Let’s be reasonable. That red hot exotic supercar you’ve lusted after all these years is never going to happen. Finding one would be next to impossible. Keeping it on the road would be a huge risk for your financial well-being. Your significant other will never accept that sort of competition for your attention and there’s nowhere to put your pet/child/mother-in-law in it, if need be. Besides, you’d never risk driving it further than a few miles in any case, or park it outside. Luckily for you, Peugeot made the next best thing.
It kinda looks like a Ferrari, almost drives like an Aston and is just about as reliable as a Benz. Unless you’re in Western Europe, nobody will have a clue what it is, either. How exotic is that? Sure, if you get a lower-spec 4-cyl. version, performance-wise, you’re going to be a few horses short of a full cavalry regiment and have a rather sad-looking gray cloth interior, to boot. But what we have here is the top-of-the-range V6 with the rather fetching leather – not too shabby for a pedestrian Pug.
The Peugeot 406 arrived, in saloon form, in late 1995. Compared to the 405 it replaced, the 406 was just a shade bigger in every way except height – and about 300kg heavier. The platform was new, but the engines (1.6, 1.8 and 2.0 4-cyl. petrol and 1.9 or 2.1 Diesel, initially) were not. The key difference lay in the styling, which was a marked improvement, in the eyes of many, over its rather anonymous predecessor. A wagon version was necessarily going to be launched – as always with the bigger Peugeots, since the 401 way back when – but would other variants follow? The -05 series had sort of broken a long tradition of big two-door Peugeots, after all.
Peugeot had had a few lean years in the ‘80s, during and after the Talbot debacle. They were forced to cancel the more marginal models and focus on their core saloons and wagons. It could be argued that the 504 coupé & cabriolet, once it became available with V6 power in 1974, was a de facto two-door version of the 604. But the 305, the 505 and the 405/605 sisters never got the sharp Italian-tailored suits their predecessors did. They almost got them, but not quite. All we got in terms of hot two-door Pugs in the ‘80s was the 309 GTI, which was not exactly exciting. And the 205, which was a city car, so it doesn’t really count. It seemed the days of the big PininFarina-made Peugeot coupé died when the 504 retired in 1983.
Fortunately, the Italian designer and the French automaker were keen on ending the century on a positive note. Like the 404 and 504 coupés of old, the 406 shared none of its saloon namesake’s body panels. And like these illustrious predecessors, it would also be made in Italy by PininFarina. The car was unveiled, alongside the 406 wagon, at the 1996 Paris Motor Show and went on sale in the spring of 1997.
When the 406 Coupé came out, I remember thinking that PininFarina had done a bit of recycling again. More often than not, big Peugeots styled by PF were always callbacks to the carrozzeria’s latest hits. The 404 saloon was a re-hash of the Lancia Florida (and already re-used on BMC). The 404 C revisited the Fiat 1300 Coupé. The 604 had shades of the Fiat 130 Coupé. Take the grille off the Alfa 164 and what do you get? The Peugeot 405/605. In the 406 Coupé’s case, there was a strong whiff of the Ferrari 456, which had come out in 1992. It could have been worse. And if it’s a tradition of sorts…
Also present at that 1996 Motor Show was the 406 V6 saloon. After over 20 years of service, Peugeot was finally bidding adieu to the (in)famous PRV, as seen on the 604, the 505 and the 605 (among many, many other models by other carmakers). Co-developed with Renault, the new V6 was now a 60-degree all-alloy DOHC 24-valve design, displacing 2946 cc. The 406 Coupé was therefore one of the new V6’s launch models, though it shared that honour with several other models (Citroëns XM & Xantia, Renaults Laguna & Safrane and the last Peugeot 605s). In the initial 406 Coupé, the V6 provided 190-95 hp (numbers vary depending to the source), propelling the 1500kg car to 100kph in just under 8 seconds. A top speed of 235kph (146mph) was claimed, making it the fastest production Peugeot to date by quite a margin.
However, that didn’t make it a sports car by any stretch of the imagination – it’s more of a quiet and comfortable highway cruiser, being a FWD four-seater. To sell the 406 Coupé, Peugeot needed to appeal to the ‘90s buyers’ sense of style, back in a time when style was in short supply. That’s where PininFarina came in and really aced their part of the deal. I remember when this car was launched and how everybody raved about it. Finally, there was a Peugeot worth buying on looks alone. That hadn’t happened since, well, the 504 Coupé (launched in 1969) – but back then, there were many other options on the market. In the late ‘90s, the 406 had fewer real rivals in its price range.
