BY ANDY ENRIGHT
If asked what the most beautiful new car on sale was today, many would plump for a Ferrari 456, a Jaguar XK8 or a Porsche 911 Carrera. If you limit the budget slightly, what are you left with? One car stands out, making its rivals appear about as elegant as a frog in a sock. The Peugeot 406 Coupe has made an immediate impact since its 1997 launch, and as used examples are now finding their way onto the market, it represents the best opportunity if not to get rich quick, then at least to get beautiful ASAP. Pace around the car and there isn't a line, angle or detail that jars. It all flows elegantly from one plane to another - a characteristic more reminiscent of the better Ferraris than a humble Peugeot. That's no accident either. It is from the pen of the 406 Coupe's stylist, Lorenzo Ramciotti, that Ferraris 456 and 550 Maranello were created. This, surely, was his second finest hour.
Models Covered: (2.0, 2.2 HDi,3.0-litre petrol [base,S,SE])
Before its introduction in July 1997, the concept of a Peugeot being a credible alternative to a BMW 3 Series coupe or a Mercedes CLK was frankly, laughable. Best known for popular high performance hatchbacks, it seemed that the more money you paid for a Peugeot, the less impressive it would become. Perhaps stung by this criticism, the French company decided to develop a coupe version of the well-regarded (if slightly dull) 406 saloon line. Few were prepared for what was to come. The achingly beautiful 406 Coupe was available with two engines, a 137bhp 2.0-litre 4-cylinder and a 194bhp 3.0-litre V6, the larger engined car being offered in two trim levels, base and SE. Perhaps the 3.0-litre nomenclature was a bit of marketing spin, its swept capacity of 2946cc technically making it a 2.9, but what was under the bonnet was a secondary concern to the sleek lines. In August 1999 there was a set of subtle revisions. The interior design was never the Coupe's strong point, bearing far too much of a resemblance to a standard 406 saloon repmobile, not something that really appealed to the prestige car buyer. A new dashboard was fitted with a redesigned centre binnacle, a larger LCD screen and extra chrome finishing on the ventilation vents, mirroring the trim on the dials, gear shift and handbrake. At the same time, the V6 SE was deleted, the range now consisting of two 2.0-litre variants and the stand alone 3.0-litre V6 flagship. These were joined by a 2.2-litre HDi turbo diesel model in June 2001, offered in both S and SE spec. Spring 2002 saw the deletion of the uninspiring 2.0-litre engine, replaced by a punchier 160bhp 2.2-litre powerplant. Peugeot stopped importing the Coupe to the UK towards the end of 2003.
What You Get
It's always entertaining reading press information that has obviously been directly translated from French. Take this accompanying flannel for the 406 Coupe. The car's frontal aspect is fancifully compared to "the prow of some fantastic ship, with the majestic bonnet, sleek as a propeller blade and the shark's mouth flanked by two elliptical headlights." Quite apart from the fact that ships with propellers at the prow would prove distinctly hazardous to any passing shark, it doesn't take a genius to work out that Peugeot are quite proud of their creation. And so they should be. Certainly, the 'Grand Touring' role they prefer for the car is matched by the accommodation on offer. Unusually for a coupe of this price, there's comfortable space for two in the rear, courtesy of two individually designed seats trimmed by Recaro. Elsewhere around the cabin, it's far more conventional 406 - a little disappointing after the excitement of the bodywork. Still, you do get an aluminium and leather-trimmed gear lever and chrome-rimmed instruments plus the simplified air conditioning and stereo controls introduced with the latest 406 saloon and estate. You also get the bland steering wheel that faces a million photocopier salesman every morning. To be fair, the levels of quality are right up there with Mercedes, if not Audi and BMW, but the perception is ever so slightly lacking. The frameless windows automatically drop half an inch as you touch the door handle and relocate after the door is closed, thus forming a tight wind seal with the rubber door surround. Equipment levels are comprehensive. Even the 2.0-litre car comes with alloy wheels, power steering, split rear seats, central locking and electric mirrors and windows, digital air conditioning with climate control, a CD autochanger, rain-sensitive wipers and a trip computer. If that's not enough, the 2.0-litre SE model that also includes leather seats, side airbags, an auto-dipping rear view mirror, an upgraded audio system and headlamp washers. The V6 Coupe shares the same specification as the SE but to allow for the extra power, has speed-sensitive steering, 16-inch alloy wheels and a Brembo 4-piston braking system.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The level of build quality is excellent but there have been some stories of problems with the four-cylinder petrol engines. Stalling, especially in the 2.0-litre versions, is by no means uncommon, so try to ensure you start the engine from cold on your test drive. There's also the known weakness of this engine family of engines - the timing belt. Make sure it's been changed every 30,000 miles or it may snap without warning, seizing the engine - you have been warned. It costs about £100 to replace - much cheaper than a new engine. Otherwise make sure that the bodywork is in good condition, the wheels are free from kerbing damage and make sure the vehicle is HPI clear. Otherwise insist on a full service history and buy with confidence.
