The only way to really know a car is take a test drive. Having long admired the 1975 Peugeot 604, I finally tracked one down and fired it up. What did I find?
Before I get to my discoveries, let´s take a quick look at the background to the 604´s development. [A longer discussion is here]. The French know the period from 1955 to 1975 as “les trentes glorieuses” or “the glorious thirty”. The rising economic tide seemed to lift all boats: the average French worker´s salary rose 170% during that time. Customers could afford more. At precisely the end of this period, the beginning a protracted malaise, Peugeot launched their interpretation of the large, luxury car: the V6-powered, rear-drive 604.
Many know the car as “the French Mercedes”, being as it is a clear response to Benz´s W-114 of 1968. Peugeot wanted to offer increasingly affluent customers a domestic product other than the beautiful but unorthodox Citroen DS which, in 1975, had reached two decades in production. Things didn´t work out for Peugeot and today most know the 604 only for being a bit of a glorious failure, despite the car receiving glowing reviews for ride-quality, road-holding, interior comfort and its excellent steering. Sales quickly declined after a few years and by 1980 the car had been overshadowed by the slightly smaller Peugeot 505 sedan and the Mercedes W-123 of 1976, the latter pretty much the gold standard of quality and durability.
For me testing a 1975 Peugeot 604 SL amounted to as much a test of the road-tests as the car. As I approached the vehicle, I wondered which elements of the reviews I would agree with. After ten years reading about the 604, the experience proved to be enlightening.
Even if modern cars have grown considerably, the 604 retains its dignity. As you approach the 604 you notice its carefully-judged proportions. The glasshouse sits well back from the front axle and the C-pillar perches correctly over the rear-axle. A single line runs down the body-side, emphasising length and stability. In comparison with either the W-114 or W-123, the Peugeot is decidedly crisp and minimal. The rather intricate chrome window-frames set off the deep and lustrous paint-work. The bonnet´s expanse of metal seems enormous while the simple slatted grille must be understood as an expression of French modernism and opposed to Mercedes´ classically conservative alternative.
Sitting inside the car you notice a number of features. It is entirely correct that the rear compartment is as advertised: fabulously comfortable. The foot-wells provide truly ample legroom. More astoundingly, the rear seats are a leather-upholstered rebuke to two decades of thinking on what constitutes a decent place for passengers. It´s no exaggeration to say that on their own the rear seats of the 604 constitute a compelling reason to own one of these cars. Peugeot simply had a different idea of how to create a sense of well-being. The chairs are sculpted beautifully and hold you in place but also yield perfectly. I can only wonder how we ended up with the unwelcoming hardness that is the standard in modern seating. Seats, after all are a part of the suspension system, if you want to see things holistically. For the record, the 604´s rear accommodation bests the Opel Senator “A” for legroom, the Mercedes W-123 for cushiness and the Citroen CX for width and opulence.
Having explored the rear of the cabin I moved to the driver´s seat and prepared myself to set off. Readers of the 604´s press clippings will be wondering if the driving position lived up to its billing as being somewhat strange. Yes and no is the answer. If you are average-of-leg or longer you´ll have no problems. If you are short of leg then Peugeot´s eccentric arc of seat travel will be a problem: as you slide the driver´s seat forward it tilts downward. Any really short people will find themselves deprived of underthigh support. Quite why Peugeot never addressed this shortcoming, raised in many reviews, is hard to understand. Today I deem it to be an irrelevance but yes, Peugeot really did opt for a driving position that alienated anyone in the lowest percentiles of leg-length.
But me: I got seated just fine. The steering wheel had a delightfully thin rim; ahead of me the instruments could be seen, clearly laid out. The press considered the dashboard to be an untidy affair and there an infelicities of detailing. My impression is that while it´s no design classic, it´s about acceptable for the standards of the time. Once driving you don´t notice it anyway such is the impression of comfort and spaciousness conjoured by the rest of the car. My theory is that the dashboard may have looked good as a 2-D drawing but when translated into three-dimensions and viewed from the sides it lacks coherence. It´s here that the jeers of Mercedes will resound the loudest.
