A return to the U.S. market is probably the last thing on the minds of Peugeot-Citroen and Renault. There have been no new French cars for sale here in almost 25 years. The companies are still on shaky financial ground. But the cars being pressed with saving them look good, and good enough for Americans.
After being tapped to lead a company injected with cash from Chinese-automaker Dongfeng and the French government, incoming PSA Peugeot-Citroen president Carlos Tavares told reporters PSA has the potential to become a global car company. He most likely means China, India and Brazil, the markets that are much more alive than Western Europe, which Peugeot-Citroen has relied on for so long. What he didn't say was whether the U.S. was ever going to be pursued again.
You can't blame Tavares or Carlos Ghosn at Renault keeping the American market off the radar. The tastes of the U.S. market have never really aligned with their product offerings in Western Europe, where their core market is. But now that American companies like Ford and GM are embracing very small cars and very small engines, the French might have a shot at getting it right here. If they felt like trying again, of course.
Peugeot tried the American market for about 30 years, but didn't fully commit. They had a niche following, but kept the model line thin and didn't do significant tie-ups with more established companies. The 504 and 505 were probably Peugeot's most successful models here, thanks in part to their diesel engines and being on the larger, more prestigious end of imports available in the '70s and '80s. They were even explored as New York City taxis.
As the 505 aged, though, Peugeot was caught in the same situation that propelled rivals like Audi, Saab and Volvo up the premium route. The 405, though, was not a premium car. Instead, it was a more expensive rival to things like the Honda Accord. Americans like the Accord, not so much the Peugeot. Instead of bringing the 605 over to compete against stuff like the Infiniti Q45 and Lexus LS400, it gave up in 1991.
Today, Peugeots are cult cars in the U.S. There are dusty 504 and 505s emerging from garages, and you see the occasional 405 roaming around like a relic from the early '90s.
Peugeot toyed with the idea of a comeback since its departure. According to the Wall Street Journal, Peugeot explored selling cars in the U.S. as recently as 2003. Of course, the Carpocalypse later that decade definitely ended that thought.
Citroens were always going to be weird in the U.S. Perhaps the biggest impact they had here was with the SM, something so ridiculously beautiful and advanced it needed few qualifiers to people who could afford one in 1972. The following proved too small to keep up with advancing safety legislation and Citroen officially left in 1974.
Oh, but you could try and buy a Citroen XM when a small company decided to federalize them in 1991. CXA brought over a few hundred XM V6s in the early '90s, but the price was pretty high – about $55,000 then. Would PSA have sold many more XMs in this country if they had a dealer body?
Renault, on the other hand, hasn't looked at coming back to the States since it broke things off with AMC and Chrysler. Technically, the Eagle Premier was the last Renault to be sold in the U.S., and that isn't a very strong case for a comeback.
Renault was even less likely to make another appearance after it got into bed with Nissan in 1999, an automaker with an already strong American foothold. In 2008, as things were going down, Renault hinted interest in Chrysler. That led to speculation Renault wanted to come back. Renault didn't buy Chrysler or any bit of GM, and we've heard nothing of a return since.
The closest we've had to modern Renaults are probably things like the oddly styled 2004 Nissan Quest and the upcoming Renault-Samsung based Mitsubishis.
Are French cars weird? Yes, even by European standards. But you know, the Chevy Spark, the Fiat 500 and even the Mini – those are kind of weird, too. And those are all models that sell relatively well by the standards of small, niche vehicles. Fewer and fewer Americans are obsessed by cylinder count. Mini has also taught us we don't need a dealership on every corner, just decent customer service.
Renault and PSA now make a lot of small, niche cars. Stuff like the new Renault Twingo, the Citroen C4 Cactus and the Peugeot RCZ are nothing like the bland Euroboxes they turned out in the last few decades, and yet different than what we get here. Imagine if the Citroen Cactus were priced like a high-end Nissan Versa. Which one would you buy?
Sure, it's a car enthusiasts dream if PSA and/or Renault made a return to the U.S. market. Yes, the U.S. market will remain a market they'll be unable to dominate. It wouldn't be easy at all, nor is success guaranteed even in this rebounding sales climate. But based on the cars we're seeing from the French, it would be great if they gave it a good try.
Photos: Renault, Citroen, Peugeot, Wikimedia Commons, Nissan