Want a car as solid and durable as the Mercedes W-123 but nicer to drive? Look no further than this car and look past the lack of chrome.
Forty years ago Peugeot presented the 604 and attempted to gain entrance to the prestigious large car market. That didn’t work out, despite review after review praising the car’s ride quality, steering comfort and commendably huge boot. In 1995 the 406, a class down from the 604 but similarly dimensioned, replaced the well-respected and successful 405.
As in the cases of the 604 and 405 journalists wrote highly of the 406 which carried on the best aspects of the 405 and improved on it in many areas. It was well-built, reliable and did very well in many comparisons and single-car tests. Even the V6 version garnered compliments, with Car magazine’s John Simister judging the engine and chassis to be a very good combination and declaring it the best version Peugeot sold. In a long-term test, Car asked how long manufacturers such as BMW could continue to claim their price premium, such was the quality of the 406’s build, comfort and handling.
The answer is: two decades and counting. With the 407 Peugeot lost ground and with the dreary, drooping 508 yielded it almost entirely to the premium brands and competitors such as the Mondeo and Vectra/Insignia. With the 604, Peugeot made serious errors of judgement in not offering more engines than the V6 petrol and turbodiesels and failing to ensure long-term reliability. They have not always got it incorrect. It wasn’t only the 205 and 306 that captured sales and garnered respect. The 406 did so too.
The 406 arrived on the scene in 1995 ready to kick Ford, Opel and Renault. They probably secretly wanted to steal sales from BMW and Audi too and possibly did. The 406 had four engines and a V6; there were manual and auto transmissions in addition to expensive multi-link suspension. As ever, Peugeot worked hard on the suspension. The bushings at the rear were designed to be more flexible longitudinally than the transverse links, helping smooth out small bumps incredibly well. There was even an element of passive rear steering too.
Galvanised sub-frames isolated the suspension from the body, contributing to the impressive ride and supreme smoothness. This was no Vectra and certainly no Audi A4, both of which had worse rides. The Ford Mondeo lost out for its lack of refinement, by comparison. Only jingoism gave Rover’s 620 victories in some tests while badge-snobbery often was at play when BMW’s 3 was challenged.
In July Car magazine wrote of the 406 that it had more room, better quality and greater safety than the car it replaced. The cost however lay in the weight, which was a then above-average 1355 kg which somewhat challenged the 2.0 litre, 4 cylinder engine. These days that’s a bantam.
Roger Bell felt the 1.8 litre handled more crisply than the 2.0 and my own extensive experience of the car can support such a contention: it is a remarkably good car to drive, with precise steering, an easy gear-change and the kind of skilfully judged ride quality for which Peugeot was once famous. Put that down to the non-variable power assisted steering (it was variable on the other models) and narrower tyres. As Bell wrote: “There’s an agility about this model that faster variants can’t match.”
What is it about the 406 that has ensured that such a capable and affordable car remains fifth-owner fodder and a non-existent afterlife? In July 1995 Autocar described the car as chic, modern and understated: “Think of it like this year’s Chanel two piece, only designed to last eight years not one.” Partly it might be that understated and classy was mistaken for ordinary. As I have written elsewhere this was a car screaming for brightwork. But Peugeot went down the path of understatement, in disguise and at night. Inside the car, the shapes were decidedly bland. Car said the 406 lacked Frenchness (as most latter-day Peugeots did).
I have often felt that if there could be a more modern successor to the dour but dependable Mercedes W-123, the 406 should be it. Why should people forever pay £2000 for a cramped, uninvolving, stolid and dipsomaniac Benz when £600 will get you a 406 in full running order?
The answer is the chrome trim and badge of the Stuttgart taxi. The 406’s straightforward but uncharismatic interior lacks the overt, austere conservatism of the Mercedes and instead offers a very generic set of shapes that eventually command respect but not adoration. In contrasting the two cars, one sees the difference between the classic and the bland.
If you look closer at the 406’s interior the decision to choose a very low-key design language can be seen to be a tremendous misstep. It undersells it. The parts are well-assembled. There are no design flubs. Ergonomically the driver is as well treated as in any Saab or Volvo. The seats are first-rate, possibly the best I have ever experienced. At first glance the standard cloth seems banal. Actually it’s incredibly durable and pleasant to the touch. Versions with tan leather are rare but now look delightfully patina’ed.
Passengers in the Pug’s rear have superb seating with the armrests centre and side properly located. In comparison with the W-123 there is no doubt which car is more spacious, faster, more secure and more comfortable. And in comparison with all entrants in the current executive class, the 406 still stands head and shoulders above them. But it all looks so decidedly, emphatically dull. Peugeot really did hide their shining light under a sober and serious bushel.
Here’s Murat Gunak who in 1995 had been recently poached from Mercedes: “ What is innovative? What is radical? If by that you mean fashionable, then no, this car is not innovative. This car, however, will still look extraordinary in eight years.” Correction, Murat, it looked okay at the time but today looks somehow even younger than its two decades, at least on the outside. Odd that. If it had received the finessing of the coupe it would be a recognised classic today.
I’ve driven this car, most recently a 16-year-old example with 140,000 miles on the odo. It feels nicer to drive than any of the newer cars I have been in and, most importantly, still very credible. Nothing rattled, nothing shook. Partly this is down to car-building reaching an important threshold in the 90s: things were now built to last but still lacked the digital components that will spell the end of rust-free, unmarked cars in 2026. If you drive a 406 it really is hard to detect it’s a 20-year-old car – other than that has great outward visibility, delightful steering and a commodious interior, that is. Oh, and the IP is still a mechanical affair with some bulbs for back-lighting.
The only sign of age on the car I drove recently was faint corrosion on the matte-painted metal spar of the rear quarter glass. I have seen 20-year-old E-classes with worse evidence of entropy.
What do others think? Honest John sings its praises. They report that a taxi firm local to the HJ office runs a 406 in HDi guise which has reached 450,000 miles with few problems. I once took a 45 minute ride to Stansted in a 200,000 km car (over Essex’s worst roads) and there wasn’t one squeak out of the machine. The user reviews at the AA website endorse the car too. AutoExpress describe the car as popular second-hand buy due to its tough construction, good handling and decent diesel engines. What Car?’s view is that it has a smooth ride and a well-equipped cabin. There’s loads more like this…
Thus the mystery of the 406’s current status. Nobody seems to have taken on board the fact Peugeot fielded a robust, comfortable, good-looking car which was well-regarded and competitive with private and fleet buyers. And its still a car people rate. But it’s not raved about like the first Focus, the W-126, the Saab 900 or Volvo 240. What happened? The 407 happened. That’s where it all went wrong. If you read the reviews of that car you can sense the motoring press had no interest.
Not once but twice have Peugeot presented a well-regarded car and failed to make headway against their peers and betters.