The Parsimonious Peugeot

One thousand quick kilometres in a diesel turbo Peugeot 406. Boring? Just don't you believe it!

by Julian Edgar

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This article was first published in November 1999. The Pug 406 HDi remains an absolute classic in high speed, frugal, comfortable and non-fatiguing travel. In fact, it simply makes the current model 407 look silly in everything except passive safety....

The sun was fading westwards as the rain beat against the low-flying Peugeot's windscreen. The wipers were set to auto, their varying beat matching the intensity of the rainfall with uncanny precision. The wet, narrow bitumen streamed past the low beam lights; still too much light in the sky to need high beam, but dull enough that I wanted others to see the silver missile's approach. The speedo needle varied from 140 to 150 - depending on the length of the straight and the advisory speed limit sign of the approaching corner. Calm, assured, almost oddly unhurried, the sheer relaxed rate of forward progress put the Peugeot into a class very rarely touched - by cars of any price.

I glanced sideways at my partner and we both peered out at the weather before exchanging rueful looks - the spattering rain putting a literal dampener on the coming erection of a tent in the Marion Bay camping ground. But towards the south there was still a band of light across the horizon - the compass direction that the elegant lion on the grille was sniffing. It would be easy enough to up the ante - to release a few more kilowatts and raise the cruise to 160 or 170. Only one thing held me back - and not the normal threat of a hidden radar or speed camera: down here on the southern Yorke Peninsula of South Australia, cops are as rare as Ferraris. No, the threat was of kangaroos - dusk is the time that you can expect them to bound from the roadside vegetation with zero warning time... I stayed at the slower speed and we still made that band of clear sky, fitting the fibreglass poles together and inflating the air mattress just as the sun finally expired behind the stratocumulus.

When I knew that AutoSpeed was going to have a Peugeot 406 Diesel Turbo for a week I immediately pencilled-in a decent drive. While I had previously only driven a Pug diesel turb for a few kilometres, even over that distance it had immediately suggested itself as a good long-distance touring car. Why? - I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it was the long suspension travel, or the strong bottom-end torque and the tiny throttle openings at which the car cruised - evident even at only 60 km/h around suburbia. Or maybe it was the years of reading Australian motoring magazines of the Seventies and Eighties, where the mags - especially Wheels - had raved many times over the sheer long distance excellence of the Peugeots - in those days, 504 and even earlier models. Whatever, a long trip was in the diary.

And it was just as well those country kilometres were planned. Around town the medium-sized car feels nothing special. The power band is narrow - and yes, I know it's a diesel - with nothing really happening until 1500 rpm and the engine noticeably going off song at about 4500 rpm, well before the redline. Away from a standstill it initially all feels fine: first gear - change, second gear - change, third gear - change (wow this thing's got some bottom-end torque!), fourth gear - change into fifth. Oooooops, let's make that a quick flick back to fourth... I must have done the extra change from fifth-back-to-fourth fifteen or twenty times in my first day in the car; the engine that feels like it will happily pull 60 or 70 km/h in fifth isn't at all useful until there's 80 on the speedo - or two grand on the tach'.

In fact two thousand's the magic number - the revs around which peak torque is developed, and where best acceleration and response can be found. A conservative-driving friend thought the car really grunty - his natural short-changing driving style matched the diesel's torque characteristics perfectly. 'Till he tried to change into fifth, that is...

The 2 litre, 8-valve HDI turbo intercooled diesel is state of the art - using electronically-controlled injectors working with a fuel pressure of just under 20,000 psi (no misprint - 1350 Bar to be exact!) and very small injector holes (200 microns). Smoke emissions are reduced - although they are still apparent during slow manoeuvres - and noise and vibration are both substantially down over previous designs. Peak torque of 251Nm is listed at 1500 rpm (though the DAT Racing dyno graph shows it at 1750) and peak power of 82kW occurs at 4000 rpm. On the dyno, max boost was measured at a considerable 14.2 psi at 1750 rpm, with the turbo developing a positive manifold pressure from less than idle speed.

