IF you were to page through the sketchbooks of any of the world’s top vehicle designers, you might struggle to find many concept drawings that include planning for an extra pair of doors positioned behind the B-pillars. That’s probably because in most cases that second row of doors gets pencilled in once the sketch has been through the marketing department…
While it makes sense to design vehicles that are capable of transporting rear passengers in the same relative comfort as the front two occupants, including providing them with their own entry and exit points, there can be few arguments that a design sans rear doors has the potential to look a whole lot sleeker and sexier than the four-door option. And, thankfully, companies still feel the need to produce such cars, often in a kind of “halo” position above their more mundane offerings.
Peugeot has long been one of the great exponents of this philosophy, the coupé versions of its “40X” series cars always adding a touch of pizzazz to the motoring scene. The newlylaunched 407 coupé continues the theme. But how does it compare to “stand alone” coupe offerings such as the Alfa GT and Mazda RX-8?
COMPARATIVE TEST DESIGN
Alfa Romeo 18/20
Good looks run in the Peugeot coupe’s family. A partnership with well known design house Pininfarina since 1951 was ultimately responsible for the previous generation Peugeot 406 Coupé’s elegant and sleek lines, a stunning design that still turns heads to this day. So the 407 version, designed in-house by Gérard Welter and his team, has quite a reputation to live up to.
With evolution has come increased size and bulk, and this is possibly the new car’s design Achilles’ heel. Although the coupé shares no external panels with the 407 saloon, the basic design is still a size up on its predecessor, and the result is that, from certain angles, the new car struggles to pull off its new proportions. That said, the Peugeot 407 coupé is a sleek-looking car that drew second glances wherever it went. The huge grille up front was not to all our testers’ liking, but it certainly adds to the distinctive looks. The lower stance and wider track of the coupé – compared to the saloon – are accentuated by a rear bumper that wouldn’t look out of place at a Nascar track day.
While the Peugeot attempts to carry on its Italian design house heritage, it faces up to a true Italian in the Alfa Romeo GT. This Bertone design, using 156 underpinnings, works wonderfully from any angle. It’s unmistakably Alfa up front, with curves in all the right places, and slim tail lights at the rear. Standard 18-inch multi-spoke alloys complete the package, filling the wheelarches perfectly. So if this was a calendar of sports beauties, the Peugeot might be the slightly lanky but still beautiful netball player, the Alfa the near perfectly proportioned beach volleyball player… And then there might be the feisty black belt karate expert who’s not too worried about being pretty and more focused on being in your face and slightly butch. Enter the Mazda RX-8, with aggressive and purposeful lines that are unlikely to be mistaken for anything else on the roads. Mazda did well to incorporate a rear set of doors, in forward-opening “suicide” form, into the package without detracting from the coupé body style.
COMPARATIVE TEST POWER TRAIN
Alfa Romeo 17/20
Once again, the Peugeot’s size comes into play. The 155 kW, 3,0-litre V6 engine, generating 290 N.m of torque, does well to provide good acceleration and allow the 407 coupé to feel anything but slow. But, tipping the scales at 1 647 kilograms, the Peugeot never quite feels sprightly. As a cruiser, however, the 407 works well. The six-speed gearbox functions best when gear changes are smooth and steady rather than short and sharp. A high level of sound deadening also ensures that the cabin remains a calm and peaceful place to be, even while the free-revving V6 is going about its business.
Sound deadening was not high on the list of things to do at the Alfa factory, and that is a good thing, as the soundtrack from the GT’s V6 is a delight to be heard. With 176 kW at 6 200 r/min, the Alfa has the strongest shove in this comparison, although some of that pull can be felt through the steering wheel in brisk take-offs, with the front wheels struggling to maintain grip. The GT is geared for enthusiastic driving and this, together with the addictive soundtrack and strong engine, makes for an entertaining behind-the-wheel experience.
