Ken Ramonet was minding his own business pumping 91-octane unleaded when I ran across a California Chevron station like a carjacker, except that carjackers rarely yell, "Oh my god, it's an Mi16!" It's hard to tell who was more mortified, my embarrassed friends or poor Ramonet, whom I scared half to death.
"This is the car that got the prime spot on my bedroom wall!" I exclaimed. "It won the 1988 European Car of the Year by the biggest margin ever! It was the car that was supposed to save Peugeot in America!" My friends scratched their heads. Like most Americans, they knew nothing about this handsome four-door sedan.
But Ramonet certainly knows what he has, something he proved beyond any doubt when he showed me the perfectly organized book of records and receipts that he keeps for his 167,000-mile 1991 405Mi16. Ramonet has bought and sold ten Peugeots, but he's keeping this particular French beauty for good.
Peugeot unveiled the 405 in 1987, and the compact sedan made its way to America a year later. Penned by Pininfarina, the simple, elegant lines ushered in a new styling era for Peugeot -- and if the French rarity seems more familiar than you'd expect, it's probably because the 1991-96 Infiniti G20 looked so similar. Of the two, the older Peugeot has aged more gracefully, but obviously looks aren't everything: you can buy a new Infiniti today, but Peugeot is long gone from our shores.
The 405 was supposed to stop that from happening. After winning just about every single new-car award in Europe, the 405 was to be the mainstream sedan that would teach America that expensive, high-maintenance French products were vastly superior to inexpensive, reliable, and well-built Japanese cars. Oh, those silly French people. When will they ever learn?
Well, actually, there's a clear answer to that question: August 6, 1991, the day that Peugeot joined French compatriots Citroen, Renault, and Simca and officially gave up on the U.S. car market. The 405 was the last new French car introduced here, and the Mi16 was the athlete of the lineup, with a boy-racer body kit that looks great even today. Contemporary road tests smothered the Pug with praise for its exceptional chassis balance, comparing its handling to that of a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan -- or even a race car. Its steering was called every positive name in the book, and the driving position, pedal placement, and shifter were all lauded. Those are attributes largely shared with lesser 405 models -- the biggest differentiator for the Mi16 was its sixteen-valve engine.
In the 1980s, a 7000-rpm sixteen-valve four-cylinder was an exotic piece of machinery reserved for the performance elite. It's not much of a stretch to consider the Mi16 in the same league as the original BMW M3 or the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16. Sure, the 405 is front-wheel drive, but the Mi16's handling belied its layout, and the underhood screamer produced enough power -- more than Peugeot's own 2.8-liter V-6 -- to run with many of its six-cylinder competitors.
Displacing a modest 1.9 liters, the small four-cylinder is long on stroke but short on low-end torque -- both horsepower (150 at 6400 rpm) and torque (128 lb-ft at 5000 rpm) peak within two grand of the engine's lofty redline. At low revs, the lightweight, aluminum four-banger is remarkably smooth and quiet. As the tach needle nears the 5000-rpm mark, the long-as-a-baguette intake runners begin working their magic and the lion under the hood suddenly gets very, very angry. The guttural wail is accompanied by an impressive surge in power -- and enough vibration to rattle the 405's interior trim.
It's this Dr. Jekyll and Monsieur Le Hyde personality that makes the Mi16 such an interesting car to drive. The ride is supple, yet the body's motions are perfectly fluid even through bumpy corners. The poofy leather seats have laughably enormous bolsters, and yet they're as soft as lounge chairs.
The Mi16 feels solid and substantial, with an expansive greenhouse that affords very good all-around visibility. The seats are so high that the dash is at chest height. As a result, headroom is at a premium for tall drivers up front, but the rear seats are very spacious. So, too, is the trunk, which looks big enough to swallow a Renault Le Car. The Mi16 is light even by 1980s standards, with a curb weight of about 2700 pounds. Part of the credit goes to body panels so thin that there's a label warning not to push down to latch the hood, lest you dent it. How French.
It would be easy to romanticize the 405Mi16, since it was among the very last French cars imported into the United States, but, in hindsight, it is as good as everyone said it was. It took twenty-three years for this bedroom-poster hero to become a Collectible Classic, and when I finally got behind the wheel, I was not disappointed -- it was a rare meet-your-hero moment indeed. New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman wasn't surprised, as he and his parents each bought one new. "With the high-revving sixteen-valve engine, the 405Mi16 was possibly the most fun you could have in a passenger car at the time, with tenacious roadholding, a luxuriously loping ride, and the most uncorrupted steering feel this side of a Caterham 7. I loved it completely, except for the fact that it started to self-destruct after 50,000 miles. I'd bet money that there's not a really tight 405Mi16 left, but I wouldn't shy away from trying to find one." Kitman clearly needs to hang out at gas stations more often.
ENGINE 1.9L DOHC I-4, 150 hp, 128 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
SUSPENSION, FRONT Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Trailing arms, torsion bars
BRAKES F/R Vented discs/discs
WEIGHT 2700 lb
YEARS PRODUCED 1989-1991
NUMBER sold Fewer than 5000 (U.S. market, est. about 25,000 were built worldwide during the same period.)
ORIGINAL PRICE $20,700
VALUE TODAY $1500-$6000
WHY BUY? The last high-performance French car exported to America, the 405Mi16 was a true driver's car with good looks and sports-car handling. Our favorite is the 1991 model, because it had fifteen-inch wheels (in place of the original fourteens), horn buttons on the steering wheel (instead of on the turn-signal stalk), and a climate-control system that wasn't on permanent strike. And because it's basically the youngest Peugeot you can buy here.