Not Robert Cumberford

viacelli design Logo

A failed car designer tries to make sense of a flat design world.

Peugeot Partner Tepee – First Impressions

Peugeot Partner Tepee in the Snow

Peugeot Partner Tepee rests in Switzerland before the long ride north.

As I stepped out the customs line in Zurich, I immediately heard it over the loudspeaker, “Mr. Andrew Meehan, please come to the information desk”. Regardless of how this car would turn out, it seemed that the drop off would be one of the most seamless and efficient things I’d every experienced. What I would be picking up, however, would need to prove itself. The Peugeot Partner Tepee isn’t just a car with a silly name. It’s a silly car with a silly name.

Based on the “popular with the plumbing crowd” Peugeot Partner panel van, the Tepee is a consumer version marketed as a low-cost, high-versatility minivan for families on a budget. What you’re likely to notice first, however, is just how hideously ugly and awkward this car is – and how, in white, you will likely be mistaken for a local tradesman everywhere you go in Europe. But its utilitarian background has the benefit of ensuring this “car” will be incredibly practical. Taller than it is wide, the Partner Tepee has huge windows and a tailgate that’s closer in size to a barn door than a traditional hatch. The huge cargo area immediately showed its worth as we crammed our little van to the gills with our oversized American suitcases (enough for a permanent move to Europe), with 5 fitting easily in the trunk area under the cargo cover. What I also realized is that the big stroller we’d brought along might not so easily fit back there, and I might need to utilize one of the Partner’s biggest assets – the easy-fold seat. As I had seen on the introduction video online, the rear seat quickly folded up and out of the way (a la Honda Fit) and the stroller easily was on board (unfortunately, the fold-down button broke just as easily when I put the seat back up later). The floor being higher than average, loading was easy and back-injury free.

The high load floor means the driving position is somewhat like sitting on a bar stool with a steering wheel in your lap, but it wasn’t uncomfortable on the hour-long drive. The adjustments seem quite limited, but I haven’t had much chance to further inspect the layout to see if maybe there’s something else hidden deep within the slightly confusing French ergonomics. Once out of the airport (and fueled up with diesel for the long trip to come), the 90bhp diesel engine surprised me with admirable low-end grunt, and although it quickly became a bit rough and noisy at highway speeds, it had no problems keeping up with Swiss highway traffic. So far, I’m pretty indifferent to my Partner Tepee. It’s tall, ugly, and strange, but has enough personality and ”Frenchness” to possibly convert me. There will lots more driving to come, and many more bags to carry in the month I have the car.

Check back soon for more updates from the Tepee.

The democratization of car buying?

I’ve always said that you can tell a lot about a person by the car they drive. Whether you like it or not, even the blandest car makes a statement about who you are and how you live. Very rarely would you be surprised by a slick salesman in a Honda Civic or a hippy in a BMW M3. But these days, gas prices seem to have changed that, forcing rednecks into Geo Metros and Soccer Moms out of their SUV high-horses and into more practical station wagons (gasp!) and reasonable sedans. But is this a permanent change, or a temporary reaction?

I’m not sure, but it occurred to me this morning that Europe has always been a more democratic car buying environment. Small streets, a near total lack of parking, insane taxes on vehicles, lack of credit, and, of course, high fuel prices have meant that for decades Europeans drove what as practical above what was cool. Only showoffs drove BMWs and SUVs. Only rich people drove Porsches. Everybody else, well, they drove what was cheap and local. The French have been buying Peugeot and Renault hatches, the Germans their Golfs and Opels, and the Italians their crappier than thou FIATs for generations. I’ve seen businessmen in Pandas and well-to-do families piling out of a Renault Scenic and never batted an eye. In the US, it’s so rare, that pulling up to a family picnic can be a nerve-racking experience if you feel like you’re “under-driving” (what will Aunt Jane think of me driving an old Saab? Will Uncle Mark think I’ve lost my job when he see the ’99 Passat wagon?).

But now it’s all changed. I think that these gas prices are likely to stay over $4/gallon, so SUVs will slowly go away in favor of smaller cars permanently. The credit crunch will likely pass though, so as upmarket fuel-efficient cars start filtering in to our protectionist little country (I’m looking at you BMW, where’s my efficient dynamics, huh?), will the level playing field tilt again to towards the wealthy? Will my neighbors put away the Civics in favor of Explorers? Is this just another malaise era that creates a generation of little fuel-efficient cars only to be completely forgotten when things get better again?

One way or another, it’s going to be interesting. I can’t instantly judge people by the car they drive anymore. That’s no fun, but probably not a bad thing. I’ll be keeping an eye out though. Will the market change to fit the cars, or will the cars change to fit the market? Only the automakers can decide that.