A former What Car? Car of the Year, the Peugeot 406 illustrates just how much the average family car has changed in the past 10 years.
These days, if you’re planning to buy a family car, the chances are you’ll be looking at an SUV. Something like a Nissan Qashqai, perhaps, or our current favourite in the class, the Seat Ateca; or maybe something larger, such as the excellent Peugeot 5008.
It was a very different Peugeot, however, that family car buyers could buy 10 years ago. Back then, a large family car usually took the form of a saloon or hatchback of the sort we’d consider to be an executive car today. And, at the time, the 406 was one of the best around.
Where it all started
Peugeot’s family saloon cars had something of a humdrum reputation through the 1970s. While competent, comfortable and good to drive, they lacked the transatlantic sparkle of the Ford Cortina, the raffish air of the Triumph Dolomite or the neat modernity of the Vauxhall Cavalier.
But towards the end of the decade, things started to look up. First came the 305, whose comfort and ease of use helped the car win our Car of the Year award in 1979. It was the 1980s that would truly be the making of Peugeot, though, with the 205 repeating the 305’s victory in 1984 and the able-but-dowdy 309 joining the range as the company’s first family hatchback.
Then, in 1987, Peugeot launched the 405 – a family car that had the air of a junior executive, with its beautifully proportioned styling, fine handling and superb ride comfort. It was an important car for Peugeot, taking the company into direct competition with fleet favourites such as the Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier for the first time since the 504 bowed out of production in 1983.
It also set the template for Peugeot’s large saloon cars for the next 30 years, being available with a choice of saloon or estate body styles, and with class-leading turbodiesel engines becoming the most popular in the range.
Our 1996 Car of the Year
It was the 405’s successor, the 406, though, that was the pinnacle of Peugeot’s saloon car heyday, even if it was a case of evolution rather than revolution.
The styling was sharpened up and slicked back, improving on the 405’s already smart looks; the suspension was finessed to give a pillow-soft ride and even more direct handling; and a new range of petrol and diesel engines improved both performance and efficiency. Inside, there was a significant boost in both quality and space, too, turning the 406 from a good car into a great one.
It was no surprise, then, that the 406 won its class at the 1996 What Car? Car of the Year Awards. But it also took home the overall Car of the Year crown, seeing off the brilliant new BMW 5 Series, the delightful Fiat Coupé and the fantastic Ford Fiesta – it was that good.
As we said when we announced the winners for 1996:
“Until the 406 came along, picking a winner among its rivals would have hinged on a price advantage here, an engine preference there, or some other detail. But the Peugeot is so clearly superior to everything else in its class – except in top-end performance and rear seat space – that it silenced all objections.
It goes straight to the top of what is currently the most competitive category of all. It’s more complete than the new Vauxhall Vectra, which beat the Peugeot into the showrooms, and the Ford Mondeo, Citroën Xantia and Renault Laguna.
We might have expected such a result because there was nothing much wrong with its 405 predecessor. But could the 406 satisfy contemporary demands for increased safety, strength, versatility and refinement? It delivers convincingly on all counts, providing several class-best safety features, good security, a plusher interior and folding rear seats. Rear head room may be tight and the weight has risen, but here the niggles end.
New 16-valve petrol engines and Peugeot’s determination to get the suspension right make the 406 an incomparable drive in this class. We said it responds like a big 306, but has the long-distance refinement of a Mercedes, and we have no reason to revise that opinion. It’s superb.”
What’s the Peugeot 406 like today?
Climb inside a 406, and your hind quarters are met with chunky seat cushions upholstered in thick velour of a sort rarely seen now. It’s dated, but the effect is still luxurious – more so than you’d expect from fabric upholstery.
True, there isn’t as much space as you’d find in one of the 406's modern equivalents, but the only area that really disappoints is rear head room, as we noted back in 1996.
The dashboard also looks its age, although the plastics are dense enough that there’s still an air of class about them. And even on the relatively lowly LX-spec car we’re driving, there are slivers of fake wood – the ultimate 1990s status symbol.
It’s out on the road where the 406 really shines, though. It isn’t exactly fair to compare a model more than 20 years old with its contemporaries as things can move on so far in that time; and yet, when you do so, the 406 acquits itself surprisingly well.
Very few modern cars can match it in terms of ride and handling balance, for example. The 406’s suspension is incredibly soft, smoothing out every bump and lump with the aid of its chunky, high-profile tyres and giving the impression that you’re gliding along on a cushion of air. And yet, the 406 isn’t a wallowy old barge; it doesn’t lean over in corners and, when you do press on, the sharp, communicative steering and prodigious grip mean it’s a hoot to drive. In fact, the way it manages to blend ride comfort and handling is barely believable.
Meanwhile, even the entry-level 1.8-litre engine in the example we’re driving is more than enough to power the 406 along with gusto. It’s far more flexible than you might expect, meaning pootling around town is never a chore, yet out on the open road, there’s more than enough power to undertake motorway journeys with ease.
And you can’t fault the level of kit fitted to even the fairly basic LX as standard – you got the choice of either air conditioning or a sunroof, electric front windows and a decent sound system that included controls mounted on the steering column – quite a novelty in its day.
As we found back in 1996, there’s very little about the 406 to dislike. All the more reason to lament the rather mediocre Peugeot models that followed it.
How much do they cost now?
Very little. A tidy example with high mileage can be had for as little as £300, but you’re better off spending a little more, as just £600 is enough to get you a tidy example with reasonable miles.
Post-facelift cars came with more modern toys and can be had for less than £1000; in fact, you probably shouldn’t pay any more than £2000 even for the very best 406, all of which makes it feel like quite a bargain.
However, the difficulty you’ll have is actually finding one. So low is the 406’s value that most are scrapped rather than repaired, as they incur a hefty bill. As a result, numbers are thinning out daily. Diesel examples – the best-sellers when the 406 was new – are the easiest to find and offer remarkable fuel economy and reasonable reliability, despite their age.
Fancy something more modern?
These used executive cars will cost you a bit more than the 406 to buy. But the flip side is that you get a much newer and more up-to-date car for your cash.
10. Lexus IS
Buy a Lexus IS and you’ll get a sharp-looking and beautifully made executive saloon. Not only does Lexus consistently feature at the very top of most customer satisfaction and reliability surveys, the IS is often the individual model that tops the lists. True, it’s not the most exciting car to drive, but the interior is laden with kit and the finish is very impressive, and this second-generation car certainly looks the part.
We found 2007 IS250 SE, 73,000 miles, full service history, £5000
9. Citroën C5
It might seem like a bit of a left-field choice – after all, the Citroën C5 was never one of the best-selling or most popular executive cars – but that doesn’t mean this soft-riding and spacious saloon should be overlooked on the used car market. There are bargains to be had and what you’ll get for your money is an immensely comfortable and impressively refined motorway cruiser with more than enough room for the family.
We found 2010 1.6 HDI VTR+, 55,000 miles, full service history, £4995
8. Honda Accord
The thing to remember about the Honda Accord is that it’s a much better car than its looks and image would lead you to believe. It’s beautifully made, for starters, with an exemplary reliability and customer satisfaction rating. In addtion, all models have a healthy supply of standard equipment and safety kit. It’s good to drive, too, with nimble handling and a spacious interior. What’s not to like?
We found 2007 2.0 VTEC SE, 48,000 miles, full service history, £4995
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