What's obvious even around town is how good a ride/handling package the 406 is. The car turns-in with alacrity, the beautifully-weighted steering precise and intuitive. Unlike many FWD's, Peugeot engineers have tuned the suspension to allow the rear end to do a great deal of work; while never taily, you can certainly feel a lot of the cornering force being borne by the outside rear tyre. The car handles superbly, especially considering its modest rubber - unfortunately worn on steel rims. Consistent, predictable, precise - simply lovely cornering dynamics.

At the end of the urban kilometres I mentally took stock. Hmmm, excellent handling, very good ride, competent room (great boot space), superb Eurovox AM/FM/cassette sound system (for a factory no-sub system anyway), slightly odd engine power curve, NVH pretty much typical of a petrol car when away from idle.... but all the same, a bit disappointing. Competent, rather than brilliant. A car to be recommended for someone who wants something a bit different - a less sporty Saab turbo, or a car for strutting an environmental green-is-clean image - especially if the owner doesn't really care much about cars anyway. I did the fuel figures - 353km at 23.8 litres - that's 6.7 litres per 100 km! What? Perhaps a mistake? I'd often been using full throttle away from traffic lights, often using high revs, and very often simply driving damn' hard. Mmmm, maybe my opinion needed revising....

Heading North

Late Friday afternoon found us heading north from Adelaide, up the Port Wakefield Road towards a weekend of relaxation. The absence of a cruise control quickly became noticeable - a complaint that was to occur many times over the next thousand kilometres; surely a car such as this should have cruise as standard equipment? I cranked up the sound system and sat on a scrupulously-observed state limit of 110 km/h, keeping an eye out for the second and third placegetters in the Darwin-Adelaide solar car race, hopefully passing the other way on the dual carriageway. And one solar car did speed by, low, fantastically aerodynamic and with a level of drivetrain efficiency unsurpassed in the automotive world. Seeing the solar car I reflected: that machine and the one I was driving were probably the only two passenger cars on this stretch of highway not using petrol as the fuel. We briefly thought of turning to chase the sun machine to get some quick photos - an idea quickly abandoned; my lady jokes that once I set out on a long distance drive, all my thoughts are directed to arriving, not detouring...

At Port Wakefield, top of the Gulf of St Vincent and where we would turn through 90 degrees to head down the peninsula, I studied the fuel gauge. In the absence of a trip computer - another obvious equipment omission - it was a question of watching the LCD odometer and the progress of the fuel gauge to estimate consumption. Just clicking over 130km from my home base, the fuel gauge needle was yet to leave 'full'... encouraging.

Our path down the peninsula - a coastal projection shaped just like a boot about to kick Kangaroo Island - took us along the eastern coast before heading down the middle. Winding up the pace at this stage wasn't wise - the town of Ardrossan still lay in front of us. Some friendly flashes of headlights showed us that this precaution was warranted - on the long downhill straight past Ardrossan a police car was positioned off the side of the road, laser gun at the ready. But - as someone once said to me - "if they're there they're not here!" - once past the town I could wind the pace up a little.

At our quicker cruising speed we were now coming up behind other traffic, and I needed to consider the Pug's overtaking performance. I didn't expect it to be good, but determining how bad it was had a fairly major impact on the decision-making - to take two cars or three? I went for three, being able to see quite some way around a long corner. Back to third - quick change up to fourth. Wind out fourth - one car, two cars. Change up to fifth and hold it flat. We were past the last car now, but why not let the Peugeot really show its colours? The machine kept winding up, and winding up, and winding up. The aerodynamic stability was just superb, the steering remaining precise and direct. The needle wound around and around, 180, 190... A corner was looming and I - more concerned about the sister of the first policewoman being around the corner than the radius of the corner itself - backed off. It had been a startling performance - what I was beginning to assume was a slightly ponderous performer had shown itself to be utterly at home travelling as fast as the conditions allowed....

