I'm no Francophile. I like certain French directors and adore certain French women. I can't stand French hip hop but I'll be damned if I don't love a French car. The stranger the better. And most French cars are weird in a way that American cars should be.
American cars are at the point where they're again competitive with the rest of the world in classes other than full-sized truck. From the Ford Fiesta to the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe (or the sedan, or the wagon), there are few categories where there isn't at least one good American car and there are many categories where the American car is actually, believe it or not, the most impressive option.
This can't be said for the majority of French cars. There are some gems (Renault Mégane, for instance) and most French cars aren't bad cars. They're just often upstaged by the Germans and Ford Europe.
So why do I want more French-like cars? Because the French do something Americans haven't done with much success in a while. They build strange yet alluring vehicles that capture the imagination as well as the eye, which is something American automakers need to do if they're going to continue to beat and best the Koreans and the Japanese.
Car purchases are rarely a rational decision. Passion is involved. As with most major purchases we choose with our hearts and our genitals as much as we do with our brains. It's why we're not all driving small diesel wagons.
American car design has vastly improved over the last five years, but it's still mired in well-tested design languages (Cadillac's art-and-science, Ford's Billy-the-bass grilles, Chrysler's chromed everything). The most dramatic new American car is the Ford Focus, which looks like a ten-year-old French car.
But for every Ford Focus, there's also a Chevy Cruze — which, although it might be selling better than expected — could likely be selling even better if they were to have taken a real chance on the design. Instead, they got a car that looks like it was designed by a committee suffering from some kind of creativity-sapping disorder.
But the French? Their designers live in some sort of alternative universe where t-squares were never invented and the water coolers are spiked with a mixture of ecstasy and Beaujolais with a much-too-high tannin count. Retro-ism is almost non-existent and new forms are quickly embraced and old ones quickly dismissed. It's a constant revolution, sans Guillotine.
From the Peugeot RCZ to the Renault Wind to the Citroen DS3, the cars they sell now would look to most Americans like concept cars. And the French concept cars? Insane. The Citroen Tubik looks like a Cylon RV, the Peugeot HX1 manages to be an MPV that doesn't look like it comes with mom jeans, and the Renault Captur makes the Raptor look like a panel van.
There's no reason why American automakers can't embrace a little vehicular surrealism in a way that doesn't sacrifice market share — a la Pontiac Aztek. It just means using existing platforms to differentiate your product for other demographics.
Look at the Nissan Juke. It's based on the Versa platform and provides a masculine alternative to the Rogue for buyers who consider that car too feminine or boring. Does it mean they're selling less Rogues or Versas? Nope. Versa sales jumped 14.9% in August and Rogue sales hit a record while Nissan added 3,464 units of the Juke. Of course Nissan is French by marriage, thanks to its transcontinental alliance with Renault.
But Hyundai's not even French by association. The strange but stirring Hyundai Veloster is built off the Hyundai Accent and no one with any sense would bet Hyundai isn't going to sell more of both in the long-term — even if one is freaky-strange.
French New Wave directors regularly credited American directors like Orson Welles and John Ford with inspiring their films. Maybe it's time to pull some inspiration from the French and design an American car equivalent of Daft Punk or Marion Cotillard.