Curbside Classic: 1991 Peugeot 309 SI – The Unloved Step-Child

Until fairly recently, the Peugeot range was always a model of neatness. Since the early ‘30s, they instituted a perfectly Cartesian numbering system for their cars: the first number indicated the model’s size – the higher the number, the bigger the car; the last number symbolized the generation and a zero in the middle separated the two. Looking at Peugeot’s range in 1985, we find the 104, the 205, the 305, the 505 and the 604, plus the immortal 504 pickup. So why was this rational and tidy -04/-05 family joined in October of that year by the… 309?

Clearly out of sequence and sticking out like a sore thumb, the 309 nevertheless thrived for nine model years: over 1.6 million rolled out of the three PSA factories (Poissy, Villaverde and Ryton) that used to be owned by Chrysler Europe in France, Spain and the UK respectively. Which kind of makes sense, given that the Peugeot 309 was really the last Talbot.

Peugeot took control of Chrysler’s ailing European operation in 1978, renaming the whole thing (consisting of the remains of Rootes, Berreiros and Simca) as Talbot in the summer of 1979. There were a number of new cars in the pipeline from the Chrysler days: the Matra Murena, the Solara and the Tagora were green-lit and launched as Talbots in 1979-80 and the Peugeot 104 platform was used to fashion the Samba in 1981. After that, Peugeot hit the brakes on the Talbot range, which was not doing well at all, save for the Samba.

There was the Horizon, as well. It had been born as a Simca back in late 1977 and was initially successful, which it remained in Spain for many years. But the Horizon soon lost its shine, leading Talbot to initiate the C28 project as early as 1980. By 1982, it was determined that the C28 would use the platform of the Peugeot 205, which was being put in production, with certain modifications: the C28 would be a smidgen wider and longer, though probably still with a hatch. The rationale behind the C28 was deemed sound: there were plenty of Talbot dealerships and factories to keep busy, and both the Horizon and the Peugeot 305 were getting ready for retirement.

At this point, the idea was to call the new car Talbot Arizona and use a mix of Simca and Peugeot engines. The Arizona’s styling was a mix of Peugeot 205 bits (the doors, for instance), as wells as cues taken from the 1982 Vera+ aerodynamic show car, such as the panoramic rear window.

By 1984, car mags on both sides of the English Channel openly pondered what the new car was to be called, mirroring the hesitation that Peugeot themselves were displaying. Was it going to be the Talbot Arizona, or the Peugeot 206? Or the 300? Or 303? Talbot as a brand was obviously moribund, so the Arizona option seemed unlikely to go ahead, but the Peugeot numbering system meant that the new model’s name would not be straightforward.

Series 1 Peugeot 309 (MYs 1986-89) in family-friendly saloon mode (above) and spicy GTI sort (below)

In the end, they went with 309, probably figuring that this would give them plenty of time to figure something out. It did provide some time, but Peugeot never did figure out what to do with their “3” cars: now that they’ve gone through three iterations of the 308, the issue is rearing its ugly head again. Maybe 303 would have been a wiser choice.

Initially, the 309 only came in 5-door guise, but a 3-door (with an obligatory GTI “hot hatch” variant) was added to the range in 1987. Lower-spec 309s were powered by Simca 1.1 and 1.3 litre engines that used to be on the Horizon and the Simca 1100 before it. Higher-spec cars received Peugeot XU 1.6 and 1.9 litre engines. A Peugeot 1.9 litre Diesel was also available. In late 1989, the 309 got its major mid-life facelift, perhaps in honour of the new decade. And this is where the 309’s very discreet foray into the Japanese market really took off.

A few GTIs were imported and sold by ARJ (Austin-Rover Japan) and Suzuki prior to the MY 1990 facelift. I caught one recently, probably a 1988 model; I posted these photos in my last Singles Outtakes post, but I think it’s fitting to recycle them here.

Peugeot only really started to kick things into high gear in 1991, when the “Peugeot Japon” concern was formed, essentially creating a Japanese import and distribution network for Peugeots (but not for Citroën – they had their own completely separate arrangement in Japan). From this point on, the Peugeots sold here would mostly be RHD and more variants were to be added, including the 5-door 309.

Peugeot marketed several 309s in Japan, but somehow they were all kind of the same. For one thing, they were nearly all called GTI. That model became available as a 3- or a 5-door, with either the 100 or the 120hp engine (i.e. two versions of the same 1.9 litre XU); most were mated with a 4-speed automatic but one genuinely sporty 309 GTI was available with the 5-speed manual and LHD, because having the steering wheel on the wrong side was always a plus for sporty / high end imports.

But Peugeot also added a slightly cheaper 5-door trim dubbed “SI” – not a trim level that existed in any other market, as far as I know. But given how expensive the 309 was on the Japanese market no matter what, the SI still had to be pretty well-specced to have a snowball’s chance in hell of existing in this notoriously difficult market.

This meant that the 309 SI necessarily had to include a slush box – even in the early ‘90s, most new cars were ordered with one, be they domestic or not – which in turn meant the same 100hp 1.9 litre XU engine was required as the GTI. The market also demanded A/C, power steering, power brakes and power front windows, so that was included as standard, along with a Sony stereo – an unthinkable amount of no-cost features for this segment at the time in Europe.

The Japanese press were polite, praising the 309’s ride, styling and decent performance, but derided the quality of the interior and the basic-ness of the package given the price, which at about ¥2.8m wasn’t too far from that of a base-model Toyota Mark II or Nissan Skyline. Peugeot just couldn’t compete in this segment. They sold a few 405s here, but their big hit was (like in Europe, really) the 205, whose GTI and Cabriolet versions found favour with a coterie of Francophiles and eccentrics who thought a VW Golf was just too common.

The 309’s Japanese sales were predictably abysmal and it was dropped from the Peugeot Japon lineup by the end of 1993, one year before production was stopped in Europe. One present-day Japanese online reviewer test-drove a car almost identical to the one I found estimated that the number of survivor 309 SIs in Japan was in the single digits, which may be an indication of how few of these made it here to begin with. This one was in (predictably) spotless nick, so there’s at least more than one in presentable condition.

The 309, which could have been Peugeot’s Jetta, only made sense in or near its home markets of Western Europe. And even there, few people found it all that exciting. By contrast, the Peugeot 306 that succeeded it did rather well in Japan, and can still be seen fairly regularly. Even disguised as a Peugeot, the last Talbot’s career was fairly lackluster, as befits any vehicle associated with that cursed zombie of a marque.


Related posts:


Car Show Outtake: 1992 Peugeot 309 GTI 16 – Roaring In The Shadow Of Its Little Hot Hatch Brother, by Johannes Dutch

Dash-Cam Outtake: 1992 Peugeot 309 – Almost Collectable, by Yohai71

Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (M.C. Escher Edition, Part 2) – Talbot, Almost Invincible, by T87