1989 Peugeot 405

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By 

Los Angeles Times

Tasteful, gentle France--from its pates to the Impressionists, from Chanel to Champagne, from les hauts of her couture and cuisine--has long been a merchant of the best there is.

Except, it would seem, of motor cars.

Odd. Because the French build fine vehicles.

Consider the Citroen 2CV, the deux cheveaux (two horses) or la pou belle (the garbage can), a tin croissant of a people's car that was born in Paris in 1939 and remains in production half a century and 6.5 million cars later. Bugatti Royales, at $10 million apiece, are selling for 10 times what it costs to build the Eiffel Tower.

Delahaye. Delage. Hispano-Suiza. Chevaliers all. And now the Fourth Musketeer, the Peugeot 405 Mi16.

European motoring writers, by a 54-3 vote, recently named the Peugeot 405 car of the year. The flagship 405 Mi16, echoed the world's automotive magazines, is the crispest, most refreshing thing to leave France since Perrier.

Yet to American consumers--who bought only 10,000 Peugeots last year, compared with 30,000 Chevrolets sold last week--Peugeot remains a name and a product about as familiar as Georges Vesselle and Bouzy Rouge. It is a North American indifference, believes Jim Morrell, western region manager for Peugeot Motors of America, that has afflicted French car manufacturers for years.

Historically, he said, the industry has never cosseted American customers. A lack of global ambition saw French cars designed for French demands, not American preferences. Dealerships for French cars in the United States were afterthoughts. Advertising didn't carry much further than the Yellow Pages.

But now "Peugeot is ready to really attack the (United States) market," Morrell continued. "We're committed because we want to be No. 1 in Europe and you can't be that without being a top importer here."

That obligation has seen a doubling of Peugeot's advertising budget for this country. The Mi16 arriveswith the huge incentives of a three-year, 36,000-mile, bumper-to-bumper warranty; a five-year, 50,000-mile guarantee on the power train; and three years of free, scheduled maintenance.

Added Morrell: "Peugeot has never designed a car with the United States market in mind. Until now. Until the 405 Mi16."

It shows. The automobile is a complete concession to the prevailing demand from a growing percentage of American motorists--fora genuine driver's car for curly roads and fantasies, and a silky sedan for casual cruising surrounded by amenities.

Endless Standard Features

Standard features are endless, to the point where the only available option is a metallic paint job. "Leather seats and a six-speaker Alpine sound system with anti-theft system," Morrell recites. "All the other things wanted by Americans. Tilt steering wheel . . . cruise control . . . sunroof . . . climate control . . . power seats."

In addition, there are two items of no great importance beyond the indulgence of Gallic nonsense.

The radio can be tuned into television bands and don't knock that until you've heard "I Love Lucy" without pictures while inbound to the office on Interstate 10. There's also a trunk-to-cabin porthole with a sleeve on the trunk side for carrying skis inside the vehicle. Non-skiers may use the pouch to carry up to three loaves of French bread.

Italian designer Pininfarina has created the fresh, unmistakable Mi16 look that borrows few styling cues and is the master at his subtle best. Rodin had the same knack for taking hard and angled things and giving them softness.

The lines and planes merge as a prancing look suggesting both the car's serious purpose and an elegant presence. From one view it's four-door and suburban. From another it's a gymnast. There's the 21st Century in a rear-deck aerofoil and a touch of tradition in the five-spoke alloy wheels first seen on European Porsches of thel te '60s.

In a word: French.

The heart of this performer is a 16- valve four banger with double overhead cams and fuel injection mated to an automatic or five-speed. That combination is good for 150 horsepower and somewhat lazy acceleration (about that of a 1.5-ton Mercedes 300E) that nevertheless can be wound up to 130 miles per hour. At that speed, as Marie Antoinette might have muttered: "Let them eat dust."

The engine, incidentally, was bred from Peugeot's rally and hill-climb cars. Once more, the blend and modification are perfect. Here is high power and tough, busy workings with none of the clanks, jerks and metallic heaving of the Paris-Dakar commute. This is Sugar Ray Leonard in a silk shirt.

Flaws are few but, sadly, quite critical to the company's preoccupation with the American market--and to its hope that the Mi16 will be the one vehicle to elevate Peugeot from cult car to car of the cultivated.

That wonderful Pininfarina roll of the forward roof line gives six-footers and above barely one inch of headroom and no clearance for baseball caps.

Human factor engineers will wince at a steering column stalk for horn and turn signals. It is mounted much too close to a second lever. There's nothing quite like trying to signal a quick lane change by flicking the cruise control stalk.

Handsome Leather

The front buckets have everything the enthusiast might want. Handsome leather. Six-way position controls.

But like berets and topless bathing, they seem better suited to the French form. At least two tall, lightly padded American thugs who drove this car noticed a shortage of upper shoulder support. No amount of adjustment seemed to end body wiggles in search of an acceptable driving position.

Hitting the Road

Life, however, is one big compromise from breakfast to Ovaltine. Therefore, even criticisms dwindle once you and the Mi16 are one, alone and under way.

Shifting--apart from a slight kink moving from first to second--has the smoothness that Japan has spoiled us into expecting as a given. Ten-inch disc brakes on all four wheels are impeccable and if worked with downshifting, the effect is somewhat similar to running into the side of City Hall.

Steering--from tight intersections to fast and flowing freeway interchanges--gives perfect feedback of the car's balance and the ratio of angle of attack to the seat of your pants and the set of its Michelins.

The gas pedal is in line with the brake and close enough for perfect heel-and-toe shifting--if you're still into that, wearing string-backed gloves and collecting Stirling Moss autographs.

The best that can be said about the Mi16 is that it's a front-wheel drive car that handles more like a rear-wheel drive car with none of the vagaries of either.

If Peugeot is to enlarge its portion of the U.S. market, it has chosen wisely in select ing and then fully preparing the Mi16 for the job.

For with its overall excellence comes a better asset--that marvelous edge of driving something that's different, stirs curiosity and is much more conversational, say, than a Toyota Celica.

You can even brag about the alarm that sounds when the door is open and the key is still in the ignition. In most cars, the tone ranges from wind chimes to the clang of a $5 alarm clock. In the Mi16, you'd swear it is the opening bars of Beethoven's "Fur Elise."'

P.S. Georges Vesselle owns a winery in Bouzy, France. His Bouzy Rouge is one of the few reds made in the Champagne region.

1989 Peugeot 405 Mi16

The Good Pininfarina styling par excellence. Brakes that would stop a semi on a centime. A rich, quality, continental interior that is nouvelle Versailles. More Gallic personality, flair and sauce than tournedos bearnaise.

The Bad Short headroom for long drivers.

Seats creating the fidgets. Controls on stalks.

The Ugly Plastic covered centerposts.

Cost Base: $20,700. As reviewed: $20,700.

Engine 1.9 liter, four cylinder, 16 valves and double overhead cams developing 150 horsepower.

Performance 0-60, as tested, in 8.4 seconds. Top speed, as reported by Road & Track magazine, 130 m.p.h. Fuel economy, city-highway average, 23 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,715 pounds


    Expert Reviews 1 of 4

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