Curbside Classic: Peugeot 604 – Overachieving Underachiever

Peugeot 604 RC fqcurbside 604 shots by Roger Carr

(first posted 7/28/2016)      The Peugeot 604 story is a rather sad one. It was perhaps France’s (certainly Peugeot’s) last good shot at beating (or at least equaling) the German luxury brands at their game, who were ascendant right during the 604’s life span (1975-1985). The 604 was widely acknowledged by reviewers as having a number of superior qualities, and it won numerous comparison test against the best sedans from Germany and Great Britain. Yet it was a a failure in the marketplace; only 153k were produced over its ten years. In the US, it was a similar story, although it was even more of an outsider. Why?

Peugeot 504 flip crop-vert

To answer that question, we have to start with what really was the 604? An ambitious new über-Peugeot, designed to compete with Mercedes S Class, BMW 7-Series and the Jaguar XJ-6? Not really, despite the fact that it ended up besting all three of them in certain qualities. In reality, the 604 was a tarted-up 504, using as much of its body inner structure and chassis as possible, except for a minor 2.325 inch wheelbase extension at the rear to enhance rear seat legroom. It shared a major part of the 504’s floorpan, bulkhead, doors, and suspension. Its handsome new exterior skin was of course styled by Pininfarina, and it evoked the slab-sided 404 more than in passing.

Peugeot tried to compete with the best on the cheap, and given that, it’s remarkable how well the 604 turned out. But its shortcomings were mostly the result of that too, as we’ll look at later. It also explains how Peugeot managed to make a modest profit on the 604, despite the low production numbers.

Peugeot 604 RC rq

Given all of that, the 604 is a testament to the very deep superior qualities of the 504. Its precise power-assisted rack and pinion steering (still uncommon then in European luxury cars) had excellent “feel” and gave it the best steering at the time. The Peugeot long-travel suspension gave it a ride that was clearly superior to the Germans, even the new W126 S-Class Mercedes, and was consistently judged to be the equal of the world’s two best riding cars then: the Citroen CX and the Jaguar XJ-6. August company.

Peugeot 604 RC ff

I don’t have ready numbers for how the 604 competed with the other major luxury cars in Europe in terms of price, but in the US, the 604 was significantly cheaper. In its first year in the US (1977), the 604 V6 was priced at $10,990, compared to $16,616 for a MBZ 280E; $19,411 for a (W116) 280SE; $12,495 for a BMW 530i; $21,365 for a 733i; and $15,000 for a Jaguar XJ6.  By its last year in the US market (1984), the 604 Turbo Diesel was $20,885; the MBZ 300D was $31,490; the W126 300SD was $39,500, the BMW 524TD was $24,560; the 735i was $36,335, and the Jaguar XJ6 was $30,500. Yes, these cars all mostly doubled in price during those seven years, which included the highest inflation rates in modern US history.

The point is that the ultimate “French Mercedes” was selling for substantially less than the real thing. Not that it helped much, although the 604 Turbo Diesel did get a little final bump in sales during the second energy crisis, when everyone in LA wanted a Mercedes diesel. The 604 was a much more affordable alternative, and there were a fair number running around SoCal for a few years.

Peugeot 604 rq

One of the very few remaining California 604 TDs was recently caught by TheProfessor47 and posted at the Cohort (above). He left this comment:

According to a recent Autoweek article (…), there are believed to be no more than 30(!) 604’s in running condition in the United States, and “just a handful” of them diesels. If I had known it was so rare, I would have taken better pictures – unfortunately, I only had my phone with me at the time, and these are all I have.

Needless to say, I still hold out hope of finding a curbside 604, but so far, no luck. One of these days, in a tiny hamlet in Oregon…

Peugeot 604 chain

So just what were the 604’s weaknesses? The PRV V6 engine is a bit of a disputed factor. It was generally rated quite high in European tests, although the de-smogged version for the US, still without fuel injection, was not really stellar. Adequate; at best. Certainly not in BMW territory. The turbo-diesel four was in many ways a bolder move, the first turbo-diesel available in Europe, where Mercedes had not made its TD available yet. It only had some 90-95 hp, but its torque curve was fat, and it worked well in the 604’s role as a long distance tourer, especially with the five speed manual and some appreciation of how to maximize its torque curve, which was something of a new thing for Europeans, so used to small high-winding gas engines. The 604 TD really pioneered the concept of a luxury diesel sedan in Europe, but it was soon eclipsed by the more powerful 5 cylinder Mercedes turbo-diesels.

