Is The French Luxury Car Finally Back ?

That thing you see above is the new Peugeot Exalt concept, to be properly unveiled at the Beijing auto show. You might be thinking that it's just another design study from the French manufacturer, not destined to reach production in any way, like the SR1 of 2010. You might be thinking it's very pretty, yes, but rather irrelevant in the real world.

You'd be very wrong. Because there are two fundamental things to understand about this car : one, it comes after months if not years of rumours that Peugeot is about to launch a four-door coupé to tackle the likes of the VW CC and Mercedes CLA, so you better believe that it gives a glimpse of what that car, which could be called the 408 GT, will look like. Two, it's powered by a modified version of Peugeot-Citroën's 200bhp 4WD diesel-electric Hybrid4 powertrain. Only this time, it's a petrol hybrid, and it has 340bhp.


Now, in a world of German über-sedans, American muscle cars, Infiniti Eau Rouge concepts and whatnot, this might not seem like a big deal. A sub-400bhp hybrid French sedan, what's all the racket about ? The racket is about a mainstream French manufacturer shamelessly annoucing a big, powerful, luxurious grand touring car, albeit only in concept form for now.

In France, you see, that kind of thing is frowned upon. Ever since the war, French manufacturers have struggled to find success in the luxury market. Strict regulations, taxes on engine displacement and perhaps a kind of cultural disdain for showy cars have forced them to stick to econoboxes (with tremendous success, admittedly) and only occasionnally foray into higher market segments with cars always laking the noble and powerful multi-cylinder engines of their foreign competitors. Rising gas prices and environmental concerns have been the final nail in the coffin, and one could argue the last truly luxurious French car was the wonderful Maserati-powered Citroën SM of 1970.


Since then, the cars tasked with carrying the glorious legacy of the pre-war Renaults, the Delahayes, the Facel Vegas and the big Citroëns of yore have been FWD sedans based on the platforms and powertrains of their cheaper counterparts, with unquestionnable design flair but questionnable build quality, and engines almost never exceeding 200bhp. But this all seems to be changing now. Why ? One word : China. Peugeot and Citroën are really struggling in Europe right now, but they've been quite successful in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese want expensive high-end cars, and they're receptive to the particular French approach to luxury. But you can't sell them the underpowered barges the French have been somewhat happy with so far.

What to do, then ? Well, this is 2014, and the tides have turned : not only are hybrid powertrains mighty powerful now, they've also been accepted as adequate hearts for luxury vehicles. Peugeot and Citroën are taking their chance, then, and thanks to the Chinese car buyer's tastes, it seems we French are getting our luxury car industry back. Because the Peugeot Exalt and its probable production version the 408 GT aren't alone : Citroën has recently introduced us to the China-only DS 5LS, and now they're toying with the idea of a 300bhp DS 5LS Racing. They'll also be bringing to Beijing the production version of the DS SUV, previewed by last year's Wild Rubis concept, and expect a range-topping DS9 in a few years. Peugeot have also been thinking about a 608 sedan and 6008 SUV as flagships to their increasingly more upmarket range.


The need for successful international offerings and the advent of powerful eco-friendly powertrains are finally taking those two brands out of the rut they've been in lately, and they're finally daring to take the fight to the Germans with adequately powered cars. Here's hoping they don't lose their inimitable Frenchness on the way, though.

Pictures : Peugeot.

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