As well as selling on their home turf, Europe does a lot of exporting to America. Although the land across the pond has its own large, impactful car industry, that hasn’t stopped European manufacturers from making a killing there.
German and British offerings have proven highly popular, but what about the French? After all, they’re one of the biggest car-making countries in the world, so why is it any average American can’t find one?
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Why aren’t French Cars Sold in America?
In the past, the French did import their products over. The reason why they stopped? Simple, the money stopped flowing. French cars were something of a unique niche in the states, and by the 90s, fewer and fewer people were keen on such a niche. The lack of any sales eventually drove all French manufacturers out of the country.
Why did America turn away the French motors?
French cars aren’t sold in America because they are perceived as unreliable (around the 80s and 90s, French cars suffered many issues) and junky. The Germans and Swedish presented far more luxurious and desirable machines the French did not have.
Also read: 3 Reasons Why Americans Prefer Large Cars
What French Car Brands are There?
Over the many years since the car was invented, French manufacturers have come and gone. Today, there are a few brands that still churn out cars, most of which are some of the most popular in Europe. Below is a list of these brands, with some having already dabbled in importing to America at some point.
Citroen: Famed for their soft rides and inexpensive costs, Citroens are common runabouts, though you’d be very lucky to see one in the US. For decades, they have provided Europe with cheap yet very comfy cars possessing a distinct, alternative sense of style.
Renault: One of Europe’s biggest carmakers and responsible for some of the most beloved small cars ever made. The Renault 4 and Renault 5 stormed their home continent and were a giant sales success. Today, they’ve seen reduced profits over the 2010s and have set out a plan to increase their EV profile and boost sales.
Peugeot: An extraordinarily old company that made numerous items before venturing into cars. Up to the 70s, they were well regarded for their toughness and beauty, before the 80s and 90s saw them suffer some reliability blips. Peugeot would be the last major French manufacturer to sell cars in the US before shutting up shop.
Currently, the brand is undergoing a push into some more upmarket territory to challenge the likes of Volkswagen, and the push is working. Satisfaction surveys now see them more positively, and reliability is seeing increased improvement.
Alpine: A maker of little sportscars, typically rear-engined, that has a very dedicated cult following. Their first big hit came in the form of the A110 in 1961, which found terrific success on the World Rally stage. A dominant 1973 season saw Alpine take the championship, but afterwards, they saw a decline. By 1995, their Dieppe factory stopped producing Alpines altogether and focused on building RenaultSport models.
In 2017, the brand was revived with a new A110, earning widespread praise. Currently, Alpine plans on an electric future, with their next A110 being developed through the help of Lotus. A recent merger with the RenaultSport division will also see any performance Renaults rebadged as Alpines.
DS: This very young brand finds its origins in the Citroen DS, from which its name is derived. Their cars originally started out wearing Citroen badges but became a separate entity in 2015. Their specialty is producing luxurious, avant-garde cars that don’t quite directly rival the German executive brands.
Were French Cars Sold in America in the Past?
Several French brands have made concerted efforts in appealing to the American market, and the results have been mixed, if mostly negative.
French cars were sold in America, particularly during the boom in the 50s when America’s economy was in amazing shape. Naturally, manufacturers across the Atlantic wanted to cash in on the riches America’s native carmakers were raking in.
Citroen: The story of American Citroens is not a successful one. Their time of being imported over there ended way back in 1974, with interest there being next to non-existent. In 1949, for example, just 10 cars were sold! None of the marque’s classics could find a way in. The Traction Avant, 2CV, SM, and iconic DS all failed to capture the American public’s imagination.
Renault: When it came to Renault’s American campaign, however, it was something of a mix between success and shambles. Originally, it started out well as the Dauphine saw some impressive sales of over 50,000 in the late 50s alongside the smaller success of the 4CV. It was a short-lived victory, though with reliability troubles popping up and the Volkswagen Beetle proving a more popular buy.
