Friday - If you want the best job done, they say, do it yourself. Having spent time with various Peugeot officials this week, I now see that this is the vital, simple decision they took in 2009-10, when the recession was biting hardest, and nearly everything that has happened to the company since has been improved by it.
With insight born of near-catastrophe, Peugeot bosses realised their only hope lay in reconfiguring the company to make world-beating products more economically and selling most of them outside Europe. For five years they have diligently backing these landmark decisions with action - and it is working.
If you are guided only by the ebb and flow of daily financial news, it’s easy to get confused about Peugeot’s place in the world. In recent times we’ve had headlines about scary sales declines, a stuttering co-operative deal with GM (a difficult partner, to say the least), and plans for home market plant closures that have riled the French government and led to unjustified personal attacks on the outgoing CEO, Philippe Varin.
The latest thread is that the Peugeot family will soon lose control of the group it has built over 200 years — for the good reasons that its all-important Chinese partner DongFeng, and the French government, will take take bigger stakes in a move to raise the £3 billion Peugeot needs for recovery and expansion. (Not that we should worry excessively for the Peugeots, a family of remarkably cordial and unaffected people. They’ll still control 15 per cent of an improving multi-national, plus of course the name).
My point is that these apparently earth-shattering, group-level headlines have little to do with the thing that most affects us consumers, Peugeot’s prowess as a car-maker, which in my opinion is improving by the day and places the marque closer to that coterie of Europe’s best led by VW and Ford. It joins the best following impressive recent achievements…
Several years ago Peugeot cleared the decks and appointed a quick-acting, quick-thinking young French design director, Gilles Vidal, who set about finding a new face for forthcoming models and giving Peugeot an image of design capability. It was a big job, but Vidal and his team accomplished it in double-quick time, first by producing a highly influential concept, the SR-1 sports roadster, then setting up a product design arm (they created a grand piano among other non-car artefacts). Then they applied their expertise and family look to a succession of increasingly good-looking production cars.
The result is a new family that looks modern and svelte without scaring the Peugeot faithful, gives the new products unmistakable hints of the VW’s elusive “well-honed” look and implies lightness, something Peugeot engineers have been diligently seeking under the new cars’ skins.
These engineers have been every bit as bold. After several generations of also-ran mainstream cars, they have put two well-received models in the world’s biggest-selling classes, the 208 and 308, complete with super-efficient diesels and potent little turbo triples. More versions of these have still to land - including sharper versions of their formerly-famed GTi models seen as vital in the UK - but the Peugeot claims it can already feel its image gaining altitude.
In partnership with Citroen these engineers have built an advanced hybrid range (the cars themselves still have some improving to do) and devised a revolutionary HybridAir system that will soon use cleverly collected compressed air as a propellant to boost small car efficiency to unheard-of levels. Their flagship performance car, the RCZ, has progressed from being a great-looking car with a hint of the hairdresser, to the RCZ-R, with Porsche-like circuit performance and an better specific power output than any Porker this side of £100k: 270bhp from 1.6 litres.