From Richard Herriott in Denmark :
Peugeot is keeping rather quiet about the 40th birthday of the 604. Its anniversary is among a dozen also being marked at L’Aventure Peugeot at Linas-Montlhéry in May in France.
Peugeot presented the 604 to acclaim at the Geneva Motor show in March 1975 and it constituted an interesting riposte to Citroen´s radical CX of ´74. Critics viewed the CX as a worthy successor to the DS and it has enjoyed a long afterlife of regular reviews, comparisons and features in the classic motoring press. The Peugeot 604, by contrast, is not so fondly remembered which is why Peugeot might not be reminding us of it very loudly.
Had the 604 succeeded it might very well have allowed Peugeot that place in the market now occupied by Audi which, in 1975, sold inexplicably expensive middle-market cars of little character. But it´s not especially enlightening to consider what might have been. Let´s examine the reasons the 604 merits another look.
The 604 is a very conventional design but Peugeot had built a reputation on making deadly serious, robust cars that sold well on that very principle. It worked for Mercedes after all. Pininfarina styled the 604 to be classically correct rather than ostentatious. A subtle inflection on the front wing and a gentle curve to the waistline are the only real nods to styling. The interior is well appointed but rational, the work of Paul Bracq.
The 604´s engine, a 2.6 litre V6 shared with Volvo and Renault, was described as a smooth but thirsty unit. It drove the rear wheels. Considering its size and weight, UK´s Motor Sport considered its 0-60 time impressive at 9 seconds. The 604´s ride enjoyed high praise: “outstandingly good”, “splendid” and “beyond reproach”, for example. Car magazine felt the 604´s ride and refinement bettered the Mercedes S-class and at least equalled the more expensive Jaguar. The 604´s steering also excelled, hailed by Motor Trend as being “of surpassing excellence and must be experienced to be appreciated”. The 604 also had notably powerful lamps and an outstandingly roomy rear compartment; that last point mattered as the 604 had a certain role as the French President´s car. Indeed, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing selected the 604 as both driver and as passenger. Freddy Heineken the brewing magnate and the famous French entertainer Echille Zavatta also owned 604s.
At the time reviewers considered the 604 good enough to be called the French Mercedes . Among the 604´s claimed test victories are one over the BMW 728 and Mercedes 280E and another over the Lancia Gamma and Rover 2800. Car continued to test the car against newer rivals even though its sales collapsed after 1980.
What went wrong? The 604 had a limited engine range: a V6 petrol and a turbodiesel. Its competitors offered far more choice. The thirsty V6 meant buyers had to look elsewhere as fuel prices rose. The 604´s quality didn´t match its other high standards. Long term tests indicated that the 604´s reliability fell short of the levels of its peers. Most seriously, in 1979 Peugeot launched the dimensionally similar but much cheaper 505 which undermined the 604´s market fatally. You had to really want that V6 to pay the 30% extra for the 604 over the 505.
Still, the 604 as conceived showed that a roomy, refined and highly comfortable car with rewarding driving characteristics could be designed around conventional engineering. Mercedes and BMW could be beaten in the handling stakes and Citroen beaten for its ride. For these reasons the 604 deserves renewed recognition.