Curbside Classic: 1991 Peugeot 405 Mi16 – Orphaned at Birth

(first posted 8/15/2017)       Back in March, Paul posed a question to the CC community: which car would you most like to find in the wild? At the time, I mentioned the NSU Ro80 in my response, which I would indeed be thrilled to discover. However, reality does not lend my choice much chance of coming to fruition, as there are probably no more than a few Ro80s left in the entire United States, let alone sitting curbside. A similar fate meets most of the other selections on my CC ‘bucket list,’ as since compiling this informal list a little more than a year ago, I have crossed out a grand total of six entries – leaving 48 to go. The upshot of this is that running across a car on my ‘bucket list’ is a none-too-common occurrence. As you may have guessed by now, this 405 Mi16 was one of the six.

In truth, finding any Peugeot 405 on the streets in the United States is becoming harder and harder, as US sales totaled to just over 11,000 during the three years (1989-1991) it was sold stateside. Couple the initial low sales to the fact that these cars were left without a parent company following PSA’s decision to pull out of the US market following the 1991 model year, and the survival rate for 405s is quite low. Strangely, the similar-vintage 505 is still a fairly common sight in the Los Angeles area, but this marks just the fourth 405 I’ve photographed since I started my own CC hunt in 2010, and (naturally) the first Mi16. I can’t find any specific sales data for the Mi16 (the closest being a few vague references to “less than 5,000 sold” in the US market), but I can’t imagine there are more than a couple hundred or so roadworthy examples left in the country.

So how did the Mi16 flame out so quickly? This was a car that seemed like an attractive buy, and indeed Peugeot went to great lengths to outfit the car to American standards. Cruise control, power leather seats, premium sound, and a sunroof were all standard, and it even came with a five-year, 50,000-mile powertrain warranty (quite lengthy for the time). The price didn’t seem too bad either: at around $21,000, it undercut a base 325i sedan by about five grand. A top executive for PSA America even went so far to describe the Mi16 as their first car “designed with the United States market in mind.”

Clearly, it wasn’t the options list that let the Mi16 down. Nor was it the driving experience. The Mi16 featured a 150 horsepower 16-valve four-cylinder engine, lauded by the press and so well regarded that the powerplant earned an honorable mention on Car and Driver’s “Best Naturally Aspirated Engines of All Time” list, keeping company with automotive royalty such as the LaFerrari and Lexus LFA. Contemporary reviews sang out their praise of the engine and chassis, declaring the steering feedback “perfect” and the brakes “impeccable.” One reviewer described it as “Sugar Ray Leonard in a silk shirt,” referencing its commendable blend of power and finesse, and another went so far as to deem the Mi16 “among the best of cars available anywhere.” High praise, indeed.

But it’s also in these reviews where the first signs of trouble arise. Many American reviewers noticed a distinct lack of interior space compared to other offerings, with limited headroom and seats that seemed more suited to French bodies than for the bulkier American clientele. There were the typical Peugeot oddities, like the steering column-mounted horn and the fact that PSA refused to install an airbag in any of its cars (even despite boycotts by consumer groups): oddities that aren’t too damning in and of themselves, but did nothing to help Peugeot’s image as a niche player in the US market. And then there were the build quality issues: more than one review noted some loose-fitting interior trim and various electronic quirks – a bit out of place in a car of its class.

And this brings us back to price: while $21,000 looked good compared to a 325i, the reality is that nobody in America was really cross-shopping those two cars. The 405 was attempting to occupy the tricky-to-navigate gulf between the economy and premium brands – Peugeot simply didn’t have the brand name cachet of a Mercedes or a BMW, so instead of seeing the sticker price as good value for money, prospective buyers were put off by the premium price compared to more mainstream offerings. If you wanted something reliable and good to drive, an Accord was several thousand dollars cheaper. If you wanted something quirkier, a Saab 900 also undercut the Mi16’s price by a few grand.

But the biggest obstacle to the 405’s success was undoubtedly Peugeot’s tiny dealer network. By the time they packed their bags and left our shores for good in the summer of 1991, they had just 151 American franchisees. This minuscule number of dealerships was compounded by the fact that most of them dealt with multiple car brands, and Peugeots were often relegated to the backs of the showrooms, away from the spotlight and from potential buyers’ eyes. It’s impossible to become a major player in the family sedan market when you simply can’t compete in sales and repair networks. The likes of GM could get away with quality control issues because they had such a huge presence in the US market, but for the 405 to succeed in the United States, it had to be damn-near perfect. The Mi16 was a very good car. But it wasn’t perfect.

And so ended the final chapter of the major French imports. Citroën had been the first to depart, felled in 1974 by the oil crisis and government regulations. Renault stayed a bit longer, due to its acquisition of AMC, but it was gone by the summer of ’87, and the 405’s failure was the final nail in Peugeot’s coffin. The Mi16 was pulled from our shores in August of 1991, a world-class machine orphaned at birth.