes 280SE and Alfa Romeo’s Six. The best one can say is that the 604 was faster than some surprising competitors but slower than some others that no-one can remember today (the Renault 30 is the car no-one is thinking of here).

Judged by today’s standards, the 604’s speed is nothing remarkable, but it’s obvious that the 604 wasn’t so judged. It would appear that a good deal of the criticism of the 604’s performance is informed by today’s changed expectations.

In the next instalment we consider the design of the 604.


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

29 thoughts on “An Afternoon Like Dusk – The 604 story, Pt. 5”

  1. Sometimes one has to wonder how objects for group/comparison tests are selected.
    Pug 604 vs. W123 280E vs. E23 728 is such an example.
    The Benz might have had an engine of roughly the same size but it had nearly 50 hp more and in naked form cost more than fifty percent more than the fully equipped Peugeot. A 230 or 250 would have been much more appropriate from a performance point of view and you even had to go down to a 200 to meet the Peugeot’s price level.
    The 728 might have had a similar wheelbase but clearly was a car aimed at a class above of which it represented the absolute minimum engine-wise. Remarkably the price level of the 728 was similar to the 280E’s because potential customers weren’t yet prepared to pay the same for a BMW as for a Benz. I also can’t imagine many customers actually facing the alternative of the 604 and a 728 – a 520 or 525 clearly would have been the much better alternative.

    1. It´s a bit hard to say whether car testers should test according to expectations or try a bit of objectivity. The 604 was a similar-sized car to the other the E and 7 so perhaps the comparison made sense. At one point the 3 series was an Escort sized car but the price put it above that class and led the Sierra then Mondeo to matched against it whereas the Mondeo was a more 5-series sized vehicle for most of the time. As I said before, by pricing their cars a class up, BMW foxed the testers. And with the 604, they did try to match on dimensions not expectations.

    2. Charles – thank you for the link. I read that. What a very good car the Ti seems to have been. The tester admired the quality. Isn´t it interesting that Opel cost so much? And the Volvo 266 cost more too but is not, to my mind, comparable to the 604 in terms of interior room. I don´t know how to view the 200-series car now. Are they big or smallish or just plain heavy?

    3. The test mentions two features that were very characteristic for Peugeots of that era. The incredibly good slow speed comfort most probably caused by Peugeot’s home made shock absorbers that made even a humble 306 glide over small bumps in a way that put most German luxury cars to shame. The other is the light switch which I always found perfectly logical for French driving habits (pilot lights only in inner city traffic) but which was heavily criticised in nearly every test

    4. Richard: The 200 Volvos were very big outside, due to the long overhangs and massive bumpers. But the core of the car was rather smallish, with a very short wheelbase and narrow track. My feeling is also that the car overall was rather narrow. With its rather thick doors, the interior space is confined, and the rear wheelarches protruded into the rear bench (at least in the estate I know much better than the saloon). The estate’s boot was quite long, on the other hand, but its capacity was somehow limited by the high floor (I compare to contemporary Citroëns here which had an exceptionally low floor).

    5. You’re right about the Volvo 200 Series, Simon. It was, of course, based heavily on the 1966 Volvo 144/5 and shared the earlier car’s passenger compartment, hence its modest dimensions, particularly its width. The front and rear ends of the 200 Series were elongated by the sloping front end and much larger bumpers, which added 170mm to the overall length, while the wheelbase only increased by 45mm and the width was unchanged. By the time the 200 ended production in 1993, it was hopelessly outdated, albeit still admired by a loyal band of followers who appreciated its robustness and (relative) practicality.

    6. What a handsome and modern looking car the 144 was back in 1966:

      The shovel-nosed original 200 Series was no improvement, aesthetically at least:

    7. My dad owned a 240. You would not notice the narrowness when seated. It´s much like the 60s Alfas. Good seats go a long way to creating an air of comfort.

  2. For the North American performance comparison, the late 70’s was the first generation of catalytic converters and performance levels were really choked. For example a late 1970s USA spec Mercedes 280e only had 142 horsepower !

    BMW had a big performance advantage. Their 2.8 liter engines in Europe were upsized to 3 liters here and still had over 170 hp.

    All out acceleration is an important proxy for overall performance. But it only tells part of the story. Automobile journalists tend to drive very aggressively, but for most real world drivers part throttle punch is what they interpret as “performance”.

