If there’s one thing the French are very good at, it’s being French. Go into any village in France and there they’ll be: French men and women getting on with the business of being French. Young people wander the streets with fresh baguettes tucked under their arms; old men play boules in the square; a rural chap with a face like a deflated basketball enjoys a cheeky pastis outside a café. The inhabitants of the French countryside are just two berets and a string of onions shy of being straight out of Hollywood central casting.
Yet, whilst the French themselves are good at being unself-consciously French, the same can’t be said for French cars. It’s a rot that started with the Renault 9, a car so carefully designed to be inoffensive that it ended up as bland as a daytime TV presenter. And after that low water mark, French cars started losing some of their vim until we ended up at the Citroën Xsara. Not a bad car to drive, but so wilfully generic that trying to recall its standout feature is harder than remembering what you had for lunch five Wednesdays ago.
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The return swing was, if anything, even worse. French car companies realised they’d become too generic and started making efforts to be more individual. As a result, we got bustle-backed Renaults, sliding-doored Peugeots, and Citroëns with a 1989 Saisho hi-fi bolted to the central boss of the steering wheel. Trouble is, in the same way that anyone who openly describes themselves as ‘wacky’ is in fact a crashing bore who should be strangled to death with their own Homer Simpson tie, any car company desperately trying to be left-field with no customer benefit just looks like it’s trying too hard. And now, having spent too long gazing at their navels, French carmakers appear to have no idea what they’re supposed to be. Their cars are confused, their customer base is shrinking and the whole industry is sliding down the pan.
How to solve this problem? Well, look at the perma-smoking gentlemen you see strolling through your average Place de la République. He doesn’t mutter ‘oh-eoh-eoh’ under his breath whilst chewing cloves of garlic like gum. That would be a silly, self-conscious attempt at Frenchness. Much like the Renault Avantime. But his daily wander into the village to buy bread, that’s just taking care of the practicalities of everyday French life. And the practicalities of French life are exactly what French cars need to reflect.
Let’s start with the basics. Rural French roads are often quite narrow and yet French motorists have a buttock-puckering devotion to keeping it pinned when a car comes the other way. So let’s make this car a sensible and wieldy width. There’s actually a good reason why French drivers will risk losing a door mirror rather than backing off: they were raised on 2CVs, 1.1-litre Peugeots and other small-engined cars in which maintaining momentum is key. So our true French car needs to have masses of grip and superb handling so that every bend can be taken flat out. French back roads are often pretty rough and, to paraphrase the late LJK Setright, what’s good for ride is also good for handling, so let’s give it soft suspension, all the better to soak up a mid-corner pothole without skipping into the path of an oncoming lorry.
I’ve also noticed that when they do have to use the middle pedal, the French like to leave it late. Alain Prost, with his early-and-gentle braking technique, was known worldwide as Le Professeur. Having watched the way his countrymen drive, I can’t help thinking at home he was thought of as un wuss. So a true French car needs excellent brakes.
With the elements in place to allow spirited progress, the engine itself can be small and the whole car can be light, especially since it will be stripped of non-essential equipment. Modern French cars seem to be stuffed with gadgets yet, with the best will in the world, PSA and Renault are not famed for the integrity of their automotive electrical systems, so why should they make life hard for themselves? There’s a good reason why villages from Brittany to Provence remain packed with old Peugeot 205s and yet you’ll struggle to see a single 1007 with its idiotic and over-complicated electric doors. The French like simplicity, and their cars should be simple too.
And there we have it. A compact, lightweight, simple hatchback with a lusty motor, sublime handling, a great ride and strong brakes. That’s the car the people of France really want. I think the rest of us could get on board with it too, saving the beleaguered French car industry in the process. You have to admit it sounds appealing. Almost as appealing as spending your days strolling to the village for boules, bread and a cheeky pastis.
Richard Porter is evo's longest serving coloumnist, and the pen behind @sniffpetrol