A lion with reason to roar

Any first impression of Peugeot’s all-new 407 depends entirely upon your angle of approach. Rarely has an automotive split personality been so clearly defined by the styling.

See the new saloon from behind and it comes across as a sensible, logical, elegant development of the near-decade-old 406, overtly combined with the 307 in the shape of the side windows. In other words: predictable.

Move to the front and, chances are, you’ll be shocked. A gaping lion’s roar grille sits below long eyes that wrap around the upper front corners. An oversized Peugeot lion emblem, set in a small grille like Seat’s S, connects the bonnet with the nose.

This, easily the most aggressive development of Peugeot’s feline face, is Peugeot’s new identity. The French call it sporty and dynamic, and it’s a deliberately radical departure from the Germanic look of the rival Passat, and its Mondeo and Vectra imitators.

In profile, too, the 407 adopts a dual personality. The elongated front overhang – it stretches to over one metre – is justified because it incorporates pedestrian crash protection and two transverse structural members that help crash compatibility with smaller cars. Such honourable considerations don’t account for the steeply raked, almost flat windscreen, its base now so far forward it virtually sits between the front wheels.

The implications are obvious only from inside the cabin, where the relationship between driving position, windscreen and A-pillars is near MPV-like. You sit lower, of course, but so far back the thick pillars create a real blind spot.

Pushing the driver rearwards also impacts on rear seat room and boot space. Rear head- and knee-room is disappointing, and the 407’s 407-litre boot is not only smaller than the 406’s, but also the smallest in the class, where the 500-litre Mondeo boot rules.

On the new 407, apparently, distinctive styling takes precedence over practicality. That’s a radical departure from a company whose 403, 404, 405 and 406 placed so much emphasis on accommodation. Peugeot claims customers now want status and character rather than MPV-style space; we shall see in the coming months.

Peugeot’s ambitions for the 407 are realistically in line with a class that has fallen from 27 per cent of the market, at the launch of the 405 in 1989, to just 17 per cent in 2003. In the first year, Peugeot hopes to sell 27,000 407s – including the SW estate that joins the range in September – compared with the 406’s best of near 50,000 a year.

After the styling, Peugeot’s key objective was driver appeal. It’s a measure of the attraction of contemporary turbodiesels that we’re driving the 134bhp HDi, the only new engine in a range that includes four petrols – £14,750 entry level 1.8-litre, 2.0- and 2.2-litre fours, and 3.0-litre V6 – plus 1.6-litre diesel and 2.0-litre TDi. The 2.7-litre V6 TDi, first seen in the S-type Jag, will follow later.

Depending upon the engine, five- and six-speed manuals are standard. Four-cylinder models continue to offer automatics with only four speeds, though the V6 gets a six-speed auto.

Developed by PSA, as part of its diesel joint venture with Ford, the 2.0-litre common-rail unit first appeared in the Focus C-Max. In the 407 it develops the same 134bhp at 4000rpm and 236lb ft at 2000rpm, despite the addition of a particulate filter to ensure it meets Euro4 emissions. Between 1500-3200rpm, under full load, an ‘overboost’ facility lifts peak torque to 251lb ft. Helpful when the 407, at 1505kg for the test diesel, is the heaviest car in the class.

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Apart from an obtrusive oil-burner rattle at idle, the TDi engine is one of the best. Once on-song at around 1600rpm, it delivers a strong, near-linear push well beyond the rev counter’s 4400rpm red warning section. 

No surprise, then, that the engine encourages a quick driving style that calls for plenty of gear changing, in part because the tall gear ratios don’t really support lugging. It certainly feels a lot quicker than Peugeot’s claimed 11sec to 62mph. The gearchange is a little notchy, but you quickly adapt and end up enjoying the shift process.

It’s best to limit the tall sixth gear – 33.3mph per 1000rpm – to motorways, where, mild wind rustle aside, the 407 is a thoroughly relaxed cruiser. Not that its dynamic talents are confined to the motorways. 

