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Why I Love French Cars, Part 1: The Peugeot 306

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author photo by Aaron Gold December 2016

When I went to work for a car mag in England, I -- being an American -- assumed French cars fell into one of two camps: Intricately engineered cars that were badly built (Citroen) and cheaply engineered cars that were badly built (Renault).

My colleagues set me straight during a group test of small hatchbacks. I said something nice about the Ford Escort I'd just driven -- which, among British car writers, is akin to saying something nice about a colleague who clips his toenails at his desk. My fellow Americans will understand: At that time (we're talking early '90s), virtually all small American cars were crap, and even the worst of Euro-hatches (and that would be the Escort) seemed halfway decent. Five faces scowled at me like I was the one clipping his toenails, and a grizzled hand shoved the keys to a Peugeot 306 in my direction.

Turns out Peugeot was the third kind of French car: simple and well-engineered (and badly built). The 306 was a bit smaller than the VW Golf; back home, the Golf and the Civic were about as good as hatchbacks got. The little Pug blew 'em out of the water.

The "why" is simple: The 306 was brilliant to drive. It was light, it was quick, it had great steering, and it maintained perfect control over body motions. You could see out of it, you could pack your family into it, and you could park it anywhere. More than any other vehicle, the 306 taught me that cars didn't have to be fancy to be good, and it infused me with a love for simple cars that work well, one you'll detect in my writing to this day.

Nifty engineering detail: The 306's stereo was shaped like a parallelogram, so if you stole it, it wouldn't fit in anything but another 306. Actually, it wouldn't fit in anything other than a British 306, because the stereos for left-hand-drive cars slanted the other way.

The first 306 I drove was an 89-horsepower 1.6-liter 8-valve gas model. Back then, you could get engines as small as 1.1-liter (59 hp) and as big as a 2.0-liter 16-valve (165 hp). Back home at the office, I was pleased to learn that we had just taken on a long-term 306 XRdt with an 89-hp 1.9-liter turbodiesel. It was a staff favorite, and for good reason: Compared to a Volkswagen GTI (which, in the U.K., had the 115-hp 8-valve engine used in U.S.-market Golf GLs), the little red XRdt was quicker to 60 miles per hour, handled better and -- not being a performance model -- cost a fifth as much to insure. Not to mention, it returned around 35 miles per U.S. gallon in London traffic.

Build quality? Don't ask. Our long-termer was pretty decent, but our file of customer complaints revealed that not all of my American perceptions about French cars were false. Compared to Renaults, it was built like a Toyota, but compared to Toyotas, it was built like a Renault.

The 306 was built from '92 to '02, then replaced by the 307 and later the 308. (Gotta love the French penchant for original car names.) The 306 was the reason I fell in love with French cars... but it wasn't my favorite. I'll tell you about that one in another installment.

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Why I Love French Cars, Part 1: The Peugeot 306 - Autotrader