(approx based on 1999 2.0 Coupe) A new exhaust will set you back about £400, while a replacement headlamp should be around £185. A new clutch is about £145. As for front brake pads, expect to pay about £35 front and rear. A radiator will cost you around £250, an alternator around £330, and a starter motor around £300.
On the Road
Despite being priced against some quite serious driver's cars, the 406 isn't, as the importers are at pains to point out, intended to be a 'sporty Coupe'. Instead, it's described as a car that you could enjoy 'even when wearing a nice pair of shoes.' If this curious description is meant to imply that the 406 Coupe belongs to the school of softly-sprung Grand Tourers inhabited by cars like the Mercedes CLK, then it's downright wrong. Step into a 406 Coupe after driving a Mercedes CLK and you'll wonder why anybody would bother paying the premium for the German car. That's not to say that after a spell behind the wheel you'd confuse it for a Fiat Coupe Turbo or a Honda Integra Type-R - but nor will the roadgoing experience on offer discourage you from steering the thing with the seat of your pants if you really want to. As far as steering is concerned, the conventional system in the 2.0-litre is preferable to the rather vague speed-sensitive arrangement offered on the V6. The suspension used is a retuned version of that found in the 406 saloon, so it's no surprise to find that the ride and handling mix is superb. The springs and dampers have also been uprated in keeping with the Coupe's higher station in life and top line versions are fitted with a switchable electronic damping control. This enables you to push a button in the centre console and stiffen the suspension by around 10%, improving cornering stability. Powerful braking is already assured thanks to ABS strengthened by four-piston Brembo callipers. Neither are the two engines any handicap to pressing on. Even the 2.0-litre unit manages rest to sixty in 10.5s on the way to 128mph. The V6 meanwhile, sees sixty in 7.9s and makes 147mph. It's a pity that the gulf between the two units isn't filled by a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, like the one they used to use in the 406 saloon. Maybe it will be one day. For the time being, Peugeot clearly feels that the 'turbo' statement is the wrong one. In everyday use, the 3.0-litre is a joy. The gearshift is light and direct and allows you to make full use of the 194bhp. Front wheel-drive rarely puts any sort of dampener on the driving enjoyment, and you'll relish the hard-edged urgency of the engine note when you decide to turn up the wick. The 2.2-litre engines, both petrol and diesel are, however, probably the pick of the range.
As long as you don't have a large Germanic chip on your shoulder, the 406 Coupe won't disappoint. It strikes a good balance between the blowsier GT cars and the more hard-edged enthusiast's coupes, whilst still offering rewards for the keen driver. A well looked after 3.0-litre car would be the pick of the range, having the punch to back up the arresting visuals. At once, the 406 Coupe manages to be beautiful, practical and reassuringly low-maintenance. If only more things in life were like that.