Belgian Thierry Neuville clocked a best time of two minutes and 44.7 seconds on the 3.63-km dash in the streets of Strasbourg with Frenchman Loeb in seventh place, 1.6 seconds behind.
Finn Hirvonen was fifth, 1.3 off the pace.
In between them was France's Sebastien Chardonnet who produced a stunning performance on his world championship debut.
Loeb, who will only race part of next year's world championship, will win a ninth consecutive title on Sunday if he holds on to a 56-point lead over Hirvonen.
He has a 61-point cushion with three races remaining.
Loeb announced last week that he would not take part in all next year's races. He said earlier on Thursday that he would probably compete in "four or five" races, although nothing had yet been decided.