I admit to being a Francophile. It’s a relationship that’s been tested over the years – nuclear testing in the Pacific comes to mind, and that pompous clown Jean-Marie Balestre who presided over the FIA in the 1980s – but nothing that a visit to Paris or the Loire Valley couldn’t overcome.
The French have an admirable outlook on life, an effortless elegance, a love of food and drink, a beautiful language and a remarkable creativity that is reflected in their architecture and movies.
But my love of things French has never extended to cars, even though that creativity has produced some of the most elegant designs in history, such as the Citroen DS. Also some of the most effective, from the incomparable Citroen 2CV to Peugeot’s iconic 205 GTi hot hatch. Perhaps I was scarred by having raced a French car – ah, yes, the mighty Renault 12 – but that’s another story.
I was nevertheless looking forward to getting my latest long-termer to see how I’d go living with a French filly. I’d happily spent a month driving a Koleos in France a few years ago, but that was on home soil. My new Renault Captur has to pass muster in Australian conditions, dealing with big open roads, not tootling around the back streets of Montmartre or cobblestone villages.
So far it’s been coping manfully, if you’ll excuse such a description for a car that is anything but macho. With a tiny little turbo three-cylinder engine that has to drag around 115kg more than the equivalent Clio on which it’s based, the Captur is hardly a ball of fire around town. I’m never going to win the Grand Prix du Traffic Lights, but by working the gears diligently and keeping the revs up, we can at least stay with the flow and not embarrass ourselves.
Another French trait is overly soft suspension and, while the Captur doesn’t bounce as much as my previous Jeep Cherokee, I’d prefer it to be more tightly controlled. And I’m glad the bewildering switchgear of old has succumbed to globalisation.
Having the indicators on the ‘wrong’ side was always a bugbear of mine, but it’s so common these days you adapt quickly and rarely hit the wipers by mistake, while the gearshift quality is now world standard, unlike years ago when it was like poking into a jar of molasses. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about the notorious depreciation of French cars, and I’m yet to experience any reliability issues.
French cars are like art; not really my thing (at least not modern art, or Impressionism), but I like that they exist because they’re different and bring a fresh perspective that inspires others. Maybe I wouldn’t buy a Renault, but I’m glad other people do.
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF THEIR MINDS
One of the less appealing characteristics of the French is that they tend to belligerently stick with an idea, even when the rest of the world has rejected it. Renault has persisted with its big audio controller that hides behind the steering wheel, which I’ve always found rather silly, since the mid-90s. Familiarity has made is easy enough to use, but you’ve got to think that easily seen controls – as employed by other carmakers – have to be a better idea.
This article was originally published in Wheels July 2015.