Peugeot: price -- and value

In October, Peugeot sold 102 of its Model 604 in the United States, a 25 percent increase over the previous month. But to do this, the company had to give $1,000 rebates to buyers, and dealers had to be willing to strike some bargains.

Yet the Peugeot 604, introduced in Europe in the summer of 1975 and in the US two years later, should be competitive with the BMW 528i or even the much-higher-priced Mercedes 280E. Not too many car buyers know about it, however.

Not suprisingly, the car is not cheap. It has a base price in the US of $13, 988. With options, the price can go up another couple of thousand dollars.

The buyer gets a lot for his money, however, assuming he's in the market for a car with that kind of price tag.

I first drove the 604 in June, 1975, when I made a trip to the factory in eastern France for a look at the European version of the car and a tour of the Sochaux headquarters facility, including the assembly plant, research laboratory , and test track. After a 100-mile-plus drive through the Vosges Mountains on the French-Swiss-German border, I came away impressed with the 604.

The car is not flashy. It does not get a lot of attention on the road. Its styling is highly restrained but elegant, even to the color of the car I've now been driving -- basic black -- part of a $1,498 option package that includes the special black paint, leather upholstery, and electric sunroof.

On the road, it is very comfortable to ride in no matter how long the trip, an advantage common to most French cars.

The roots of the 604 are in an experimental safety vehicle the company built in 1971 and is said to meet or exceed every safety standard in the US and Europe , including those in Sweden, which, according to Peugeot, are the most rigorous in the world.

The theory behind the car is that comfort and safety go hand in hand, Peugeot engineers say. When passengers are comfortable and not distracted, the driving is safer. And when they know how well the car has been engineered for safety, they feel more comfortable.

Peugeot has done a good job in both respects.

Still, there are annoyances. Some of these the company plans to correct in the 1980-model 604s, which are not due in the US until the spring.

For one thing -- and this is probably more of a problem for someone like me, who drives a large number of cars each year -- the turn-signal lever is on the right-hand side of the steering post. In the 1980 model it will be on the left, as is the case with almost any other car I can think of. Also, the ignition-key lock will be moved to the right hand of the steering post instead of the left.

Now, with the 604 as it was equipped for 1979, the driver is apt to switch off the headlights at night as he flicks the left- hand lever for a right-hand turn.

I also found some difficulty in throwing the manual 5- speed gearshift lever into the right lower gear in a downshift.

Cruise control, important in a super-luxury car for long- distance travel, is currently a dealer-installed option. That's not good. However, starting next March with the new-model 604s, cruise control will be put on at the factory in France.

Acceleration is very acceptable, using the V-6 engine developed jointly by Citroen (now part of the Peugeot complex), the French carmaker Renault, and the Swedish auto builder Volvo.

The car does not do well on fuel economy. The 1979-model 604 is rated by the US Environmental Protection Agency at 12 m.p.g. with a 5-speed stick shift and at 14 with an automatic. The 1980-model 604 will be fuel-injected, which should help.

Also coming in the spring is the 505, successor to the aging 504. The new car, unveiled in Europe a few months ago, uses the rear suspension of the 604 but keeps the front suspension of the 504. It is slightly larger than the car it replaces, both in length and width.

Peugeot doesn't change its mix of models very often. The popular 504, which also includes a lightweight diesel-engine options, is 11 years old.

Peugeot, which built its first car in 1889 -- a steam-driven three-wheeler shown at the Paris Exposition of 1893 -- claims to have more lightweight diesel expertise than any other carmaker in the world. It put the first diesel engine in a car in 1922 and over the past 50 years has built more than 1.5 million, not only for automobiles but for industrial and marine use as well.

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