That is not to say that there were no good-looking European coupés back in 1997, but they were usually found in the ranges of more blue-blooded marques – Alfa Romeo, BMW, Maserati and the like. The Opel Calibra was on its way out, as was Rover’s rather forgettable 800 coupé. Audi were about to launch their TT, which was certainly distinctive, but not exactly beautiful and initially beset with issues. The Fiat Coupé was just a bit too peculiar to really catch on and the less said about the Lancia Kappa, the better. The Volvo C70 was perhaps the closest thing the 406 had as a genuine rival in almost every respect, yet the Swedish car had devotees chiefly because it was available as a soft-top – the C70 Coupé sold comparatively poorly. From 1997 to 2005, PininFarina built over 100,000 Peugeot 406 Coupés. The Calibra and the Audi TT sold better (on a more global market), but the former pretty much dates from a previous generation and the latter was a two-seater.
Compared to the 406 saloon, the coupé is of course somewhat more aggressive, but also far more sculptural. It is quite a bit wider – so much so that Peugeot had to design a rear suspension specifically for it, as it had a wider track, which gave it more substance and poise. The fatter 16-inch wheels (4-cyl. models came with 15’’ ones) also helped, in that respect.
The profile is about as well-balanced as any two-door car PininFarina ever designed. It’s all flows and gentle curves, without a straight line in the bunch. The discreet and tapered black side trim doesn’t ruin the flanks, unlike many other cars before or since, and the turn signal repeater that punctuates that line, just ahead of the door, is a great touch. And let’s not forget to mention that greenhouse. When this came out, gracefully-shaped and sloping roofs were very thin on the ground (well, a little above the ground, really). Frameless glass on the doors keeps the roofline pure and simple, but the real masterstroke is the integration of the C-pillar, with that slight flying buttress effect. Nothing short of mesmerising.
Even the lights, both front and rear, are different from the saloon’s, though in a similar vein. This is in contrast with the 504 C, whose lights were completely dissimilar to the four-door. That is not a criticism – the 504 saloon’s rear end, in particular, is an acquired taste, and the 504 C’s rear lights are delightful by comparison. But it does place the 406 a notch higher in my estimation, in that it at least tried to keep a family resemblance with the saloon, despite their many differences.
Once the 406 Coupé hit the showrooms, sales were brisk – particularly in the first few years. Our feature car is a 1998 model, which was the only year sales topped 20,000 units. The silver colour, which Peugeot referred to as “gris thallium” in France and “satellite gray” in the UK, was also the most chosen by quite a wide margin. This is probably the one thing I find really disappointing about this car. The “bleu Byzance” (a sort of Royal blue) seen in the brochure above really suits the car better in my eyes. And it would have made for better pictures, given the grayness of the day.
At least the interior’s deep “Amarante red” leather upholstery gives a bit of contrast. Automotive journalists at the time all pointed out that this is where Peugeot made their economies of scale: most of the dash is taken straight from the 406 saloon – though a touch of chrome was added around the dials and PininFarina’s signature featured prominently on the glove box, just to remind the passenger of this Pug’s Italian ancestry.
I can attest personally that the rear seats of these cars is a very nice place to be. You can put two actual living adults in there for a long trip without risk of cutting off the circulation to their legs, which is a nice change from the usual 2+2 configuration. Not that anybody ever bought these to sit in the back…
Being a Peugeot, most 406 Coupés were sold in France: about half the production stayed domestic. Over 10,000 units went to both Germany and the UK, where the more potent V6 versions were particularly praised. The 406 saloon also had a great career in those countries. Motor-wise, about a third of all 406 Coupés were ordered with a 6-cyl., like our feature car. In 2000, the V6 was given a bit of a boost (allegedly by Porsche engineers) to pass the 200 hp mark. And a year later, the 2-litre 4-cyl. was replaced by a 158 hp 2.2 litre that, for some reason, was only available with a manual transmission – automatic 4-cyl. cars kept the 2-litre engine. Also in 2001, the 406 Coupé became available with the new 2.2 litre HDi that Peugeot had developed for the 607 – only 136 hp, but far less thirsty than the V6, it was a hit on the Diesel-obsessed domestic market.
If nothing else, the 406 Coupé’s success rekindled its maker’s interest in high-end coupés. Which is a good thing. However, the follow-up to this car was, with impeccable Cartesian logic, the 407 Coupé, made from 2006 to 2011. Which was a bad thing. It was not a terrible car per se, but just nowhere near as well executed as its predecessor. PininFarina weren’t involved with the 407 and it seems that Peugeot are no longer calling on their services, after a half-century of collaboration. Nowadays, the big Peugeot is the 508 and it comes as a saloon, a wagon and a CUV. But not as a coupé. As CC’s own Roger Carr put it in his post about the 406 Coupé (link below) a few years ago, it really was the last of an elegant line.