peugeot 604 -interior-wallpaper-1

Ergonomics and interior details were perhaps the biggest shortcomings, and directly attributable to the 604’s modest development budget. The 504’s bus-like steering wheel angle was consistently critiqued, which compromised the driving position. Ergonomic shortcomings like poorly placed controls and not exactly stellar materials and components in the dash and ancillaries were noted. These kind of things tended to be generally  better thought out and implemented by the Germans. This dash, instruments, console and its controls are not quite up to Mercedes, BMW or Jaguar levels, at least not by the 80s, by which time significant progress was being made in these areas by others. The 604 would have needed a major interior upgrade to stay competitive.

It was in part a cultural reflection; the French placed a huge priority on ride quality and comfort, as well as handling, and not so much on the details like noted above. And the 604’s quality in several small but noticeable ways was not up to snuff either. The Germans obsessed on the ergonomic details, controls, materials, etc., and what makes the difference between a true premium brand and a wanna’ be. The 604 just didn’t play that game well, but it did its French thing splendidly. But the world was moving inexorably to the German way of doing things.

peugeot 604 rear-compartment

The rear seat passengers would have nothing to complain about. Leg room was stellar, better than the the regular wheelbase S Class cars. And of course the ride was sublime, and the seats comfy. Maybe the 604 was best suited for being chauffeured in?

Peugeot 604 Heuliez -Limousine

Well, that’s what the 604 Heuliez limousine was for.

peugeot 604 cornering6

Despite its strengths in comfort, the 604 was quite capable of high cornering speeds, despite its inherent propensity to lean in the typical French manner. In a 1975 Car magazine comparison, the 604 was found to be faster at cornering than the BMW 528i, and its roadholding the equal of the Jaguar XJ in the dry and superior in the wet. The 604 was deemed as more successful its intended role than the Jaguar overall. And that’s coming from a British magazine.

In a 1977 “Giant Test” by Car, the 604 beat the BMW 728i and Mercedes 280E. And in 1978, the 604 again bested the competition in another Car comparison, this time a Lancia Gamma and a Rover 2800 (SD). In other comparisons, the 604 always acquitted itself well, if not winning outright because of the minor quibbles previously mentioned. Its brakes were not always consistently top-notch either.

Peugeot 604 speed

But the 604’s qualities that made it such a supremely comfortable high-speed and long-distance cruiser always came in for accolades, no matter the magazine or the reviewer. We posted a Road and Track review here recently, which also brought praise for those qualities, but American testers, like the public, could never quite be as effusive about the 604 as the Europeans. The 604 was typically compared to cars that cost 50-100% more, but that did not fully let the 604 off the hook for its near-luxury limitations. Nevertheless, R&T did find plenty to praise, and called it “something of a bargain in the rarefied world of imported luxury cars”.

But the 604 just couldn’t ignite the enthusiasm of the buyers, which is where it really counted. Premium brands were the hot new thing, on both sides of the Atlantic, and Peugeot just didn’t quite make the cut. It’s debatable if the 604 would have been anymore successful if its niggling shortcomings had been better resolved by more investment. Quite possibly not, and that would only have made the 604 less profitable. Perhaps Peugeot played it right, having seen the future already and holding back some; playing it safe. But the result is that the French automakers have never fielded a truly successful luxury car since the Citroen DS back in the 50s and early 60s, and even that was always a bit of an outsider too.

Peugeot 604 side

But for lovers of the brand, the 604 is rare treat; a classic Pininfarina design that has aged well, and the splendid chassis that gives it as fine of a ride in the world as any car, along with all the other Peugeot attributes. I used to have 604 cravings back in its day, although the US version, with its big bumpers, compulsory automatic and de-smogged V6 just didn’t quite cut it for my performance expectations. But a Euro-spec 604, with the injected V6 and five speed; now that would be something to still crave after.


Related reading:

Talbot Tagora: Never A Chrysler; Nearly A Peugeot   Roger Carr

Peugeot 504   PN