Peugeot sees a US market for its plush 604 diesel

Peugeot, up sharply in sales last year compared with 1980, is counting on a continuing upward move in 1982.

In 1981 the French carmaker sold 16,725 cars in the US, a 31 percent increase over the year before. In 1982 the company sees a market for 20,000 Peugeot cars in the US.

Helping the company's image is the 5-passenger 604 turbodiesel, a sophisticated vehicle with pizazz--style, economy, and traditional Peugeot comfort. What the company seeks in the 604 is a feeling of exclusivity that will get the attention of US motorists with $20,000 or so in their wallets.

Designed by the Italian stylist Pininfarina (who has done all Peugeot cars for a long time), the plush 604 is larger than the 505 turbodiesel and costs many thousands of dollars more.

Is it worth it? Indeed, it is to the motorist who wants the Peugeot mystique, a historic name in automobiles but a company that is having a hard time digesting the Citroen and Chrysler empires in Europe.

Even so, Peugeot is expanding its hold in the US at a steady pace, a feat that Renault, its French neighbor, is trying hard to do as well.

The Peugeot 604, with 4-wheel independent suspension and oversize shock absorbers, is a large and heavy car by today's standards--3,500 pounds--with a wheelbase of 110 inches.

Everything about the car is French: the ride, the decor, the finish, the feel --and yes, the instruments. While the owner would get used to the stick-figure and starburst controls for the air conditioner, it seems overdone, at least to this driver.

The ignition key is still on the left--as much of a frustration as the floor-mounted ignition lock on a Saab--and the 604 light switches hang on a lever on the left of the steering wheel. You have to learn the sequence and motion in handling the lights, but once learned, you'll probably not forget.

Another thing, despite all the company efforts--test-driving every car as it comes off the line, for example--Peugeot nonetheless runs into dependability problems from time to time.

''A beautiful car,'' one colleague asserts. But then he lists his car's problems over the years. If the high-luxury 604 can measure up to the image that Peugeot has set for the car, then it should do its job par excellence.

Headroom is fine in front; and so is the legroom. Too, the trunk wins an ''A'' as does the glovebox and storage pockets inside the car.

The gearshift lever is top drawer as well with a pistol-grip knob on the end and a silky-smooth gearbox inside.

The Garrett-built turbocharger gives a power punch when wanted and makes a diesel-engine car highly competitive with a non-turbo gasoline engine in performance, plus the added advantage of higher mpg. Power and torque are sharply higher.

The Peugeot 604 turbodiesel automobile is strictly first class; that is, if you can take the exceptions to standard instrumentation and controls layout inside the car. But that makes the car French - and a beautiful example of a Gallic-built car at that.

Like most diesel-engine cars these days, mileage is good on the road. The Environmental Protection Agency says 27 miles to a gallon of diesel under way, but you'll probably do better than that on a steady-speed trip on the Interstate.

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