The Return of the Peugeots!

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 04, 2019

Peugeot is returning to the U.S. market! Hmmm, I knew that news would hit you somewhere between the announcement of a new Kardashian endorsement deal and the next Transformers movie. Peugeot quit these shores in 1991, and memories of the last 405—the 16-valver was a nice car, really!—are fading, and were never too bright in the first place.

Peugeot has a whole string of crossovers, like this 3008, that could find some fans on this side of the Big Ditch. (PSA photo)

The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that this “unloved French car” was “the butt of jokes on Car Talk.” They’re right, the jokes were so caustic that back in 1998 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer called in to defend the brand.

Here’s Tom in 1989 replying to a nice listener who, for some inexplicable reason, had just purchased a 1988 Peugeot 505 SW8 Wagon. He says that the problem with Peugeots is that…

…like all French cars--they're weird. Vinnie, down at the corner gas station, is not going to be able to fix this car—although he may have fun trying. If you have a good dealership nearby, you can at least be assured that you’ll be able to find out what’s wrong with the car. I suggest you relax and enjoy the 505. Nothing may ever go wrong with it! But just in case, invest in a thick crossword puzzle book to keep you occupied while you're waiting for that set of special metric lug nuts to float over on le next barge.

I think it was Lord Nelson who said, “It is better to travel in hope, even then to arrive.” I never understood why he said that. Maybe he owned a Peugeot.

Of course, the Peugeot was not completely unloved in America. Remember, Columbo drove one, a rare and ratty 1959 403 cabriolet. Unfortunately, probably half of one percent of viewers even knew it was a French car. As a dedicated Columbo addict, I don't recall the car ever being referred to as anything but an embarrassing old relic that the guest stars were reluctant to be seen in. Mechanics were always telling him to buy a new car. Not quite 007's Aston Martin or The Saint's Volvo.

Lieutenant Columbo. Raincoat? Check. 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet? Check. (Universal photo)

I never owned a Peugeot, or any French car, though I once considered—and thought better of—the purchase of a Renault 12 wagon in a particular bilious shade of light green. But I was well acquainted with the mighty Peugeot publicity machine, and actually attended the company’s last U.S. press event. We went to Bridgehampton, Long Island, bounced around the remains of the track there in 405 sedans, and went home with really neat beach towels.

The Peugeot 208 has a certain Gallic flair, no? (PSA photo)

 Peugeot is part of the big PSA conglomerate, which also includes Citroën and Opel (which it bought from General Motors in 2017). CEO Carlos Tavares, who knows the U.S. market well—and was the point man for introducing the Leaf electric car when he worked at Nissan—has wanted to make this move for a long time.

I love the RCZ, an Audi TT competitor, but will we get it? No! They stopped production in 2015. (PSA photo)

I actually thought Tavares would be the right person to succeed the other Carlos—Ghosn—at the helm of Nissan, but he’s apparently been having too good a time reviving PSA. Both the 3008 and 5008 Peugeot models are hits, and the Opel acquisition is in profit-making territory. After approaching bankruptcy in 2013-14, PSA had record profits in 2018, though they weren’t apparently enough to satisfy some analysts.  

PSA first said it would come back to the U.S. in 2016. The foray has started with the Free2Move car-sharing app, and we may not see actual cars for sale until 2026. The U.S. move was always going to happen, especially with Tavares in charge, but it could have been with Citroën or even Opel (which actually has a history as an American brand). But Peugeot the better-known brand and is probably the right call. Citroen is going to be launched in India, and Opel is making a push in Russia.

The 405 is the last Peugeot to grace our shores. It was ahead of its time, with four valves per cylinder, but Americans weren't buying. (PSA photo)

Tavares has said that Peugeots sold in America will be built in Europe and China. We could get the 2008, 3008 and 5008 crossovers. The 508 sedan and wagon are a longer shot, and maybe the small 208 hatch could be the basis for a U.S. electric car.

It’s unlikely that the Peugeots we get will be as weird and, well, French, as the cars we remember. My wife’s late uncle used to tell the story of going to a rental car place and, finding they were out of his beloved Chevys, rented a Peugeot instead. He got a mile down the road, tried to turn on the lights—and got the wipers instead. “I turned right around and brought that car back,” he said. “It was crazy.”

The tough, befinned 404 was a hit around the world, including in the U.S. (Peugeot photo)

Since that time cars have gotten more international, and more standardized. Even the Europeans are buying crossover SUVs. And the French have fallen in line. We won’t soon see another model as bizarre as the 1960s Citroen DS19, with its radical styling, swiveling headlights, pneumatic suspension and one-spoke steering wheel. Who knows, maybe Peugeot will re-establish a beachhead for French cars in the U.S.

Get ready for the teenagers of 2030 saying, “Dad, can I borrow the Peugeot?”

In response to reader demand, here's a montage of Columbo scenes with his trusty Peugeot. As he puts it, "I have over 100,000 miles on this thing. If you take care of your car it will take care of you."


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