The test car had the GM-supplied automatic transmission (a four speed manual could be had) and the standard 2.6 litre triple-carburetted engine. It had 32,000 km on the odometer and everything was in good condition. The car started up with a characterful dry roar and no vibrations could be felt in the cabin on idle (from outside the car´s engine is slightly louder than you´d expect). Pushing the selector into D the car moves off smoothly and as you step on the gas there´s a firm but polite shove. With the automatic transmission the 604 is not fast by today´s standards. At the same time, it´s rapid enough, changes fluently and encourages a different style of driving, one focusing on smoothness, relaxation and calm. According to Motor Trend (1977) it was fast enough to compete with the Mercedes 280E and 300D if not the 280S. Nought to sixty takes just under ten seconds.
The steering: Motor Trend said it was of “surpassing excellence that must to be experienced to be truly appreciated”. My impressions concur in that the rack-and-pinion steering has a quality lacking from modern cars in that you get a clear idea of what the front wheels are doing and the response is precise and immediate. In the context of modern steering, it has 3.5 turns lock-to-lock which means you must adjust somewhat. I noticed in my drive that the Peugeot is delightfully manouevrable. You can see all four corners of the car with ease; the light but feelsome steering helping out enormously. Again to compare, a Citroen CX has a much dartier steering due to the smaller ratio and the centre-point axle geometry. An Opel Senator is more ponderous, as is a W-123.
Lastly, the press noted the Peugeot´s ride quality. Autocar (1977) talked of the “classic French recipe of long wheel travel and superbly progressive damping”. The UK´s Car magazine (1977) said the 604 “was vastly ahead of its rivals”, those being the BMW 728 and Mercedes 280E. In 1980, Car wrote that the Mercedes 380 SEL lacked the “ultimate drive comfort of a Jaguar or Peugeot 604”. Those are high standards. I found that Peugeot´s formula involved something I can only call gliding insulation from the uneven urban roads of my test route. Unavoidably, with 40 years of development dividing a modern car from the 604, it feels less insulated than you´d expect now. When you combine the steering, seating and smooth, gliding ride you get a laid-back and soothing drive that at least lives up to expectations. Interestingly, the 1995 Peugeot 406 has precisely the same character despite the quicker steering ratio and lower profile tyres.
In summing up, the road tests proved to be quite accurate in some ways yet I feel the focus on certain aspects of the car (the dash design and the seating position) places too much emphasis on demerits that are obviated by the car´s positive qualities. I can see why the Mercedes W-123 has enjoyed such enduring appeal if one is very concerned with the perceived quality of the interior and exterior trim. But dynamically the Peugeot demonstrates a qualitatively different and indeed superior approach to comfort and driving quality.
I would argue that the reasons the 604 didn´t succeed as much as it should have are to do with factors extraneous to the car: the engine range needed to be far broader, for example. One petrol and one turbo-diesel unit simply could not match Mercedes or Ford´s range of four and six cylinder petrol and diesel motors. Several other large cars came on the market at around the same offering intense competition. And Peugeot themselves also undercut the 604 by offering the 505 in 1979. It had a very similar size but with more engines to choose from, a wagon variant and a price that came in at 30% less than its slightly bigger sister. The fuel crises of the ´seventies also reduced the appeal of the 604 whose 22 mpg must have seemed profligate though not that much different to its peers. More than anything, a long-term change in focus from qualitative driving appeal to quantitative factors (speed more than anything) meant customers probably didn´t understand Peugeot´s attributes. For anyone interested in driving quality and comfort, the Peugeot 604 deserves re-appraisal.
[Thanks to Urs-Christoph Ernst at Faire-Gebrauchte in Freiburg, Germany for providing the car for this review.]