And so it proved. Rushing down the middle of the peninsula I marvelled at the stability, the superb suspension control, the confidence that this car inspired. It was so good that I started to mentally compare the Peugeot to other fast cruising cars that I have driven. Mitsubishi Magna - noooo, steering's not as good, though aero stability is very similar. Liberty RS - no, ride's not as good as this - but the power's certainly in a different class. Skyline R32 GT-R...ahhbeweegnehh - sorry, nearly choked thinking about the ride and steering in this context - but on the other hand, exactly how many cars do you wanna pass in one go? VT Calais - nah, steering and tracking stability a mile behind. Eunos 800M? Now we're talking competition... and the Eunos's got cruise control. Still, the 800M is - what - 75 or 80 per cent more expensive than the Peugeot... not a bad endorsement.

Innes National Park

At the most southerly point of the Yorke Peninsula - the 'toe' of the boot if you like - lies the Innes National Park. Equally famous - though amongst very different cultural groups - for its surfing beaches and its rare bird life, the park comprises 9100 hectares of rugged cliffs and sandy beaches; limestone and gypsum covered in mallee woodland and low heath vegetation. The road that winds through the park was once a torture trail of corrugated compressed gypsum, but recently it has been bituminised, making it one of the best coastal drives in South Australia.

Entrance to the park is by a modest fee ($5 per vehicle per day) and visitors can chose to either camp in the park or stay at the nearby town of Marion Bay (population a few hundred). We chose the latter course - in the park there's no power at the campsites and the toilet and shower facilities are fairly rudimentary. Marion Bay is only 5 kilometres from the park entrance, so quick access is easy. Indicative of the relaxed nature of the place is that payment of the five bucks for park admission is by self-registration - you fill in the form, stick a tear-off portion to the windscreen, and put the dosh in a box. No probs, mate.

The coastal scenery is quite stunning, the road winding the 40 kilometres or so through the park, frequently within sight of stunning vistas. Where a detour is needed to access a particularly spectacular cliff, beach or series of dunes, the road turns back into compressed gypsum. The Peugeot coped superbly with the rough and tumble, being unfazed by potholes, corrugations or exposed rocks. In fact, over short, sharp potholes, the 406 was so good that over one section of road we drove back and forth, back and forth - not quite believing how that 15cm hole was simply not being felt inside the car. A vague bump/thump, and it was behind us. Quite incredible, especially in a car that can also go around corners....

After a day touring the park - including the ghost town of Inneston where gypsum mining went on for fifty years - it was time to look for the evening meal. While there is a (single) shop at Marion Bay, the 100-kay return trip up the Peninsula to Warooka beckoned - after all, what's a hundred kilometres in car that seems to drink nothing at all? By now there was 400 kilometres on the tripmeter - and the tank was still two-thirds full! However, the night return trip did show one inadequacy in the Peugeot's armoury - while the low beam lights are fine, the high beam is poor in both penetration and intensity.

Heading North

With the Innes National Park despatched in two nights - it'd be easy to spend a week there - we headed back towards Warooka, this time turning off to follow the coastal road to Edithburgh and Stansbury. The Peninsula is covered in wheat/sheep farms, and is unusual in South Australia in having no railway line to carry the grain and wool to market. Its absence is because either coast is never further than 20 or 30 kilometres away - instead of rail, an extensive array of ports has been developed.

Cruising at a sedate 120 between fields of golden, ripening grain, we spied a car approaching from behind. It was travelling at probably 135 but the straight was long, giving us plenty of time to guess the model and make. Mmmm, it has a big alloy bull-bar, twin high-mounted spotlights - er, is it a Falcon Ute? Nope, looks vaguely European. Dunno - have to wait and see. It was a Peugeot diesel turbo wagon, travelling at speed and in conditions where to us it now looked quite at home.

Rather than take the route straight home, we diverted via Moonta and Kadina, adding a few hundred kilometres to the trip. From a fuel consumption point of view it seemed to make no difference - now with over 800 kilometres on the tripmeter, the tank was still one-third full... It was becoming a personal challenge to see the low fuel warning light come on, but we were to run out of time before we could achieve that feat that particular weekend. One thousand and thirty three kilometres later we were home - and, incredibly, with a heap of fuel still in the 70 litre tank.

I went straight to the local fuel station and slowly filled the tank to the very brim. Punching the keys on a calculator showed that the amazing, astonishing, revelatory Peugeot 406 HDI had averaged 5.9 litres per 100km (48 mpg) for the trip....

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