Road impressions: Gallic rivals

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Peugeot 405 Mi-16 and Renault 21 turbo

Peugeot opted for a twin-cam 16-valve power-pack to top its 405 range, whilst Renault stuck to its turbocharging guns with the new 21 model. Both these French giants have built solid reputations on their saloons, but which looks better-placed for market success in the Nineties?

Two of the most successful small car manufacturers in the last decade have been French. Such has been the success of their models that it has not only paved the way for successful larger cars, but also saved at least one of them from virtual bankruptcy. Curiously enough, though, both were previously better known for their saloons, so, in the 21 and the 405, Renault and Peugeot respectively have returned to what should be the backbone of their business. To give both series some elan, performance versions have become available over the last year, although the route taken by these Gallic rivals is quite different.

It was Renault which brought turbocharging into Grand Prix racing in 1977 and, having since been introduced into most of its road model range in some form or other, it remains very much the company’s domain. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, to see the Renault 21 propelled in this way. Peugeot, however, has sought higher performance by fitting into its acclaimed 405 series its 16-valve 1.9-litre twin-cam engine.

Generally speaking, turbocharged cars are notably lethargic at lower engine-speeds, as well as suffering from the complaint of turbo lag whereby there is a distinct pause between pressing the accelerator and getting the power transmitted to the wheels. On the other hand a 16-valve engine, for all its appeal to the marketing men, is really only effective when being worked hard, for it is otherwise on a par with the same engine in 8-valve configuration. Of these two methods of making a car go faster, which of these manufacturers has got it right?

In the 405, Peugeot already had a model of considerable acclaim on its hands. It had won the prestigious Car of the Year award in 1986 and was continually lauded by the Press. It was therefore a natural home for the twin-cam 16-valve 1.9-litre engine which uses the same block as Peugeot’s rally. winning 205 T16.

The single-overhead-cam 1995cc unit which sits in the 21 Turbo is not unique to the model, for in more basic form it can be found in other 21s as well as in the 25. In order to take the stresses imposed by turbocharging, it has necessarily been modified quite extensively with some internal parts made sturdier to accommodate the extra power. The turbocharger itself is the water-cooled T3 attached to a couple of air-to-air intercoolers, but the most sophisticated aspect of the engine is the Motorola microprocessor-brain which undertakes a wide range of functions as diverse as monitoring the turbo boost pressure to limit wheelspin and enabling the car to run on lead-free petrol.

While the Peugeot unit delivers an impressive 160 bhp at 6500 rpm, the Renault all-alloy unit gives 175 bhp at 5200 rpm and 199 lb ft of torque at 3000 rpm compared with 133 lb ft at a highish 5000 rpm for the Peugeot.

In performance terms, this translates into top speeds of 133 mph for the Peugeot 405 Mi-16 and 139 mph for the Renault 21 Turbo, and 0-60 mph times of 8.8 and 7.8 seconds respectively, while the standing start to 100mph saw the Renault turn in a best time of 20.2 seconds compared to the 25.2 of the Peugeot.

Top speeds and acceleration figures, however, are not the sole criteria for judging these cars; power delivery and refinement have to be taken into consideration. Since both cars are aimed at more than just the sporting enthusiast and have the young executive in their sights, they simply could not be unadulterated racers.

The Renault is faster, but you do not have to be brutal with the accelerator to feel it. It quivers as if kept on a tight lead, yet it never feels nervous. The Regie’s turbo experience has come up trumps here, for turbo lag inset a factor at all unless the accelerator is pushed hard from under 2000 rpm. Under normal driving conditions, in which the tachometer is recording between 2500 and 3200 rpm, a dab on the accelerator brings an instant response. The trouble is that the car is so responsive that it is very difficult to be restrained enough to keep it below the legal limit, especially on motorways, for even at 100 mph it is willing to surge ahead at the slightest extra pressure on the throttle.

