Registration figures show our liking for French fancies, says

Ross Finlay

A curious thing about the UK registration figures compared with the ones for Scotland alone is that, for the whole of 1999, French cars were down overall in the UK, but the two top cars in Scotland, of any make, were the Renault Megane and the Clio.

We're talking about registrations, of course, taking into account all those ''delivery mileage'' cars which have been pre-registered before finding a first private owner, but the comparison is still striking.

Scotland has been a good market for French cars from the fifties, when the country was awash with Renault dealers, before their numbers were hacked right back. For years after the closure of Linwood, which at the time it was abandoned was owned by Peugeot, there seemed to be, perhaps against a natural gut feeling, a preference for the French parent company's products.

Citroen set up its own retail outlet in Glasgow when the previous owner's family decided to close their own dealership. That was a more businesslike attitude than was displayed by one of its county-town dealers, who, when a customer turned up in his showroom, was said to lock the door against any others coming in to bother him.

The two things which the current model ranges from the major French manufacturers have in common, although not evenly spread among them, are innovative interior design and up-to-date engines.

Peugeot and Citroen have access to one of the best turbo diesel engine ranges on the market, the two-litre HDi. They were the first manufacturers to come out with a really top class private-car common rail design, and were very wise to build it in two stages of tune.

The 90bhp type suits the smaller models such as the Peugeot 306 and the Citroen Xsara, while the 110bhp version makes light work of the 406, the Xantia, the 806 and Synergie MPVs.

The advantages of these engines over the older style of diesel cannot be too strongly stressed. Their performance, response, economy and low noise levels at cruising speeds are all remarkable. And in this specification the group's two MPVs have an amazing potential range, with 800 or 900 miles not being out of the question.

Renault was later into common rail diesel technology, but last month introduced its 110bhp two-litre dCi engine in the Laguna. A 2.2-litre will be available soon, and these engines will naturally spread into other model ranges.

But Renault was the first European manufacturer to start building direct injection petrol engines, introducing them in the Megane coupe and cabriolet, also from last month's production. Engines of this type were launched here first of all by a Japanese company, but there have been frequently repeated explanations from UK and European engineers about why those initial designs leave something to be desired.

When it comes to exterior styling, the Peugeot 406 is one of the best looking mid-range saloons or estates in Europe, especially after the minor changes introduced last year. However, the Renault Scenic takes the prize as the mini-MPV which not only revitalised the whole MPV

market in this country, but also shows the most ingenious interior detailing.

From its underfloor storage compartments, and a cool box for drinks, to its brilliant seating arrangements, the Scenic is a very practical package. The numbers you see on the road prove how well it has caught on in Scotland. I'm sure one of my colleagues is right in suggesting a prime reason for its success is that it is seen as a ''classless'' car, at home in almost any surroundings.

Renault was earlier in the field with full-size MPVs. The Espace was its first effort, and then came the extended wheelbase Grand Espace. This is a massive machine, full of sensible equipment, and in its three-litre V6 RXE specification a majestic MPV cum grand tourer.

Like all the French makes, though, Renault is lumbered - as far as its UK business is concerned - with a luxury saloon whose sales levels here must make it wildly unprofitable to build in right-hand drive form. The Safrane may be a decent enough autoroute cruiser, but there must be something questionable about a car which, in its two-litre automatic version, has been offered, with the famous delivery mileage, at more than #6000 off list price.

It's much the same situation with the Citroen XM, an eccentric looking but very spacious large-scale saloon and estate, with hydropneumatic suspension which lets it waft over any public-road surface apart from the kick it gets from hump-backed bridges. There's a varied model range, but how many recently registered examples have you seen? Of course, just as Peugeot is about to launch a much more modern 607 luxury saloon to replace the 605, Citroen has its Lignage equivalent waiting in the wings. So there's no point in getting too worked up about the big-car range.

Citroen was the first of the French manufacturers to produce a car version of its current mid-range van, and the Berlingo Multispace, high-built and awkward from many angles though it may look, is certainly a design with masses of interior space, for people, luggage and all sorts of odds and ends.

Despite the persistent appearance of a five-door model in one major UK price guide, there is no such thing in right-hand drive form. That's where Renault stole a march on its rival with the car version of the Kangoo, which not only has five doors (two sliding ones at the rear) but also a similar carrying capacity and perhaps even better general road manners.

French manufacturers usually have some variant in their range aimed at a tiny, specialised niche market. In Citroen's case, this car is the Xantia Activa. There are very few around, and on a straight road you can't tell them apart from the ordinary Xantias anyway. But follow one into a corner, and it's a whole different ball game.