Ever since the 404, Peugeots have been renowned for quiet suspension and the 407’s all-new double-wishbone front and multi-link rear suspensions conform to the historic precedent. The lack of tyre (215/55 R17 Pirelli P7s on the test car) and road noise establish the blueprint for what is a brilliant chassis. The 407 points – really points – and this despite carrying a potentially worrying 64 per cent of its mass over the front wheels.

Which only makes Peugeot’s achievement in almost disguising the front-drive layout even more credible. The chassis poise extends to body control that virtually eliminates any impression of roll or pitch from the cabin; it ignores the usual front-wheel drive tendency for the nose to push wide into ever-increasing understeer.

Turn the wheel and the 407 immediately responds, staying so close to neutral that this family saloon could almost be a front-engine/rear-drive car. Push harder and harder and you discover the 407 has terrific grip and carries real speed into corners, without disturbing the car’s equilibrium. Lift off and the 407 will still change attitude, tucking the nose in neatly, without provoking old-style arm-twirling oversteer.

The ESP threshold is so high it takes very slippery roads, or a deliberately aggressive driving style, to provoke any shutdown of power. Just as well, for when the ESP does interfere it does so abruptly, first shutting down power delivery before the driver feels it begin braking individual wheels.

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You can turn off the ESP, but it’s automatically reactivated at any speed above 30mph, confining this mode to a driving aid for extremely slippery conditions like ice and snow.

Peugeot offers three different varieties of power steering on the 407. Like most versions, the test car gets the electro-hydraulic set-up with variable weighting depending upon vehicle speed and the speed of steering inputs. There is the usual numbness of such systems around the straight-ahead, but once through this phase the steering is quick (2.8 turns) and accurate, and on-lock it directly connects the driver to the action.

What of the ride? Colleague Richard Bremner, riding in the passenger seat a couple of weeks back, felt the 407 lacks Peugeot’s traditional ‘loping’ quality. Well, I’m happy to report that from the behind the wheel this desirable trait remains a welcome Pug virtue. 

The suspension casually absorbed everything a variety of Portuguese roads could throw at it, combining a wonderful supple, comfortable feel with quite exceptional body control. I’d say the 407 moves to the top of the class as the driver’s choice, not least because it can be driven very quickly without the passengers ever really being aware the driver is being thoroughly entertained.

If the comfort of tall rear seat passengers is compromised, the front occupants have no such constraints. Excellent bucket seats offer plenty of support and a wide range of adjustment, even in manual form. The dashboard is contemporary – seems virtually every new car these days has a prominent waterfall-style central console – without taking the game forward.

Inside, the 407 is a step ahead of the 406 in fit and finish and plastic quality, though the velour and plastic wood of the test car looked and felt cheap, and still trails the better German rivals. Unlike them – and even the premium-badge offerings from BMW and Mercedes-Benz – Peugeot insists on retaining both water temperature and oil temperature gauges. Good. More worrying than cheap plastics, and despite the 407 being the most rigid Peugeot ever, is the shimmy from both doors when one is slammed closed.

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Peugeot is right up to date in the 407’s electronics. On top of the base model’s CD/radio and six-speaker system, buyers can opt for either of two navigation systems using a mono or colour monitor, and the now usual range of optional toys: hands-free telephone, MP3 player, 10-speaker JBL hi-fi, active cruise control, parking sensors and Xenon dip-beam lights with automatic height correction. Peugeot is also confident the 407 will score five NCAP stars and the maximum three pedestrian stars.

In so many significant areas the 407 now sets the class benchmark. Counting against its strong bias towards driver appeal, ride comfort and – if you like it – bold styling, is the reduced rear seat packaging and perception that the quality doesn’t match the best of the competition. For all that, it is very easy to fall for the 407… if you’re in the driver’s seat.

Peter Robinson

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