The twin-cam Peugeot engine is a work of art, but to appreciate it fully it is essential to keep it above 3000 rpm. It is happy enough to go up to the rev-limiter; lower down the range It is not exactly sluggish, but neither is it lively. In fact it has a split personality. Below 3000 rpm it is almost lazy, not really picking up at all, between 3000 and 5000 it propels you more happily along, but above 5000 rpm it is in its element, just willing the driver to press on.

The Renault uses the five-speed gearbox found in the GTA, but strengthened to cope with the torque. Unfortunately it takes a little getting used to, especially changing from third to fourth and fourth to fifth, but it is put in the shade by the excellent five-speed Peugeot box which is light, quick and complemented by just the right ratios.

There are no complaints about either car when it comes to their chassis, for both are exceptional. That on the turbocharged contender is the same as those on its normally-aspirated brethren, but with most of the suspension components strengthened and the car sitting 32mm lower to help eliminate body roll. Suspension on the Mi-16 is firmer than on the rest of the range, though not specifically beefed up in any one area. The result is that the car gives a generally softer ride than the Renault and does not feel quite as fast — a feeling reinforced by the fact that it requires a little more steering. Both have power steering.

Both cars have superb handling characteristics with prodigious grip, only tending towards understeer in the final moments when adhesion gives way to centrifugal forces. Even at the limit both cars respond to the driver’s input whether via the accelerator or the steering wheel. Through a series of esses or in a long sweeping bend, both the Peugeot and Renault are consequently a joy to drive, tyres gripping well and balance perfect. At low speeds it is the Peugeot which wins higher marks by being better able to respond to low-speed bumps, but otherwise there is nothing in it.

In the performance stakes, therefore, both cars are a top quality act with the Renault only just winning out on pure acceleration and top speed, but losing a little to Peugeot through its gearbox and low-speed ride. The performance market is one thing, though. How do they fare in the executive class?

Italian craftsmen can take credit for designing both cars — Guigiaro for the Renault and Pininfarina for the Peugeot. In both cases elegant lines have been somewhat spoilt by the addition of body kits, but at least they are not too far over the top.

Renault’s cabin is sumptuous. Leather is standard on the excellent seats and the large glass area prevents the black interior from becoming too oppressive. There is a little too much use of plastic on the dashboard for my liking, but the dials and gauges are well laid out. The cloth seat-covering is unique to the Mi-16 and very comfortable. The dashboard is similarly well arranged but the instruments are particularly clear.

Both cars have anti-lock brakes (Teves second generation on the Renault and Bendix on the Peugeot), central locking, front and rear electric windows, electric door mirrors, adjustable steering column and electric sunroof as standard, but it is this latter item which causes a problem on the Mi-16 for it impinges too much on the driver’s headroom. Two additional features the Renault boasts over the Peugeot are a trip computer and a console on the right of the steering wheel which houses a secondary radio and tape volume control, thereby negating the need for the driver to take his hands off the wheel to tune in.

Passenger comfort in both cars is high, and two six-footers can be seated one behind the other and still have a place to park their legs. The 21 Turbo has slightly greater luggage capacity at 17.3 cu ft to the 16.6 of the Peugeot, which also has the handicap of a high sill for the sake of structural rigidity. Renault’s sill is low, and the rear seats fold down to give even greater space.

With the Renault returning 22 mpg and the Peugeot 28 mpg, the latter is obviously the cheaper to run on a daily basis, but the difference in spares prices depends on the item needed. An exchange engine for the Peugeot would cost approximately £2000 compared with only £1750 for the Renault, but conversely an exchange gearbox on the Renault would cost £820, £380 more than for its counterpart. Servicing intervals on both are 6000 miles, but the time needed on the Renault is likely to be greater.

On-the-road price for Peugeot’s 405 Mi-16 is £15,895, against £17,400 for the Renault 21 Turbo. Both are exhilarating to drive, enhanced by fine chassis, efficient brakes and, in Peugeot’s case, a superb gearbox. At £1505 more, the Renault does have more to offer than just its turbocharged engine, for build quality, cabin comfort and sex appeal are of a higher calibre, but if finances do not stretch that far the Peugeot must figure strongly in anyone’s calculations. WPK

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