FIVE years on from its launch, Peugeot's mainstream middleweight was beginning to feel its age. With Ford's imminent Sierra replacement (the Mondeo) and the Vauxhall Cavalier's recent facelift, the Anglo-French 405, a leading contender in the UK fleet-car market, required some attention to remain competitive.

Peugeot had the good sense to leave the styling well alone: it would have been difficult to improve on Pininfarina's elegant original. Only around the generous boot, its opening lowered to facilitate loading, is the new 405 visibly different. Most of the other 2,000 improvements, made at a cost of pounds 100m, can be felt rather than seen.

The car's structure has been strengthened, in the interests of safety, quietness and handling; its interior has been thoroughly modernised (that of the old 405 was extremely tacky), new instruments and improved ventilation coming as part of the package. Even the cheapest models now have a height-adjustable steering wheel and a handy fingertip stalk to work the radio, which does away with blind fiddling down on the console.

All but the basic model get anti-theft security, which includes an alarm and engine immobiliser. And the range of saloons and estates has been extended: there are now seven engines (from 75bhp to a lively 155bhp) and six trim levels to choose from.

The test 1.9GRDT four-door, with middling equipment and a turbocharged engine new to the range, looks set to consolidate the 405's position as the best-selling diesel in Britain. French flair is evident under the bonnet - diesel engines come no better - but not in the refurbished Euro-norm cabin; there is nothing quirky or unconventional here, because that might alienate more conservative buyers.

What you do get is comfortable height-adjustable seats, ample space (headroom has been increased beneath the powered sunroof), soft-touch furnishings, useful stowage space and a fashionably voluptuous one-piece facia free from rattles and squeaks. Peugeot has also now made the controls and switchgear pleasantly snappy. The equipment on

the GR model extends to remote central locking and electric windows.

The 405 was always good to drive. The new one is even better. Supple suspension gives an unusually smooth, shock-free ride without introducing sloppiness to the handling. Despite being nothing more than a staid family saloon, the 405GRDT tackles twisty roads with fluency. Light, power-assisted steering and a quick, wispy gearchange play their part in making the 405 easy and forgiving to drive. Its performance is as lively as that of a petrol-engined car.

Force-fed by a power-enhancing air pump (the turbocharger) that does not compromise economy, the engine sounds rough and 'diesely' when idling and pulling away. But all you can hear when motoring normally is a muted drone. You do not have to work the engine hard to get brisk acceleration; the turbo-diesel characteristically throws its best punch mid-range, so you can overtake snappily.

Although diesels are at their economical best around town (the cheaper non-turbo model gives 40mpg in the urban cycle), the 1.9GRDT also excels as a fast and fuss-free motorway express; wind noise at speed is particularly low. A brisk 250-mile journey used less than half a tank of derv and gave more than 39mpg, which is not bad for a car that accelerates peppily and will top 110mph. The range between fuel stops is more than 600 miles.

Although the turbo-diesel costs pounds 575 more than the roughly comparable petrol 405 1.8GR, it costs less to run and is likely to hold its value better. Long-term fiscal considerations apart, the 1.9GRDT is a delightful car and recommended without reservation here.


Peugeot 405 GRDT, pounds 13,238. Engine: 1905cc four-cylinder turbo-diesel, 92bhp at 4000rpm. Front-wheel drive, five-speed manual transmission. 0-60mph in 12 seconds, top speed 112mph. Fuel: 37-45mpg derv.


Citroen ZX Aura 1.9TD, pounds 11,889. One class down and therefore smaller and cheaper than the 405, which has the same engine. Less weight means even better performance and economy. Strong contender for best all-round diesel on the market. Nice to drive, sharp handling, comfortable ride, plenty of pep.

Fiat Tempra 1.9Tds, pounds 12,667. Booted version of the Tipo hatchback sacrifices some economy for strong performance - though 45mpg is possible. Lively mid-range acceleration and keen handling. A class down from the 405, but roomy and well equipped. Fine corrosion protection, boring looks.

Ford Sierra Sapphire GLX turbo-diesel, pounds 13,756. Disappointing no-contest diesel engine is noisier and less powerful than the Peugeot's, though economy is slightly better. Feels sluggish, sounds unrefined. Otherwise comfortable, mature car at the end of its run. Replacement Mondeo on sale in March.

Vauxhall Cavalier 1.7GLS TD, pounds 12,507. Turbocharged diesel more economical than Peugeot's, but performance and refinement are inferior. Facelifted Cavalier has smart cabin and new safety features. Pleasant, well- made car that drives and handles well.

(Photograph omitted)

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