Peugeot shocks the repmobile market

The 407's designers are looking to amaze, delight and open minds. They have certainly created something new
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

This week, Peugeot revealed its new 407 saloon, a striking-looking replacement for, unsurprisingly, the eight-year-old 406. It has the low nose and slatted, open mouth of a long-past Ferrari, an ultra-streamlined windscreen whose roots are pulled far forward, a high, fast-looking tail and a visual presence rather greater than that of most upper mid-size, company-targeted saloons.

This week, Peugeot revealed its new 407 saloon, a striking-looking replacement for, unsurprisingly, the eight-year-old 406. It has the low nose and slatted, open mouth of a long-past Ferrari, an ultra-streamlined windscreen whose roots are pulled far forward, a high, fast-looking tail and a visual presence rather greater than that of most upper mid-size, company-targeted saloons.

And here lies its key selling feature: the way it looks. "We could have made a car that's an evolution of what we had before, but we wanted to create something new," Peugeot's long-serving design director, Gerard Welter said.

Wanted or needed? Because it has never been more important to set your products apart from those of your rivals, for that way are brand values, reputations and desires created. Do not create more grey porridge, nor attempt to beat the established premium makes at their own game because you cannot. Go boldly, instead, where no car has quite gone before.

Will it work? The 407 will certainly get noticed, and probably admired to the pleasure of its users. Whether it will create a viable cred-currency is another matter. This line of car-genesis is not new; to shock, to delight, to open minds has long been a tempting task for marketing departments.

Such as? Ford's Sierra, the aerodynamic jellymould, is an obvious example. Mazda's 323F, in both its forms, is another; fastback tail, semi-supercar front, confused identity. Then there is Nissan's present Primera, all angles outside and open-plan inside, arresting at launch-time but brought down to sad, slow-selling reality the instant the first cab sign sullied its roof.

What else? The Ford Focus shows that off-the-wall boldness can work, the latest BMWs show it can just as easily not. (That said, I am finally warming to the 7-series if not the 5-series; BMW design chief Chris Bangle's grand plan may have been right after all.)

The Fiat Coupé, another Bangle creation, similarly split car-design opinion over its bulges and slashes, and surely we can include in our survey most Citroëns up to and including the XM. What dictates success and what leads to failure is hard to deconstruct. Sometimes the designs succeed despite their radicalism as much as because of it; a family Ford is bound to sell well to those who are familiar with Fords even if it looks odd, and maybe new buyers will join in because they are intrigued. But a Nissan Primera does not have that bedrock of support, so a radical new one gets ignored.

What, then, are the chances for the new Peugeot? The French company has long had a reputation for pleasing designs, many of them created in collaboration with Italian design house Pininfarina, and one of the main reasons why the now-ageing 206 supermini is still the car most bought by British private buyers is the way it looks. Peugeots are also sufficiently numerous to have a critical mass of acceptability, and most people who have bought 406s in the past have liked the smooth, fluid and responsive driving characteristics.

Apparently, in customer clinics - in which a new car and its main rivals, all painted the same colour, are gathered together with badges removed and prospective buyers give their views - nearly everyone guessed the 407 was a Peugeot. The two biggest clues are the headlights, part of a "feline face", and the vertical trailing edge of the rear side window, a Gerard Welter motif first used in the 205 GTI. The tail has somerthing of an updated 406 about it, too, but the rear light lenses are pleasing objects in their own right with clear "glass" over housings seemingly made of red foil.

Inside, the style is less adventurous but still a move ahead from the 406's conservatism. The style is simple, clean and serene, and a large diffuser grille on top of the dashboard keeps occupants cool without inflicting an icy blast. A series of slats behind this grille has the look of some giant electronic heat-sink from a futuristic transport pod, a note of absurdity among the sobriety elsewhere. Most surfaces are padded for a superficial feeling of quality, but a flimsy centre armrest and a cheap bonnet prop (instead of self-supporting gas struts) chip away at the chance to emulate an Audi. Pity. The glovebox is huge.

The 407's other key appeal should be the way it feels to drive. Peugeots have a strong reputation here; the "brand DNA" includes a ride unexpectedly supple in cars which steer so crisply, but that feat has not been achieved in the company's most recent products, notably the 307. Peugeot claims to be back on track with the 407, thanks to a new double-wishbone front suspension system of a design seen nowhere else before. For various reasons of suspension geometry, it is claimed to keep the steering sharp and body lean at a minimum without inflicting the ills of stiff springing.

We shall find out if it works when we road-test the 407 in March. An SW estate-car version follows later in 2004, and a coupé will complete the range. The existing 406 Coupé, a handsome but excessively expensive car, is no longer imported to the UK, which means we missed out on the facelift whose huge under-bumper intake presaged the 407's face. I hope the 407 does prove as good to drive as its creators claim, because there was a time when Peugeot reconciled the conflicts of ride and handling better than any other carmaker. In three months, we shall know if that time has come around again.

THOSE WHO BOLDLY WENT

FORD SIERRA

People were as softened-up for the blob-like Sierra by the Probe 3 concept car, with enclosed rear wheels and a biplane spoiler on the tailgate. The Sierra became progressively more normal during its lifespan, but function ruled over beauty. Its design was the work of Patrick le Quément, now design director at Renault and mastermind of the new Megane (wacky but very popular) and the Avantime (a disaster). Frightened some Cortina drivers.

CITROEN BX

Marcello Gandini of Bertone (he also designed Lamborghinis) created the boxy BX, a near-antithesis of style in 1982. It flaunted Citroën's own brand of functionality, and such was its lone-furrow purity that it never looked right with aftermarket alloy wheels. The culture clash was unbridgeable.

NISSAN PRIMERA

The previous Primera was the ultimate timid car, a lookalike remake of the first version by a company in a crisis of confidence. The new one, its creators emboldened by Renault's rescue and creative flair, is very daring with its central spine, big paired air intakes and arched roof, plus its large central dials. But it is too much for the market to take, and already there are plans for a visual tone-down. But Nissan does deserve full marks for what most agree is a good try

Search for used cars

Comments