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The stage was set for a challenge - to buy a car for doing my new job in that was comfortable yet cheap and that fit into my budget. It had to be large enough to put the family in, comfortable on long journies, and relatively inexpensive to run. Gone are the days of my company cars or a funded fuel card for my own vehicles - this was serious. I had to buy a car that I was going to have to pay for, and it was coming as a bit of a shock.
Even more shocking was what I could get for my money - which wasn't much. I had a budget of £3000 to spend and I had to buy something that was all of the above and would not break down on me while travelling to our London or York offices.
I had a choice - I could either go for an older car and pick up something Japanese, hopefully with not too many miles on it, or I could go for something newer, but with high mileage; something like an ex-rep mobile. As I scoured the presses and eBay looking for something suitable to buy, with - for once - my sensible-car-buying head on, my heart sank. I was resigned to buying either a four-year-old Ford Mondeo or a similarly aged Vauxhall Vectra.
Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with either of these cars but - call me a snob (and I don't mean to offend anyone here) - they're just a little bit too... common. But I had my sensible-car-buying head on, and if a Mondeo or a Vectra was the best I was going to get then, for the time being, that was what I was going to have to buy. So I started trawling the forecourts, looking at Mondeo after Mondeo and Vectra after Vectra.
Quite quickly I rejected the Mondeo. I simply did not like the car. Everytime I opened the door and sat in one I felt, well, old. I could see myself fifteen years from now, approaching fifty, balding, beer-belly paunch (that isn't quite ready yet) folding over the top of my fake crocodile-skin belt that wasn't really needed to hold up the trousers on my Marks & Spencers suit. Every Mondeo I got in had a cassette deck in it, no CD seemed to have been chosen, and half of them didn't have air conditioning. It sounds snobby, but these were cars that Ford called the GLX or Ghia model - it came equipped with a faux wooden dashboard, but none of the extras that you would associate with an above-basic model. Even worse, these cars didn't even have digital odometers; the numbers could be wound back by some half-incompetent dealer wishing to make the car look better than it really was. It sounds like a pedantic issue to pick on, but the majority of mainstream vehicles since the late nineties have had digital odometers to record the mileage with, and most models since then that weren't the entry-level model had at least a CD and usually air conditioning too. Or, at the very least, a compensatory electric sunroof. Nope, the Mondeo just didn't cut it for me, so I turned my attention to Vauxhall.
The Vectra was much better. Getting into it I still felt like a rep, but at least I felt like a 32-year-old rep, not a 47-year-old one! Added to that, every Vectra I looked at had a CD player and air conditioning, and some even had a TrafficMaster fitted. Their odometers were digital, though apparently at the expense of electric wing mirrors, and they all had decent engines and chassis that seemed to drive well. Despite what Jeremy Clarkson might say about Vectras being boring, this looked like it was the type of car that was going to cut it for the job it was going to do. For my budget the mileage on a 4-yr-old Vectra was quite high, typically around 100'000 miles, but most dealers were confident enough in the car to offer a warranty so I whittled it down to three different models I'd seen and headed home to discuss it with the wife.
She could tell, however, that I was dejected about having to buy such a car. I liked cars with pizzazz, cars that were a bit different. I'm that rare breed of car buyer that's a fan of American cars and Citroens. I want my cars to have toys like climate control and cruise control; I want my cars to be a bit different in the car park to the other reps; I want my cars to stand out from those that the neighbours drive. OK, so my budget stopped this from happening a little bit, but the missus understood and she told me not to buy them. Instead, she said, she'd found a car forecourt near us that might just be worth a look, so we headed up there and I mosied around the selection.
An ice-blue Peugeot 406 stood out from the crowd. At £4000 it was above my budget, but I could stretch to it if I needed to; most importantly, it ticked all the right boxes. Equipped with digital climate control and air conditioning, automatic windscreen wipers, electric mirrors, all round electric windows and a two-litre engine with automatic gear box, it - at the very least - deserved a test drive.
Fifteen miles later, the deal was done. For £3500 I was the proud owner of a five-year old Peugeot 406 GLX, and in that price the dealer did a full service, cambelt change, MOT and added a year's warranty to the car too.
Now I have never, in my driving life, considered buying a Peugeot, despite their relationship to Citroen. So many times I have got in older Pugs and simply hated them - their very layout has been attrocious, strips of badly fitted plastic everywhere, and the Peugeot 405 I had the reputation of being driven by the most arrogant sales reps ever that the car simply never featured in my 'must look at' list.
But times move on, and I have to say that I've owned the 406 for almost a month now and I have been incredibly surprised and impressed by the comfort, durability, drivabilty and performance of this car.