    And for that, low rpm torque, intake design, fuel injection vs carb, as well as transmission and differential ratios and torque convertor design for automatics matter a lot. One advantage Mercedes has vs the rest was 4 speed automatics for its 6 cylinder cars.

    Also, for North American emissions, those gen 1 catalysts didn’t convert oxides of nitrogen. As a result, very low compression ratios were required to keep NOx levels down, which really hurt fuel economy as well a part throttle “punch”. And that particularly hit the smaller higher rpm import engines like the PVR vs the USA V8’s.

  3. This car did not sell well at all. So why is it being examined in such minute detail? Are we all being flagellated for not buying one when we should have understood and recognized what a star it was at the time? It’s a dead-end of an argument if so.

    I just bought a deeply unpopular sedan myself. It was done with my eyes open because I like it and the way it drives. Plus I’m ancient and it’ll probably see me out, while the general public buys crossovers — at the dealer the stock of the same price CUV was 56, of the sedan, 3, or four if you count the 2018 model they were unsuccessfully still trying to flog. I’d like to detail the reasons why I bought the vehicle and why I found it superior, but frankly scarcely a soul would be interested. Its form factor doesn’t meet the modern mind, where a Swiss army knife seems to be the ticket, even if it does nothing in particular well. In addition, I’d suggest that the distaff side of things has a huge influence on purchasing that is rarely acknowledged, and taller vehicles appeal. One just has to exist in society to find that to be a truism.

    Back in the day, the 604 always struck me as a bit of an upright nerdy car with a high price and it looked out-of-date when it appeared. At the prices asked and the likely income of a couple who could afford it, there was little chance that milady was going to choose this over a Jag or a Merc if she was expected to meet her friends for a chat over lunch and park it next to the more elegant vehicles on display. It was simply downmarket to gaze at. And the sales proved it. A swing and a giant miss. As a car, it just wasn’t that technically interesting – it didn’t point to any way forward, and the engine was an uneven fire oddity at a time when even penny-pinching GM was introducing split-crank throw 90 degree V6’s to even out the power, and then went to 60 degree units for the future a mere two years later.

    1. Driventowrite likes odd and neglected cars. You can learn a lot from them. I went to the trouble of testing one as well. It was something of a revelation. The ride quality was superb and the 604 is a genuinely delightful vehicle to be in. And I learned that apart from the appearance, the 406 is exaclty as good but way more robust. So if you want the 604 experience minus the rust and petrol bills a 406 is a good alternative.
      Has anyone here driven a Mk2 Mondeo? That was supposed to be even better than the 406. Could it have been?

    2. I find one learns more from mistakes than successes. Many of the auto companies would do well to try to learn from the mistakes of others.

      Of course, many of them can’t even learn from their own mistakes eg. every generation of “leaders” at GM.

    3. “Back in the day, the 604 always struck me as a bit of an upright nerdy car with a high price and it looked out-of-date when it appeared”

      Hi Bill,

      A french website summarised its deign as a rectangle at the front, a rectangle in the middle and a rectangle at the back. You probably know that already but it was supposedly Peugeot’s attempt to design a car that appealed to American tastes as it had, initially, big plans for the car i the U.S (including the V8 version of the PRV engine that was refused by Volvo and Renault).

      I don’t necessarily see these type of DTW articles as patronising. I take them as musings on all type of old and forgotten cars. They can’t be that bad if you keep reading them 😉

      What car did you buy ? Sorry if you’ve mentioned it before.

  4. In the matter of power outputs context has to be taken into consideration. Most of the 604’s European premium saloon contemporaries followed a philosophy akin to Rolls-Royce’s description of their cars’ power outputs as ‘adequate’. Engines were tuned to be unobtrusive, with plenty torque and compatibility with the three speed automatic gearboxes of the time.

    There was no muscle-car culture. These were cars for important people who had underlings to do their hurrying for them.

    Jaguar was something of an aberration in this. The 3.8 litre Mk.II really was an M5 harbinger. The 140mph XJ12 was produced in far bigger numbers and sold far more cheaply than its natural high-performance rivals from Mercedes-Benz, Iso, Maserati, and Monteverdi.

    Wind on a couple of model cycles, and hoonish performance is all the rage. PSA have 24V 3.0 litre V6s, Renault have forced induction 25s as their weapon of choice. A little further on, Peugeot were contemplating the purchase of Audi V8 engines for the forthcoming 607, although this never happened.

    I’m sure there’s some sort of lesson to be drawn from this in the nature of wider society, rather than just matters of engineering.

