These four European sedans represented a size and price class that was growing in the US, and would continue to grow for a long time to come. They represented a clear alternative to American sedans, with their more compact dimensions, smaller engines, FWD (in two cases), and more sophisticated suspension, braking and handling (mostly).
The Volvo was of course by far the best selling of the four, and would continue to grow in popularity, the 144’s successor–the 240 series–becoming iconic. Audi too would become a force in the market, even if it was temporarily blunted by the UA debacle. And of course, Saab is dead and Peugeot left the American market quite some time ago.
Unlike nowadays when the differences in cars are often so limited, these four represented distinctive approaches, and this makes for an interesting comparison.
The similarities were their general size, four cylinder engines of about two liters, room for four adults, and advanced features like disc brakes and radial tires. Four speed manual transmissions were standard on all but the Audi came from the manufacturer with a three speed automatic. Somewhat surprisingly, that didn’t blunt its performance as much as might be expected.
The Audi was considered the most stylish of the bunch, clearly following the stylistic footprints of its intended domestic competitors: Mercedes and BMW. The 100 had inboard disc brakes, which quickly developed a bad rep, along with driveability issues with the carb. Average pad life was 6,000 miles; the latest models had larger discs to presumably help that somewhat. And the latest carb was also improved.
The Audi was highly efficient in its space utilization; the best in its class, and what would become a hallmark of the brand for some time to come.
The 504 was the latest in a series of Peugeot’s RWD sedans and wagons. R&T pointed out what would become the downfall of Peugeot in the US: a small dealer network, of mostly small dealers. Peugeot just never invested in a substantial and upgraded dealer network; most of the dealers I remember in LA in the ’70s were still holdovers from the 1950s.
The 504 was the only one in the group to have IRS, which of course was one of the hallmarks of its generally superior suspension system.
The Saab was of course FWD, with its Triumph-built engine in an unusual configuration over the transmission. It had the smallets engine (1.85 L) but with fuel injection and an overhead cam (the only one in the group to do so), it had a healthy 97 hp.
The Volvo was of course familiar stuff by now, having arrived in 1967. But the 144E had electronic fuel injection. R&T made reference to serious quality lapses in 1968 and 1969, but presumably those were now a thing of the past.
I’m not going to comment on their respective Comfort, Control, Accommodation and Vision, and move on to Performance, Ride and Handling.
The Audi and Saab were the runners; the Peugeot and Volvo the laggards, in their performance. The Peugeot is not a surprise, but the Volvo’s was somewhat, especially since it had the highest hp rating (112) by a healthy margin. R&T called the Peugeot and Volvo”sickly”. The reason was the required drop in compression to meet then new standard to be able to run on unleaded regular. That combined with tightening emission standards really blunted those two.
The Saab and Audi were still reasonably lively, and the Audi would have been more so if it had a manual. The Saab was fastest (least slow) in the 0-60, at 12.7 seconds. The Audi second at 13.7, even with its automatic. The Volvo managed 14. and the 504 plodded through in 15.9 seconds. Pretty sad, given that cars in this category where once considered ‘sporty’ back in the ’50s and ’60s.
But the 504 did have the best transmission, now with a floor shifter.
No surprise: the 504 won the Ride category. But it also was deemed the best handling, in the subjective portion. The Pug handled everything that was thrown at it with aplomb; that was its superpower; not actual power. The Audi acquitted itself well too, not surprisingly. The Saab’s steering got unpleasantly tight in power-on curves. The Volvo was deemed “clumsy” with “gobs of body roll”.
The Audi was deemed the overall winner, with a small margin over the Saab. The Peugeot came in third and the Volvo straggled into fourth place. In addition to dynamic issues, the Volvo got major demerits for its instrumentation-controls, driving position and ventilation. It seemed “terribly old-fashioned” despite being only some six or seven years old. But then other than its new body, it wasn’t all that different from the 122 under the skin. The 240 series was to be a badly needed update on the concept, but of course it too got to be “terribly old-fashioned”, for better or for worse.