Later on, Renault tried selling the 10 and 16 not long after, with the latter seeing some good sales. By the time the 70s rolled around, the range expanded with the additions of the 12, 15, and 17. Such expansion would see little growth, sadly, as, by 1975, just 5780 cars were sold.
With that, Renault changed tactics again and went back to offering small runabouts. This meant sending their runaway success, the 5, off to the states in 1976 with larger bumpers and a new name: Le Car. It wasn’t the cheapest in its class, but the more fuel-conscious motorists (the oil crisis at the time was a good time to sell small cars) embraced it.
In 1980, Renault sold 25,365 units of the Le Car. Around this time, they added the Fuego and 18 to bolster the line-up. It should be said that by this point, Renault was investing in AMC before taking a controlling stake, which stopped it from going bankrupt. As part of their new arrangement, AMC would build slightly modified versions of the Renault 9 and 11 (renamed the Alliance and Encore).
Sales were good initially, but reliability struggles soured the customer’s view, and when 1987 came calling, AMC’s American market share had plummeted. Renault decided to sell its stake off to Chrysler, and thus its long, turbulent foray in the USA was over.
Peugeot: Out of all French brands, Peugeot, arguably, tried the longest in making their efforts work. It all started in 1958 when they imported the 403. During its second year, they sold 15,787 cars, so it was a good start, partly thanks to Peugeot’s more appealing appearance to the American audience than its Citroen rivals.
For just a year, the 304 tried biting into the compact market in 1971, but the sales just weren’t there. After that, they focused on their larger 504 and 604 for the rest of the decade. When the 80s came knocking, European cars were in high demand, and a lot of brands vied for supremacy.
Lucky for Peugeot then that buyers loved their new 505, a car that found itself a popular choice for taxi drivers and earning a yearly sales maximum of 20,000 in 1984. The bad news was Peugeot left it too long for introducing a replacement. When that happened, the 505 reach its tenth birthday (1989), and the rather excellent 405 struggled.
1990 saw just 4,200 cars being bought and it only got worse the following year. At that point, Peugeot threw in the towel and left America in August 1991.
Will French Cars be Sold in America in the Future?
If you asked that question around 2016-2019 or so, then you would receive a yes. Unfortunately, recent circumstances have put a stop to any plans of any return of the French.
Peugeot had big plans on a return to North America in 2023, with their president announcing their intent in 2016. Sadly America’s Peugeot fanbase will have to wait longer thanks to a recent merger between PSA Group and FCA.
The resulting Stellantis company now has several American brands at its disposal, like Jeep and Dodge. Sending in Peugeots would feel something of a conflict of interest, so the import plan was canned.
Currently, no French carmaker has any plans on shipping off their products to the west. Peugeot was the only one eager to make the jump, and their abandonment of such plans does nothing to encourage others to try instead.
Will French Cars be Worth it Once they Come Back to America?
Assuming that, in the near future, a French car manufacturer decides to try selling in the states once more, then chances are it won’t be an easy task. The Germans and Japanese are extremely dominant forces in the executive and compact car markets in America, so any French car would need to be marketed carefully.
There’s also the matter of whether French cars and their common pros and cons can at least gain the public’s attention.
+They’re highly praised for their safety.
+French cars have used some very reliable, efficient diesel engines.
+Their designs are widely applauded as some of the most creative and striking in the business.
+Many cars that call France home normally focus on being highly comfortable.
+You’ll find they are cheaper than a lot of comparable cars.
–Reliability has not been their strong point over the years, though it’s very quickly becoming a thing of the past.
–Resale value is not nearly as strong as cars you’d find coming out of Germany or Japan.
–Build quality can be less impressive compared to the competition.
It should be pointed out that many of the long-running issues that have plagued France’s contributions to the motoring world have been ironed out over the last couple of decades. They’re proving to be sturdier, improving their cabin build, and even clinging to their value more. If the likes of Peugeot, Renault, or Citroen wish to tackle the American market not long from now, then they could be in the best shape to do so.