New cars: Peugeot 405

Ryton course

Well, if the 309 went oft-course aesthetically, Peugeot's latest medium-range saloon must re-establish the company's styling studios at the top of the tree. True, this is a bread and butter car which has just scooped the Car of the Year award: the bulk of sales will be at the staid end of the spread, but the new 405 proves that there is no reason why an everyday saloon should not be beautiful.

It can also be rapid: the range starts with a 1.6-litre of 92 bhp, but unusually therein a middle model, the GR, which may be had with all the available engines: 1.6, 1.9 carburettor (110 bhp) and the 1.9 injection producing 125 bhp, five fewer horses than the same engine in the same manufacturer's two GTIs. Above this are two further versions using the injection unit: SRI, with trendy red external trim, boot spoiler, sports seats and leather steering wheel, and finally the GTX, which has all the performance of the SRI but with the emphasis on comfort: power steering, remote locking and electric windows are included.

This looks a more compact car than the Sierras and Cavaliers it aims to steal sales from, though in fact it compares well in interior space, and Peugeot is keen to stress that it is Coventry-built — it is 65% British and, a dig at Nissan's Sunderland factory, it is also 99% European.

What is surprising is the performance gap between this and the 205: with only 5 bhp less, the injected 405 turns in 0-60 mph times of 9.7 seconds, almost two seconds off the factory figure for its baby brother. A drag factor of 0.29 for the base models promises fine fuel consumption figures, while the rapid variants have very restrained aerodynamic addenda. A subtle deepening of the chin spoiler for the SRI is barely visible; however, just to make things obvious, a free-standing spoiler adorns the boot, improving directional stability and reducing rear lift at speed.

While lesser models make do with a plain disc and rear drum set-up, SRI and GTX boast discs all round, ventilated up front.

The same suspension design applies to all variants, though with rate differences, and comprises a modified MacPherson strut front end using wishbones and a vertical link to the anti-roll bar. At the back is an extremely compact trailing arms design which is completely assembled and adjusted before fitting to the car. The two trailing arms pivot in needle-roller bearings on a large cross-tube between two fore-and-aft members; each arm is connected to one of a pair of torsion bars behind this tube, while an anti-roll bar connects the front extremities of both arms. Virtually horizontal dampers complete this space-saving design.

Inside there is a fascia which is pleasant to look at and efficient in use, and in the GTX automatic temperature control is provided. Tiltable steering comes on all models, and it is easy to heel and toe while using the light five-speed gearbox.

All the models seem to be very well balanced, even a 1.6GL being amusing to drive hard, handling in a much more neutral fashion than the average fwd family car, but of course it is the two injection cars which will appeal to sporting types. They do not have the razor-sharpness of the 205 GTI, or the tenacious feeling of the 309 GTI, but both are very quick to respond to the wheel, with eager grip and willing performance. The ride compromise leans toward comfort rather than sporting stiffness, but that is not to say that they are soft in character; the SRI with its bolstered seats gave me a very exciting sprint through some Wiltshire lanes.

Folding seats are absent from the 405, but estates will arrive shortly, to be joined later by two types of 4WD: a simple selectable system for off-road and a full-time system for the road. But more desireable than those will be Mi-16; this 1.9-litre 16-valve twin-cam saloon will boast 160 bhp, ABS brakes and a top speed of 136 mph. That stays in the wings until late in '88; meanwhile the 405 goes on sale on January 21, though Peugeot says it will not pin prices until the week before. GC