It certainly is different. It certainly is important. For Peugeot, the 407 is a key car with one billion euros investment behind it, sitting in the heartland of its range and signalling the direction in which the brand is moving.
At its international static launch in Paris, director general of Peugeot, Frederic Saint-Geours, was just such a man with a smile on his face. He said: 'The 407 is going to be writing a new page in Peugeot's history. It's not just a clone of the segment – this car can change the traditional concept of the segment.'
Part of the presentation of the car included a video of it driving through the empty streets of Paris. The only other cars to be seen were a number of classics, such as the Jaguar E-type and Ford Mustang. One can only assume that Peugeot believes its 407 is set to join the pantheon of automotive aesthetic greatness.
But while it is certainly striking, particularly from the front, much of the 407 saloon has been designed through necessity rather than for purely physical glory. The C-pillar and boot lines, for example, are awkward because the accentuated front half has taken up a disproportionate amount of the car. As a result, the C-pillar looks designed around the rear doors rather than in conjunction with them, in order to accommodate passengers and a decent sized boot, and is more chunky and prosaic than the front half.
The 407 is bigger than the outgoing 406 in all dimensions, but it is physical presence rather than cold hard numbers that really drives that home. Standing at the nose, you are confronted with a vista of a wide graceful bonnet and an enormous, MPV-sized windscreen.
There have been mutterings that stricter pedestrian crash protection will spell the end of good-looking cars. Not if the 407 is anything to go by. The front of this car, its designers claim, will offer class-leading pedestrian protection, with its low nose and smooth, high bonnet moved up and away from the engine.
There will be four engines at launch in May. Three petrol engines: 136bhp 2.0-litre, 160bhp 2.2-litre and a 211bhp 3.0-litre. The 3.0-litre unit will come with a new six speed automatic gearbox. A 117bhp 1.8-litre will come later.
But the main interest for fleets will be the diesel units, in the form of a 110bhp 1.6-litre and, at launch, a 136bhp 2.0-litre HDi engine as they will account for 65% of registrations in the UK. All powertrains will be Euro IV-compliant from launch with a five-speed gearbox for the smaller engine and six-speed on the larger.
There will also be a 2.7-litre V6 diesel – a product of the collaboration between PSA (Peugeot's parent company) and Ford, appearing in the Jaguar S-type next year – which will go into the 407 in late 2005.
In many ways the '110 HDi' is a pointer to the way engines in fleet cars will go: small, lightweight diesels with high power and torque and low emissions. The fact that it is a 1.6-litre, and in the eyes of many is far too small an engine, will have to be educated out. It has the same power as the current 2.0-litre HDi engine.
In 2002, the last full year of 406 sales, 21,736 were registered, with 86% of those going to fleets. In 2004, the firm predicts it will sell 17,000 to 18,000 407s and in the first full year (2005), 26,000 units.
Peugeot reckons it is being realistic about figures. This is way down on the best year of the 406 in 1998 with 48,000 units, but with the upper-medium sector shrinking, Peugeot still believes it will match its best-ever share of the sector at 9%, albeit with reduced numbers.
The split with the 407 will swing back a little towards retail – about 70%/30% fleet to retail – because Peugeot UK believes the feline look of the car will attract more private buyers. A spokesman said: 'User-choosers want an opportunity to pick from different products. Firms have to be able to offer decent cars as part of the package and we believe the 407 offers drivers a premium product, but not at premium prices.'
That's not to say that Peugeot is claiming, as some have done in the past, that drivers will abandon their Audis, Alfa Romeos and Volvos in favour of the 407. It is pragmatic enough to accept that Peugeot sits in the volume sector – it just wants to do it with the best and most distinctive product it can.
Fleet managers have already had their first look at the car, as part of a strategy to get the 407 seen by as many people as possible before its launch in late May. The reasoning is that the car will be on fleet choice lists by March, giving it a vital extra couple of months in the market.
John Goodman, marketing director at Peugeot UK, said: 'We need to get people driving the car. It is a car that's up with the very best Peugeot has ever produced.
'We'll have a big test drive programme and we're taking it to leasing companies early next year. There's a huge programme of retail launches and fleet demonstrations.'
Further evidence of this shift will be presented with the SW, the estate version, which will be revealed at the Geneva show in March. No longer a load-lugger in the traditional Peugeot mould, the SW will be a 'lifestyle' estate. Peugeot expects it to take about 30% of sales, and prices should be £1,000 more than the saloon equivalent. So the driving environment, handling and performance of both saloon and SW will be vital for those fleet customers who choose their own car.
The good news is that the interior materials reek with quality: the dashboard uses soft, high quality plastics while the driving position, even for taller drivers, is fine with lots of reach adjustment on the steering wheel – curing one of Peugeot's perennial problems.
The car gets all-new switchgear, finally consigning Peugeot's ageing buttons to the bin, although the spread of switches might be a little confusing. Only trying it while on the move can figure that out.
Less good news is space. You feel hemmed-in up front, partially due to the high, thick doors, and in the back legroom is pretty poor for the sector.
Peugeot is very keen to talk up the 407's dynamic capabilities as the best in the class, mindful of the fact the brand has lost its crown as having the best handling cars. As a result the 407 has double wishbone front suspension and a multi-arm rear system, and three different power steering set-ups depending on the type of tyres and engine. Only driving the 407 will be able to back up these grand claims.
So to price. Peugeot UK is reckoning on a range spanning, £15,000 to £22,000, with S, SE, SV and Executive versions. The firm reckons all cars will be well-specced with SE getting climate control and alloy wheels, underlining its strategy to sell up to user- choosers rather than down to volume fleets.
It is too early for residual value predictions, but experts believe the 407 will be towards the top of the sector, partially due to the 'new kid on the block' factor.
On first showing, the glint in the eye of Peugeot executives seems justified. The 407 is a big car with plenty of presence and should provide a refreshing alternative in a sector dominated by conservatism.
|407 fact file|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||134/6,000||155/5,650||208/6,000||136/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||140/4,100||160/3,900||214/3,750||236/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||131||136||146||129|
|Comb economy (mpg):||34.4||31.4||28.8|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||194||214||233|
|Transmission:||5sp man/4sp auto,||5sp man/4-sp auto||6-sp auto||6sp man/4-sp auto|
|On sale:||May 2004|
|Prices (est):||£15,000 - £22,000|