The cars we loved.
There was a time when we in America had our pick of nearly all the major European car brands. In addition to the few still with us, there was Lancia, Alfa Romero, Renault and Peugeot. At some point starting in the 80’s they started dropping off like flies from our market, leaving in their wake small groups of devoted fans. Some of these companies were victims of poor management and distribution channels, but they all had quality issues. They also experienced unfavorable exchange rates or all of the above. In the case of Peugeot, it seemed unconceivable that a company that did so well selling us tank-like 505 diesel sedans a decade earlier would pull out of our market, but it happened.
Before the demise, the folks in Paris had pinned their hopes on a wave of new products, led by a new sedan. When it came time to replace the beloved rear wheel drive 505, Peugeot decided it would step up its engineering and design game with a modern front wheel drive mid-size sports sedan. It was a first for the French manufacturer in a mid-sized sedan. The resulting car called the 405 was displayed at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1987 and was later available to a eager European public later that year. By the time the car had reached American shores, it was already floating on a sea of praise from the European press who gave it the European Car of the Year award for 1987. So wide was the margin of victory, that it had established a record for the number of votes. Peugeot dealers in America would not get the 10 or so versions of the car that were available elsewhere, but the three we got represented the best of the gasoline range. You could buy a 405 in Africa with as little as 65 hp, but in the States the base model DL had around 115, while the top of the line sport model called the Mi16 had 150hp from a 1.9liter 16 valve DOHC engine.
The Pininfarina designed 405 had a look that was crisp with shape defining character lines reminiscent of the Alfa Romero Milano and VW Passat (two other cars also designed by the Italian studio during the time). In addition to spirited performance, the 405 Mi16 had magical ride qualities (very much a French car trait) that was smooth and comfortable, yet provided excellent road holding qualities. The Mi16’s excellent seats only enhanced the comfortable ride made possible by a softly sprung suspension, bolstered by front and rear anti roll bars and stiff shock absorbers.
The combination captured the imaginations of the world automotive press to the point of the Mi16 garnering praise on par with that of the BMW 3 Series. In fact we associate the ride quality of many BMW’s today with the same associations that Peugeot and Citroen established for French autos in the 70’s. The 405’s chassis was considered one of the best in its class. Small by today’s standards, the 14 inch aluminum wheels with Michelin MXV 195/60 filled the wheel wells for a sporting look. The smallish diameter wheels also allowed the Mi16 was able to deliver sharp steering response while managing to keep the ride comfortable.
The Mi16 had a well laid out if not busy dashboard with plenty of black or grey plastic. The 405 was available with either a five speed manual or four speed automatic transmissions. Although it was a known canyon carver, the Mi16 had some stoplight race cred too. 0 to 60 came in 9 casual seconds by today’s standards, but for the 80’s it was not bad. Top speed was more impressive, reaching 137mph (if you could bear the noise). The lightweight aluminum block engine helped contribute to a favorable 2,700lb curb weight that also helped efficiency. DL and S models were more efficient, but the Mi16 was far from a gas guzzler.
Although the engine provided impressive power from its relatively small size, it was buzzy and loud when cruising at highway speeds. What was otherwise a soundly built and mechanically reliable car did have some quirks. For many the quirks that were typical of some European cars endeared the public to them for a while, but in the case of the Mi16, simple quality control issues like loose and rattling interior trim would eventually change the public’s perception (and the media’s). Hard core auto enthusiasts were more forgiving, considering the Mi16 performance potential. Motor Trend called it the best Peugeot ever and other enthusiast media outlets gave the Mi16 similar praise.
Unfortunately for Peugeot and the 405, the writing was on the wall. Even as the car was praised, it received equal criticism, centered mostly on quality control issues. Many auto buyers expected their $5,000 Hyundai Excels to rattle and squeak, but not a $20,000+ European sports sedan. What should have been the best built, best engineered Peugeot ever was simply not up to snuff compared to the oncoming wave of near luxury cars that offered Mi16 like performance, but without the quirkiness and quality control issues.
Peugeot was getting hit from all directions with cars like the Nissan Maxima carrying the four door sport banner, while Acura’s Legend was proving that you could have performance, luxury and reliability in the same car. Peugeot stop US sales in 1991. Not only were its cars affected by the withdrawal, but also its once popular bike sales. Although the 405 lives on in places like Egypt, new Peugeot cars were never to be seen in America (officially) again. It joins the list of US failures that include greats like Alfa Romero (1993) Lancia/Fiat (1982) and Renault (1989). Although Alfa is poised for a return, Peugeot like a scorned lover seems content with staying away.