Thierry Neuville holds the overnight Rally of France lead after setting the pace on Thursday's curtain-raising Strasbourg superspecial.
Citroen Junior's Belgian rising star led the way with a time of 2m44.7s on the 3.63-kilometre stage, and was a relatively comfortable 0.8 seconds quicker than his rivals.
The same margin covered the next six drivers. Jari-Matti Latvala was second for Ford, half a second clear of Dani Sordo's Mini, Petter Solberg's Ford and Mikko Hirvonen's Citroen - all tied for third.
The star of the afternoon was Sebastien Chardonnet, who was sixth on his World Rally Car debut in a third Citroen Racing Technologies entry.
Chardonnet, a protege of Loeb's co-driver Daniel Elena, is tipped to follow in the footsteps of compatriots and namesakes Loeb and Sebastien Ogier, and is backed by the same French federation scheme.
Loeb himself was only seventh, 1.6s down on Neuville, having been unhappy with his pace notes.
Further back, Mads Ostberg felt he was over-cautious on cold tyres as he took 12th, Nasser Al-Attiyah spun and came through 31st quickest, and World Touring Car champion Yvan Muller reckoned his Mini was lacking a bit of power as he set the 26th-fastest time.