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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Top 10: French Cars


With the release of From Paris with Love, director Pierre Morel (The Transporter, Taken) pairs a rank-and-file U.S. embassy employee, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, with a blunt-force FBI agent portrayed by a hairless John Travolta. Given the director and cast, we hope this works for Travolta as an adrenaline-filled segue back to action flicks after dabbling in comedy for the past couple of years.

It’s the same way with the French cars you’ll see in the film or, for that matter, French cars in general. They have massive reputation issues in the American market. Most were econoboxes that trickled over in low numbers over a few odd decades, and odd they were. Even if you liked their interpretation of style, they were typically crude and crabby. Sadly, we were never fully exposed to France’s best stuff. And yes, they have made great cars -- still do, in many cases. Read on and see why these top 10 French cars are welcome additions to our fantasy garages.

Renault Sport Spider

Top 10: French Cars
© Public Domain

Renault hasn’t been missed after leaving North America over 20 years ago, thanks to the bitter aftertaste of models like the 12, Le Car and Alliance. In the years since, Renault has come back from the brink (thanks in no small part to Carlos Ghosn) and produced cars like the Sport Spider. Built in seriously limited numbers between 1996 and 1999, the mid-engine Spider was a lot like the Lotus Elise in the way it was engineered to maximize the driving experience without being dulled by creature comforts.

Bugatti EB110
Top 10: French Cars
© Lothar Spurzem/Wikimedia Commons

The Bugatti marque’s brief 1987 resurrection may have had an Italian accent, but the EB110 produced between 1991and 1995 was fully French in spirit and paved the way for much better things in the Veyron we know and lust after today. Like the Veyron, the EB110 was all about extremes: A mid-mounted, quad-turbo V-12 with up to 592 horsepower; a 0-60 of as little as 3.2 seconds; and, a top speed of up to 216 mph. Even now, after almost 20 years, few cars touch the numbers achieved by Michael Schumacher’s onetime daily driver.

Citroen C4 Coupe
Top 10: French Cars
© EyOne/Wikimedia Commons

Famously raced (and crashed in the 2009 Acropolis Rally) by Sebastien Loeb, the production Citroen C4 Coupe doesn’t come in a rally-inspired street version like Subaru’s WRX or Mitsubishi’s Evo, and it definitely isn’t fit to tumble down Greek mountains. That doesn’t necessarily mean the buzz is killed: Your inner geek would love the tech-heavy interior features and optional hybrid drivetrain configurations -- if only you could get this top 10 French car here.

Venturi Fetish
Top 10: French Cars

America has the Tesla Roadster, but France has the Venturi Fetish. We trust having “France” and “Fetish” in the same sentence caught your undivided attention, and driving the electric sports car would probably give you the equatorial "tinglies" too. We say probably, as we haven’t personally tested any of the planned 25 hand-built examples of the $427,000 Fetish to confirm. It’s probably a moot point, since the Tesla is presumably a better car in every way, but we maintain “Fetish” is a helluva lot hotter than “Roadster” (just not $300,000 and change hotter).

Renault Alpine

Top 10: French Cars
© Alex Collard/Wikimedia Commons

What few Renaults came to the U.S. were mostly everyday economy cars. When it did give us something remotely resembling a sports car, it was the unconscionably stupid Fuego. What we should have gotten was the Alpine, the rear-engine coupe that gained prominence through racing success beginning in the early 1970s. The highly desirable A310 variant remained relevant through the mid-'80s, until the 1986 GTA and 1991 A610 redesigns progressively looked like bad fusions of the Camaro and kit car.

Citroen 2CV
Top 10: French Cars
© Pinkdylan/Wikimedia Commons

If you’re unfamiliar, the Citroen 2CV is to France what the original VW Beetle is to Germany, with a universal cult following to match. Ever the ugly duck, the Citroen 2CV delivers in character what it lacks in performance (which, in both respects, is considerable). The 2CV seems to have approximately 12 moving parts, including the wheels and engine. Drag racing anything faster than a glacier is not recommended. On the other hand, you’ll never have so much fun going slow as you will in this top 10 French car.

Peugeot 205 GTI
Top 10: French Cars
© Christoph (CrazyD)/Wikimedia Commons

When you think of hot hatches, GTI is a given. But do you think Peugeot? You ought to, because this top 10 French car was arguably as fun as the better-known VW hot hatch. The original 205 GTI of the 1980s had a 1.6-liter engine that thrived on revs and was very tossable, with great balance for its time despite the front-drive layout. Though Peugeot was still in the U.S. at the time, rumors of the 205 GTI being offered here never came to pass.

Renault R5 Turbo
Top 10: French Cars
© Public Domain

For as much as the French grumble about doping, the R5 Turbo stands as a stark contradiction. Based on the humble R5 (marketed as “Le Car” here in the States and intentionally absent from our review), this car is a juiced-up rocket compared to its muse. The clackety, front-mounted four-cylinder was ditched along with the rear seat for a 158-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbo in its place -- making the car mid-engine, rear-drive and ridiculously fun in the process.

Citroen DS
Top 10: French Cars
© Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons

Yes, the DS is runner-up on our review of the top 10 French cars (the same Citroen featured recently in our Top 10: Creepiest Cars feature). We believe “looks like a slithering amoeba” may have been said -- we meant it in a good way. Like the 2CV seen earlier, the DS’ design is partly why the car is so cool. Surprisingly good handling and innovation factor in too. The DS represented that a French car could be timelessly avant-garde.

Bugatti Veyron 16.4
Top 10: French Cars
© Bugatti

Forget top 10 French cars, the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 is among the best cars from anywhere. It’s overkill in every possible respect, and we are completely taken by it. And for once, let’s not regurgitate the Veyron’s stats. We all know what it can do, how it does it and its cost. What’s most noteworthy is how the Bugatti embodies exclusivity, performance, style, and technology. Take a good look, because after the Veyron, we’ll never again see a car this extreme.

This article is sponsored in part by From Paris with Love, in theaters February 5th (What's this?)