Peugeot are part of the PAS-Peugeot-Citroen group, the largest French automative manufacturer who recently boasted profits of $1.2bn from worldwide sales of cars and parts. Their people carrier model, the 806, shares its underpinnings with Citroen's C8 and Fiat's Ulysses models while the smaller models share their chassis with Citroen's C3 supermini.
With all this incest going on, it'll come as no surprise to learn that the 406's roots are also shared with Citroen's rather quirky Xantia, a car I've owned in the past, and despite people's opinions of the suspension system that Citroen use the car was always incredibly comfortable and reliable. The 406 is no different, but - like the Xantia - the driving position can take some getting used to. It would seem that only a person of a certain size and shape can get the exact setting they're looking for; if you're not that person then you'll struggle to get the steering wheel and seat position in exactly the setting you want. This is surprising, as the steering adjusts for both reach and rake and the seat height, length and back can all be fully adjusted; there is no adjustment for lumbar support, however, which is unusually on a model of this spec level.
Once you've found a position you can drive in, however, the car itself is exceptionally comfortable and very quiet. On a motorway or main-road cruise into London or up the A1 to York, it's proven to be a very capable car. The two litre engine is powerful enough to get you in to - and out of - trouble, yet surprisingly easy to keep under control and sitting at sensible motorway speeds is very easy. The automatic gearbox is smooth and seamless in its upshifts but select the Sport mode and all hell breaks loose. Selecting Sport alters the engine management system slightly to allow more power and makes the automatic gearbox hang on to gears longer before shifting, giving access to more of the engine's power range. Equally clever, the torque converter allows the 'box to slip slightly to hold the revs at the right point for better acceleration, and under braking the gearbox will downshift in a more sporty manner, allowing the driver to maintain control of the car's power as you corner. Of course, for every-day driving the Sport mode isn't always necessary and does deminish the car's economy when used regularly. For the winter weather we've experienced recently, there's also a Winter mode on the auto 'box, that - rather than upping the engine's power - decreases it and keeps the gearbox on a tighter reign to prevent accidental wheelspin. This particular model isn't fitted with traction control, but this aided gearbox does help keep wheel spinning to a minimum in icy or snowy conditions.
Looking at the design of the switches for those functions on the automatic gearbox, you can tell they were placed with left-hand drive cars in mind; to get to the switches from a right-hand drive car such as those sold in the UK is slightly awkward as, with the gearbox in Drive, you have to reach around the lever to push the relatively small button; it's a bit of a stretch and you have to look to see where your finger is, which isn't the safest of things to do when belting up the motorway.
Like all French car manufacturers - and many other mainstream automative companies these days - Peugeot put controls for the stereo within easy reach of the driver on all models. In my opinion, Renault have the most intuitive system, located just behind and to the right of the steering wheel within finger's reach, while Citroen put the controls on the wheel itself, within reach of the thumbs. Peugeot use the most awkward of methods, a small stalk located to the right underside of the steering wheel, that requires the driver to use their whole hand to operate some of the functions, rather than just a finger or thumb nudge. With the stalk, it's also easy to accidentally change the tuning of the radio station when you intended to simply increase or decrease the radio's volume.
The instrument panel is clean and easy to read and the controls for the heating system are large and identifiable buttons that don't require too much distraction to change the temperature or fan speed. Being climate control, it's easiest to leave the system in auto mode and let it control the fan speed while you drive.
The French are good at building cars with safety in mind, and the 406 is no different. It comes with three point seatbelts for five occupants, driver and passenger airbags and sidebags as standard; anti-lock brakes are also fitted and the car comes with remote control central locking with deadlocks, an alarm and an immobiliser as standard.
Being a relatively mainstream car, insurance and servicing on Peugeots are cheap, though you will pay a premium on parts and labour if you go to Peugeot franchises for your servicing; Peugeot-approved dealers will save you quite some money and will still use genuine parts. Fully comprehensive insurance for me, with full no claims bonus, is just £300 a year, including business miles via What Car insurance, and that's with me leaving the car parked on a public road at all times too.
When it comes to economy, my previous car was a 4.0 litre Jeep Grand Cherokee that did 17 miles to the gallon, so whatever I bought afterwards was bound to be more economical! Automatic cars tend to use more fuel than manual ones, but this 406 has proved to be very frugal; on the long distances I drive, it has returned a very economical 38 miles to the gallon, and I'm not somebody who uses his right foot lightly. Around town, the economy drops somewhat, but even with air conditioning on it's use of petrol is not painful on my wallet.
In short, this is one good looking, comfortable, well built, well equipped car... it is, indeed, a Pretty Perfect Pug.