Prelude To Disaster - The Peugeot 405 Mi16 1989-1991During the 1970s, what was the biggest car company in Europe? If you didn't correctly answer Peugeot, you could be excused given the French company's dismal U.S. presence in the late 1980s and subsequent withdrawal from the North American market in the summer of 1991. How a company with such a stellar heritage, a successful and modern product line, and plenty of plant capacity could get it all so wrong in America has been the subject of business school case studies and magazine stories. The real tragedy from the car enthusiast's view has got to be the loss of Peugeot's 405 Mi16 sport sedan.
Clean sheetThe Peugeot 405 was introduced to the European market in 1987 and was a runaway winner in the 1988 European car of the year competition. The car was all new, designed by Italy's Pininfarina, aided by Peugeot's Gerard Welter and former BMW designer Paul Bracq. With short front and rear overhangs and a pronounced, high-tailed wedge shape, it was very modern for its time, yet was still recognizable as a part of the Peugeot family. The aerodynamic drag coefficient of the four-door sedan was an excellent 0.30, a number that would still be respectable today. Peugeot's engineers created a competent chassis for the 405, front-wheel drive with independent front and rear suspensions and four-wheel disc brakes. Three models were prepared for the U.S. market: the DL, the S and the performance-tuned Mi16. It was the Mi16 that got the car guy's attention.
16vThe Mi16's double overhead-camshaft, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine was both its biggest strength and its biggest disappointment. The 1,905cc all-aluminum engine produced a solid 150 bhp at 6400 rpm, 131 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm and would zing easily to its 7000 rpm redline. This was pretty heady stuff for a four-door sedan in 1988, but a shortage of low-end torque and the engine's buzzy and raspy nature, combined with a short axle ratio, meant that high-speed travel was a noisy experience. Incidentally, this same basic Mi16 engine design is still used today in turbocharged form in Peugeot's World Rally Championship contenders. Truthfully, few prospective Peugeot drivers were used to engines that had to be wound so tightly to coax performance from them. Still, with a zero-to-60 mph acceleration time of around 9 seconds and a top speed of around 137 mph, the Peugeot 405 Mi16 wasn't lacking in the performance department.
French appealLike previous Peugeot models before it, the 405 Mi16 had excellent seats and relatively soft springs so that its ride was exceptional, especially when compared to other stiffly sprung sport sedans. That's not to say its handling suffered, and relatively stiff shock absorbing dampers and front and rear anti-roll bars, along with 195/60VR14 Michelin MXV tires, did their part to ensure road holding was up to par. The car's power assisted rack-and-pinion steering gave excellent feedback and long high-speed corners could be taken confidently. The interior was a letdown however, as plastic and lots of it seemed out of place in a car that cost more than $20,000 in 1989. To make matters worse, that plastic would rattle and shake in sympathy with the none-too-smooth four-cylinder engine.
What happened?The Peugeot 405 Mi16 came to the United States in the 1989 model year. Peugeot hoped that Ari Vatanen's success at setting a new record at Pikes Peak in 1988 in a special 405 Turbo 16-GR coupe would help the car's sporting image, but any similarity between the mid-engine GR racing version and the street car was mostly in the eye of the PR guys. Hitting the market amongst cars like the Acura Legend, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Cressida, the Peugeot struggled to get noticed. Meanwhile, Peugeot's U.S. sales continued to sink, until the French company pulled the plug in the summer of 1991, leaving thousands of Peugeot owners with wildly depreciated cars and few possibilities for parts and service. The 405 continued to be built in Europe until 1997 and continued to be built in third world countries until 2002, by which time more than 2.5 million had been built.
Why would you want one?The Peugeot is another orphaned European car that was basically good, but whose desirability was compromised by the poor choices made by the parent company. The 405 Mi16 is relatively fast, very comfortable, and given the reputation that Peugeots had in Africa for reliability, should be moderately trouble-free. The problem is finding the parts and someone who can fix the car when it breaks. There is the Peugeot Club of North America, whose members have lists of part sources and competent mechanics to keep the cars on the road. Common ailments include alternator failures, front wheel bearings, suspension bushings, leaking heater cores, and various minor electrical faults that are typical of almost every European car built in the '70s and '80s. Valve guides wear quickly, evidenced by puffs of blue smoke on start-up. Because the engine has an aluminum block and cylinder heads, the coolant should be changed yearly, or every 6,000 miles or so. Timing belt failures are catastrophic and so the belt should be changed regularly, at least every 60,000 miles following the service requirements set forth by the factory.
Which one to buy Because the Peugeot 405Mi16 was only here between 1989 and 1991, there weren't too many changes over that period. Prices are quite cheap, ranging from around $1,100 to as much as $2,500 or more for a very pristine, low-mileage model. Most people who buy an older Peugeot of this vintage are just looking for cheap transportation and few are willing to perform the necessary maintenance and upkeep to ensure that the car will be fun and reliable. These are not rare cars yet, and if you decide that you want one, drive as many of them as you can and find the one with the best service records and lowest mileage, and follow the factory recommendations. Peugeot has always been known for building quality products, it's just a pity the 405 Mi16 never had a proper chance to show us what it could do.