Peugeot has a reputation for making unreliable cars that nobody (except the French) would drive. And, says Michael Booth, it's well deserved

Conventional wisdom has it that the Peugeot 607 was designed especially to pander to the peculiar requirements of Jacques Chirac - French chauvinism simply could not permit their senior statesmen to be seen to be driven in and out of the gates of the Elysées Palace in German limousines. Conventional wisdom also states that, if it were not for this statutory requirement, the French simply wouldn't bother building executive saloons. They are great at building cheap, tinny hatchbacks with bouncy suspension and funny, flappy-opening windows, but cobblers at luxo-barges, so the thinking goes.

Sales of the 607 in the UK would seem to confirm this. In 2002 they sold a meagre 1,846 but that had dropped to 1,174 last year and, so far this year, they have only shifted 300 - most, I would imagine, to the fleet buyers of the UK arms of French multinationals. My own experience of the 607 adds fuel to the Peugeot flagship's pyre: I borrowed one when it was launched and it promptly broke down in, of all places, Aston Martin's HQ in Newport Pagnell. It hadn't particularly endeared itself to me up to that point, but having to leave it in the car park there and catch the bus home didn't help.

Then again, conventional wisdom is there to be overturned, isn't it? Of course the French can build great large saloons - they built the greatest of all, the Citroën DS, didn't they? For a while in the 1930s, saloons built by Delage, Delahaye and Voisin were among the most desirable in the world. One of the best-looking four-doors of the 1970s was a French car called the Monica GT, and even the harshest critics of the current Renault Vel Satis would concede it is a brave, albeit only partially well-executed, attempt to reinvent the luxury saloon genre. And which is the most valuable car in the world, ever? That'll be the Bugatti Royale. (It's best not to mention the 1958 Facel Vega Excellence, whose doors were prone to flying open over bumps.)

So, I thought I would give the newly revitalised 607 a second chance. The information pack trumpets the car's re-sculpted front bumper and larger badge, as well as a motorised boot lid. It is, they write, "the executive car to be seen in for rational user choosers," but it's hard to see the rationale behind a car nearly five-metres long that still only seats five and loses over two thirds of its value in three years; harder still to understand how minor cosmetic adjustments could improve the 607's visual impact. In silver it looks like a rather forlorn, beached whale.

With leather seats the price of the 2.2 SE version I borrowed tops £26,000, but there is a V6 for over £30,000. If, in the true spirit of the New EU, I can cast aside diplomatic niceties for a moment, the 607 measures up neither aesthetically, dynamically nor in terms of value to similarly priced Jaguars or BMWs. The interior is pleasant enough, but look more closely and quality is lacking. And, as with Chirac's coiffure, though the engine is supernaturally smooth, it is prone to emotional outbursts.

Is such vitriol justified? Well, if it stops an unwitting innocent from buying a 607, it will have been worth the tarnishing of my soul. Peugeot recently came 34th in Top Gear's reliability survey. That's 34th out of 34 manufacturers, which is worse than Fiat or Chrysler. And it doesn't get any worse than that.

It's a Classic Peugeot 404

The tragedy of Peugeot's current reliability worries is heightened by its track record of building cars like the legendarily rugged 404. Designed by Pininfarina at about the same time he drew the Austin Cambridge (the two are almost identical), the 404's high-riding suspension, simple, unburstable engines, and practicality meant it found loyal buyers around the world. It was ideal for the emerging African nations of the time and even today you can still see dozens of 404s in use from Cairo to Cape Town. So long as the bodywork stayed mostly free of moisture, the 404 would run and run, and was easy to repair. The range grew to incorporate estate and pick-up versions, as well as an even more capacious eight-seater Familiale, and stylish coupé and cabriolet versions - the latter now ultra rare and highly desirable. Production lasted 15 years until the 404 was finally superseded by the equally tough, but more advanced 504 which, though it disappeared from Europe over 20 years ago, is still on sale in some parts of North Africa today.

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