New Lion King of the Road

The lion goes from strength to strength -- at least according to Peugeot legend. So far we've had no reason to doubt it, with superb cars such as the 306 and 405 hunting down rivals like the top cats that they are.

Now, Peugeot's 405 is freshly retired from the pridelands. Its replacement, the 406, has roared in to challenge pack leaders like Ford's Mondeo, the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra and Citroen's Xantia. Early signs are that the 406 is a beast to be reckoned with, but is it good enough to make Lion King?

The rakish new 406 may look like the 405 it replaces, but it's very different throughout. It's fifteen centimeters longer than its predecessor, with a longer wheelbase and a bodyshell that's much stronger and stiffer -- but weightier because of it.

The cabin is a fresh design, incorporating brand new seats and upholstery, and a new, soft-feel dashboard that's no radical exercise in aesthetics. Nonetheless, it's anything but cluttered or confusing, and despite the smallness of the main instruments, they're legible enough. But somehow it doesn't quite exude the feel-good factor of Ford's best-selling Mondeo -- maybe because of our test-car's beige upholstery and black dashboard color combination.

Peugeot, however, has got it just right with the 406's high-visibility driving position. All major controls are set just right, and height adjustment for the seat, plus rake and reach for the steering wheel make it easy to fine-hone comfort. There's even a rest for a tired clutch-foot.

The newcomer's front seats are snug and supportive. Peugeot calls them "horseshoe" type, which refers to the thick wrap-around rim of the seat base. This may be a boon to some drivers, but shorter-legged testers found the padding uncomfortable under the knees. Front-cabin stowage includes a large, lockable glovebox, small front doorbins and a deep oddments recess between the front seats and a tray under the passenger seat.

Despite the standard-fit sunroof of our 406 LX, headroom in the front is terrific -- as is legroom. You'll find the same excellent accommodation in the back, though, perhaps a little tighter on head-space, but noticeably better than the rival Mondeo and Opel-Vauxhall Vectra.

And that's not all that impresses. The 406 has a full complement of lap-and-diagonal rear seatbelts -- an important safety feature which sadly remains a rarity in this class of car. It's a shame Peugeot couldn't manage a center head-restraint though.

The back seat is wide and beautifully comfortable, even if you're perched in the middle for many miles. Unlike its predecessor, the 406 is equipped with a split-fold rear seat backrest -- a definite improvement over the 405's paltry ski-flap, but it also has a ski flap behind the center armrest. Unfortunately the backrests don't fold completely flat, and make a gigantic step up from the trunk floor.

Complementing the good stowage space up front are rear doorbins which, though tiny, are compensated by large stretchy-pockets on the front-seat backrests.

Pop up the 406's prettily styled trunk lid and you'll find a short but quite wide trunk opening that's slightly marred by tail lamp intrusion. All-new rear suspension for the 406 proves a boon cargo-wise, as it doesn't intrude at all on load space.

The trunk matches the 405's for capacity down to the last liter -- in other words, it's pretty large. It's also fully carpeted and provided with a useful storage bin to one side. That bugbear of many 405 owners -- the eminently stealable underslung spare wheel -- is at last eliminated by a conventional spare-wheel housed under the carpet.

Shut the lid, and take an admiring glance at the 406's central high-level brake lamp, and the rear-window wash-wipe -- something that's been missing from sedans since records began. Under the 1.8 LX's hood is a new-generation PSA engine already seen and enjoyed in Citroen's Xantia range. It's an 82kW 16-valver which takes over from the previous eight-valve unit of the same capacity, and it's impressively smooth and serene.

The 406 is slightly heavier than the Xantia, which accounts for the Citroen's slight edge on performance, but while this unit stays remarkably refined in the Xantia all the way to 6,500 rpm it booms slightly at high-revs in the Peugeot. Our 406 nevertheless performed very respectably, and overall with excellent refinement.

A slightly rubbery-feeling clutch takes the edge off the pleasure though, as does the traditional 405 clunk-action gearchange -- a quick shifter nevertheless. And there's one other aspect of the 406 which doesn't inspire: the mushy, rather long-travel brake action which is unusual in a Peugeot.

But let's move from the power unit to the 406's real jewel in the crown -- its chassis. The 405 was much praised for its crisp, fluid handling and superb ride comfort, but the new 406 betters it. Using similar front suspension but an all-new multi-link set-up at the rear, designed to cope with forthcoming V6 power, the new model boasts a class-leading ride-to-handling balance.

Where the sporty-feeling Mondeo devours twists and turns with excellent suppleness, the 406 somehow pours itself through those same bends with complete nonchalance, swallowing bumps as if they really didn't matter, and keeping its four wheels in suction-like grip with the road. The chassis is an absolute gem, not only for the driving pleasure it provides, but because its handling characteristics are safe and predictable

The 406 perfectly smooths small blips and ripples in the road, yet also tackles large undulations with total composure, perfect damping, and a great deal of comforting suspension travel. The power steering feels a little too weighty at low speeds but conversely rather light when on the move, despite which it manages to stay communicative and reassuring. It's also very direct in action without being twitchy, and it perfectly complements the chassis's sharp, roll-free turn-in to corners. We've lauded the Ford Mondeo range since it appeared in 1993, and in all that time it has remained unrivalled. But now that the new Lion King has purred into town, we've a feeling that Ford's reign of terror is coming to an end.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.