    1. I thing the lesson is that when oil prices fall, people want more powerful cars.

  5. While we are here in the land of the lion of Belfort, I see the zombie wolf of Milan is circling Alsace. There are reports of an alliance between PSA and FCA. Oh, dear no. Hasn´t that been proposed before? PSA is doing quite nicely on its own, I think, and its product range is broadly good (broadly). All my usual concerns about FCA comeback to me now. What´ll happen is FCA will adopt a whole load of PSA platforms and what little identity Fiat has will disappear. The Americans are never going to buy PSA cars and PSA has not got the patience to ever make a success of it. That´s not a critique of PSA but rather a statement about the nature of the US market which has its own demands that cut across what PSA do.

    1. I’m puzzled by this Milanese wolf. Shouldn’t it be the little bull of Turin (the clue’s in the Italian name)?

      Cattle aren’t habitually predatory, but the carmaker with the wolf coat of arms is keeping well clear of this business.

      Perhaps it’s the lion of Belfort, and the Griffin of Fulke’s Hall which are chasing the Milanese viper and the Detroit tup.

    2. Apologies, Robertas. I got my Italian cities muddled for Fulke´s sake. Or is it Falke´s sake? Do you think that PSA are trying to woo FCA? PSA really ought to steer clear of the burning tanker that is FCA.
      Has anyone seen the new AR small SUV? Autocropley showed images yesterday. It is without doubt a handsome vehicle . Unless it´s totally dreadful it should sell well as in, it looks sufficiently lovely to deserve sales. Rumours have it that is based on a Jeep platform. Can it be that bad?

  6. Ah, the Toenail.

    I did give it a brief mention in my Geneva dispatches:

    At that time it was a full-EV concept, shown in glorious CGI sweeping along Alpine roads. On the visuals, I haven’t changed my mind – the details which interpret Alfa’s historic palette are well-executed but a bit overdone, but it’s a piggy little car, too tall, narrow and short to be graceful.

    Using the 14 year old Renegade / 500X platform, of Punto / Corsa origin seems particularly cynical, but if the price is realistic, the crowds might come flocking. I can’t see the Tonale commanding E-Pace or XC40 money.

    Mentioning the E-Pace, it managed 0.57 White Hens in Europe in 2018. A pity FCA didn’t have the nerve to offer a Lancia version of the Tonale. Perhaps Carlos T might turn out to be a closet Lancisto, like Sergio, but with more patience.

    1. What did I see in Grenoble recently but a good few Ypsilons? I even saw a Thesis, looking a touch battered but still rather elegant when in motion. I don´t suppose it has occurred to anyone to do a replacement Ypsilon? How much trouble can it take – they have the remnant dealers and the webpages all up and running and I´d expect existing customers would like another one if possible. Where else can they go? There is nothing quite like an Ypsilon. If they do can it, then I suspect many customers will opt for a Vignale Fiesta or a Laurent & Klement Fabia (if it exists). Renault could mop up Y sales if they only deck out a Clio in brown suede/leather – hardly a big investment.

  7. Did the U.S version of the 604 with its humongous bumpers ever grace the pages of DTW ?

    1. …….I don’t have the numbers for its american sales but it’s hard to believe someone would willingly buy a car with a bumper like that without a huge incentive.

    2. Oh, dear that is dismal. What were American legislators thinking? The answer was not to make existing cars look bad but to demand new designs accomodate the rules.

    3. Frankly I think I blame Peugeot and not the legislators. Did the Japanese cars sold at the same time in the U.S ran into the same issue or were there mainly already built up to the local standards ?
      Mind you that bench of a bumper must’ve come in handy to hitchhike sitting down when the car would eventually break down 😀

    4. The front bumper wasn’t as big as the rear’s but it gave the car an angrier face I think

    5. USA regulators from that era weren’t interested in public reaction to the rules they were creating. Perfect example was the seat belt, ignition interlock, where they ignored the public outcry until elected Congressman intervened.

      That regulatory attitude set the table for the political changes that happened in 1980 and later.

      In that era, they all looked like that. The 5 mph bumpers require about 4-5 inches of compression stroke, and if it is not built into the car body, the overall length of the bumper becomes the compression stroke plus the actual size of the bumper.

    6. Hi Angel Martin,

      Thank you for the precision on those bumpers. I knew other non-Peugeot cars had them too but Peugeot was never really prepared to enter the U.S market, that’s why I was a bit harsh.

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