Two new cars from France's two biggest car-makers: the Renault Laguna and Peugeot 308. Both are important, both promise new levels of plushness and quality – but what do they tell us about the state of French car design? Is there a theme here? Are French designs even recognisably French any more?
German cars have a certain look: taut, metallic, technical. Italian cars live off their country's past pre-eminence in matters of style, and there are signs of a renaissance of those national characteristics, flamboyance and flair.
Britain? Well, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Bentley and Rolls-Royce all have their recognisable styles, with roots in traditional British design, and we should be pleased that foreign ownership has recognised the value of this.
But France? French cars used to be honest, functional and highly original interpretations of solutions to universal problems. This could be the Citroë* 2CV or the Renault 4, both with a flat windscreen, a body with exposed hinges and strangely fitting panels, sitting tail-up on soft, long-travel suspension, skinny tyres, and wheels with just three fixing nuts; after all, why go to the expense of four?
Or it could be a Citroë* DS or a Panhard PL17, sleek and streamlined and, again, doing things differently from everyone else just because they worked better that way. Functional, here, was beautiful.
You could, if pushed, even apply that maxim to the Citroë* Ami, almost wilfully ugly, rather like a Gerald Scarfe cartoon of a Ford Anglia; or to the Renault 16, which had great ridges along its roof for the simple reason that it made the body stronger. (Front-wheel-drive Renaults of that era also had a different wheelbase on each side of the car, because it made the torsion-bar rear suspension simpler.)
Not all French cars were eccentric. Some were just fabulously stylish, such as the extravagant Facel Vegas of the late 1950s and early 1960s; or the humbler 1960 Simca Aronde and its Ocean coupé and Plein Ciel convertible derivatives. And Peugeot, for many years, used the Italian design house Pininfarina to shape its more glamorous cars – the 406 and its gorgeous coupé version were the last.
Now look at the new, third-generation Renault Laguna. It could just as well be Japanese, Korean, even Chinese. Over the past few years, Renault has tried very hard to create for itself a recognisable look built around a divided front grille flanking that big diamond badge, and the current Mégane, with its bustle-back tail, is one of today's more recognisable cars. So, what has happened to the Laguna?
So many new Renaults are due over the next year or so, according to the company's long-serving design director Patrick le Quément, that to give them all similar "faces" would give them a frontal uniformity that wouldn't reflect their true diversity. Instead, the cars will be even more different from each other, as they were in the times when French cars were still idiosyncratic.
Maybe the virtue of a recognisable "face", perhaps built, German- or British-style, around a version of a traditional front grille, is an overrated, unnecessary stricture. Whatever; the new Laguna now has an air slot above the bumper, like a 1990s car, and a giant mouth below the bumper that's uncannily like that of a current Peugeot.
Distinctive? Not especially. Beautiful? Not at all, although the rest of the car has pleasingly coherent lines as a nod towards a past age of elegance.
So, let's look now at thePeugeot 308. At first glance, it looks like a slightly morphed version of its 307 forebear, complete with that big mouth first seen on the 407 and bestowed on the 307 at face-lift time. But then you see the extra detailing and the exaggeration of the forms: the car is wider; that mouth sits above a bigger chin; there are rising lines on the flanks; the wheel arches seem planed off, like those of the smaller 207.
It is dramatic, but stylistically contrived rather than elegant or starkly functional. Is it obviously French? Not really. Its designer, Keith Ryder, is actually from Hartlepool, but that's hardly the issue as he has been at Peugeot for over two decades. The issue, rather, is one of regulation and uniformity in a shrinking world.
Today's Peugeots and Renaults have to find buyers all over Europe and beyond, and typically French automotive quirkiness lacks universal appeal. Also, safety and other legislation now regulates car design so closely that most cars' basic topology is predefined. The only way to make one brand's cars obviously different from another's is to concentrate on the superficial look. And this means that any attempt at design originality is more likely to be contrived than innate. Those things that made French cars look French have now been squeezed off the menu.
Maybe the interiors conform better to notions of automotive Frenchness, and all the style and comfort that suggests. The Laguna looks and feels to be of near-Audi quality, with tactile surfaces, smooth switchgear and some lovely detailing.
Renault wants the Laguna to be in the top three in its class for quality and reliability, and that class includes the so-called premium cars such as the Audi A4 and BMW 3-series. There's some German-rivalling technical cleverness promised, too, such as a four-wheel steering system that revives and refines an idea that was tried by Japanese carmakers in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Peugeot 308, too, has a very welcoming cabin, light and airy and pleasing to touch. Its dashboard is low and slopes away, made possible by a miniaturised air-conditioning system. Again, there's thoughtful, expensive-looking detailing here. Both cars are built on developed versions of their predecessors' platforms, by the way, and both promise a drive both more comfortable and more responsive than before.
Of the two, the Peugeot is more immediately recognisable as a product of its maker. But I'd like to see new French cars get a little closer to the way that French cars used to be, with soft, embracing seats and and a supple, loping ride. These attributes suit modern driving conditions well, but it would require a shift in public attitude away from the German-is-best notion. Citroën's splendid C6 shows how it can be done; indeed, Citroën is, among its car-making rivals, currently the torchbearer for French design freedom.
French cars don't rust any more, and they're nicely made. It's time they got back to being properly French.