Peugeot, too, eyes diesel-car market in US

As a marketing force in the US, its tracks can hardly be found, yet it's the fourth largest producer of passenger cars in the world. Indeed, PSA peugeot-Citroen, that large independent vehiclemaker in France (Renault is owned by the French government), sells one of the nicest (and most luxurious) cars around -- the Peugeot 604 turbocharged diesel sedan.

In 1980 Peugeot delivered a niggling 13,000 cars in the US. Compare that figure with almost anybody else, except long-suffering alfa Romeo; Jaguar, Rover , Triumph, which only sells one car in the US now, the Jaguar; and maybe one or two others. This year, however, the French carmaker looks for a 30 percent increase in sales, with about half of them turbocharged diesel 604s.

The company is right on target, according to Pierre Lamaire, who heads up the company in the US.

While Peugeot has had some trouble with its cars in the past (what carmaker hasn't?), many current owners seem to like what they have. One colleague, just returned from a vacation trip to West virginia, reports a smoothly acting machine even with well over 100,000 miles on the wheel.

Asked about the trip, he said he'd have his old car than a lot of the new autos on the road today.

For comfort, it's hard to beat a French-built automobile. The deeply cushioned seats of the 604 turbo diesel, for example, provide living-room comfort whether on the highway or poking around town. Too, performance is more than satisfactory because of the extra spurt of power provided by the turbo. Fuel economy is somewhere in the 30-to-35-mpg range, depending on the volume of Interstate driving vis-a-vis the city.

Peugeot says the turbocharger gives the diesel about 18 percent more power and 40 percent more torque than the normally aspirated diesel car. I thought this increased power was quite evident in the few hundred miles I drove the 604.

To its discredit, however, the automatic door-lock system is one of the noisiest I can recall. Also, to this driver at least, there is insufficient toe room for the right foot when applied to the brake pedal and accelerator.

Otherwise, the 604 turbocharged diesel rates a high score.

The manual gearbox is silky smooth; and I like the gearshift handle, shaped somewhat like a pistol grip. The automatic speed-control system works well, too -- a boon to anyone on a long trip although in urban-type driving it is of little use. In my opinion, it's always worth the extra cost.

Equipment on the so-called "S" package is voluminous, although expected on a car that costs well over $15,000. Among the goodies are air conditioning, cruise control, electric sunroof, power windows, AM/FM stereo, automatic electric antenna, central door-locking system, special wheels, and a height-adjustment control on the driver's seat. Yet even the base car ($12,980) is comfortably equipped, even without the extras named above.

A distraction -- to me at least -- are the air conditioner-heater controls which use sticklike characters and starbursts to designate the degree of heat or cold inside the car. Wouldn't simple system without pictographs be more effective? Even so, the dashboard is capably designed and a snap to read.

A heavy car by today's standards, the turbo 604 weighs inat around 3,200 pounds, is 186.7 inches long overall, and rides on a wheelbase of 107.9 inches.

The peugeot-Citroen combine has been bumping over some deep financial ruts during the last couple years, made worse by Peugeot's takeover of Citroen and Chrysler -- both a majr drain on Peugeot. Last year the company lost $250 million, mainly bacause of its British, Spanish, and Argentine subsidiaries, according to Jean-Paul Parayne, president of PSA Peugeot-Citroen.

Despite it all, the French carmaker continues to road-test every car as it comes off the line.

Peugeot has a deal with Chrysler Corporation which should benefit both Crysler and Peugeot. The French company in the future will supply engines and possibly even a new car, to the apparently now-on-the-mend US carmaker.

Ultimately, Peugeot's toehold in the US should grow -- significantly, that is.

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