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Another change of job means another company car - this time it's a Peugeot 405 GTDT which for those of you who are unfamiliar with Peugeot's nomenclature is a 1,9 turbo diesel. Graham, my (Citroën-trained) mechanic described it as "halfway between a Citroën and a real car". This is a stopgap measure until the car of my choice arrives (Xantia of some type or other). Since the 405 and the BX share the same floorpan and running gear and since my car (actually it's now Christina's car) is a BX DTR Turbo, I thought it might prove interesting to compare the two. Obviously, the BX is now quite old and has over 100k on the clock while the 405 has done half that mileage.

The first thing I noticed was how much more solid the 405 is. The doors close with a reassuring thud as opposed to the clang of the BX. The 405 is much quieter than the BX, engine noise is subdued as is road noise; the latter being the bête noir of hydropneumatically sprung cars. The 405's ride is as good as that of the BX, in fact I would venture to say that it is superior inasmuch as that it doesn't roll as much. This has benefits as far as handling is concerned; the car is far more neutral than the BX which understeers quite strongly. 

The 405's turbo charging is less obvious than that of the BX; it appears to cut in at lower revs and to be milder too. The engine feels like a much larger, normally aspirated engine although you can still be caught out with the engine off-boost and little torque available. Torque seems less than that of the BX so you have to stir the gears a bit more. The 405 tacho is red-lined at 5 000 rpm as opposed to 4 400 rpm which adds to the illusion that one is not driving a diesel. The BX's engine is much sportier than that of the 405 and the BX is noticeably quicker - this due in no small part to the lower weight of the BX. 

Body roll and understeer apart, the two cars feel very similar to one another, even down to the feel of the brake pedal.

The interior of the 405 is much better than that of the BX. Materials used are superior and the entire car seems to be better built. The 405 shares one of the BX's problems, viz. the location of the radio which results in one having to take one's eyes off the road to read the display. Unlike the BX, there is a remote control for the radio, mounted on a stalk to the right of the wheel so at least one doesn't have to grope for the controls.

The one thing I intensely dislike is the lack of a rear screen wiper. The shape of the car seems to ensure that road muck is deposited over the screen. Headlamps are superior on the 405 too.

Were I not a Citroën afficionado, I would consider running a 405 (or perhaps its successor, the 406 (which by all accounts is even better). I suspect that in a back-to-back comparison, most people would prefer the Peugeot. It is better built, it doesn't "suffer" from the "complications" of high pressure hydraulics, it is a more attractive shape than the BX (although this, I accept, is a subjective judgement) and it handles better. Is this a deliberate ploy on the part of PSA I wonder? If the punters go for the lion rather than the chevrons, market forces will eventually prevail and there will be only two French motor manufacturers. If high technology fails to offer better results than conventional technology, then why bother? Presumably this is why the AX, Saxo, ZX and Evasion/Synergie are so very conventional and presumably this is why they are so successful.

As for my new car, I took a test drive in a couple of Xantias (Xantiae?) a couple of weeks ago. I'm sorry if this report seems to duplicate Mike Connally's recent review of the Xantia Activa - if we draw the same conclusions, presumably so will others. Mike and I have discussed the Xantia and Peugeots too and Mike observed that were it not for the lack of hydropneumatics, he too would be tempted by a Peugeot.

First of all, I drove a turbo diesel SX estate. The instrument panel was light grey plastic and looked tacky, as did the mock leather steering wheel although I liked the stereo controls being mounted on the (air-bagged) wheel. The engine was quiet although there was a quite undiesel like growl when you hit 4000 rpm - 500 below the red line. There was absolutely no indication when the turbo cut in, no surge of power as in the BX with the result that the engine was more refined but apparently less torquey. The car was equipped with the regular hydropneumatic (4 spheres) suspension and rode very smoothly - soft but well damped. Plenty of body roll which, together with noticeable understeer discouraged press on driving. The steering is, at 3 turns from lock to lock, lower geared than the 2,8 of the BX and coupled with the understeer the driving experience was not all that wonderful. Not as good as the BX. 7/10 - must try harder.

I returned to the garage and then went out for a drive in the Activa. This time Jason*, the salesman insisted upon accompanying me. The Activa is the 150 bhp turbo charged petrol and is fully kitted out with real leather wheel and gear knob, much higher quality, very dark grey instrument panel, slabs of timber that look like plastic, seats with adjustable lumbar support (I have a bad back). The engine was really punchy with bags of torque from idle speed up to the red line - line driving a cross between a diesel for bottom end torque and a multi valve for high end power. Jason insisted on talking continuously about all the different options until I decided on a second spin round a long roundabout 35 mph faster than I had the first time. He suddenly stopped talking as the g forces slammed him into the passenger door and I went round for a third time - I don't know how fast it was because I wasn't looking at the speedo but when I came off the roundabout, I was thrown hard into the offside edge of the seat, the tyres screamed... and the car cornered completely flat - like a Lotus 7 or something else without suspension - the car handled completely neutrally, no understeer, no oversteer - it just went where I pointed it - all this with a ride that in a straight line is as soft as that of a CX. Jason was quite subdued on the drive back to the garage. Oh yes, the brakes are not unlike those of a DS - normal pedal notwithstanding.

So, what to choose? The Activa is superb but I suspect I would come to the attention of the police eventually. Also, I have to buy my own petrol. The turbo diesel in basic form was uninteresting - I haven't driven any Xantia equipped with hydractive suspension so don't know whether that would improve the handling. Certainly the turbo diesel engine is very refined and the car was sufficiently quick not to feel wanting on the open road. I didn't like the trim though - it was obviously downmarket - blanks where switches are fitted on upper market models, the wheel felt cheap and the upholstery looked like something you would see in any international airport lounge.

* Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

© Julian Marsh 1996 

This article was originally published in the Citroënian, the monthly magazine of the Citroën Car Club .