Entertainment aplenty is also available from the drivers seat of the Mazda, as the characteristics of its rotary engine encourage you to explore the 8 200 r/min maximum power band and 9 000 r/min red line. Indeed, the RX-8 loves revs – and it needs a fair amount of them before the fun can begin. This makes for quite an aural experience, and perhaps one that might be frowned upon by other, slightly more “refined”, road users. Gearchange is the slickest in this comparison, and the short-throw action adds to the point and squirt nature of the car.
COMPARATIVE TEST COMFORT AND FEATURES
Alfa Romeo 15/20
Finally a category where the Peugeot’s size comes in pretty handy. As the largest of this selection, the 407 offers the roomiest interior, an attribute that lends itself perfectly to the cruiser-like character of this coupé. Opening the large, heavy driver’s door reveals a large cabin that offers everything a driver could wish for to make the journey more pleasurable. Large front seats offer electronic adjustment in nearly every direction, though there is a limited amount of bolstering on offer, which can discourage sporty driving. At night, the centre console is lit up by a wide array of buttons and switches for everything from radio to climate control to park sensors and traction control. These take a little getting used to, but work well once learned. Rear passengers will also find very comfortable accommodation and good legroom, though taller passengers will feel the sloping roofline above their heads, something that is a problem with most coupés. The 407’s large rear end allows for plenty of luggage space.
Being a hatchback, the Alfa GT benefits from a wide-opening boot lid that allows easy loading. The packing space available is also respectable for this class, and the rear seats can be folded down to create a larger storage area. Rear passenger seats are definitely a tighter squeeze than the French option. The narrow rear three-quarter windows add to a slightly claustrophobic feeling, not assisted by the intrusion of that sloping roofline. The GT has superb front seats that offer great support, with manual adjustment. The facia is borrowed from the slightly dated 147 and the instrumentation suffers from the same lack of easy legibility problem as the car’s smaller sibling. A decidedly poor air conditioning system is another feature that seems common throughout this Italian brand.
The Mazda continues the rotary theme in its cosy, sporty interior. From the top of the gear lever to the headrests of the comfortable front seats, there are constant reminders that you are driving something different from the norm. Apart from a slightly flimsy and awkwardly positioned handbrake, all instrumentation and controls fall nicely to the driver’s hands and feet, and contribute to the pleasantly “snug” feel. The high-positioned transmission tunnel divides the interior in two and means there’s space for only two passengers at the back. Entry into these small seats is made easy thanks to the suicide doors, but things do get quite tight once these doors are closed. Rear headroom is acceptable, though. The RX-8 has the smallest boot of the three contenders here, at only 232 dm3.
COMPARATIVE TEST PERFORMANCE AND BRAKING
Alfa Romeo 16/20
Alas, we have to mention the Peugeot’s size once more. As mentioned before, the V6 power plant by no means struggles to get the 407 moving, but it is unrealistic to expect it to be able to match the 0-100 km/h acceleration times of the Alfa Romeo and Mazda in this battle. Despite its Nascar-style rear bumper and set of gills ahead of the front wheel arches, the bigger coupé also wouldn’t look very comfortable revving its engine while waiting for the lights to turn green. It’s too refined for that. Long cruises with a potential top speed of 233 km/h are more the scene. Should it be called into battle though, the 100 km/h mark could be reached, from standstill, in 9,18 seconds. A slightly inconsistent brake pedal lacks progressive feel at times, but the brakes work well.
Slightly more battle ready, the Alfa GT’s front wheels will light up, traction control activated or not, and launch its lighter body to 100 km/h in a fraction over 7 seconds. Power is almost instantaneous, and is matched by the gruff soundtrack as the revs mount.
Lastly, our born-to-battle Mazda seems as if it were designed specifically for that traffic light challenge. The rotary engine requires plenty of revs to come into its own, but will gladly play in the uppermost octaves all day. The quickest car here, just, it screams past the first kilometre mark, from standstill, in 27,98 seconds. The good news is that the RX-8 stops as well as it accelerates, and matches the Alfa’s ten-stop 100-to-zero average of of 2,78 seconds.
COMPARATIVE TEST FUEL ECONOMY
Alfa Romeo 11/20
The advantage that the 407 Coupé has in not being an out and out racer is that it returns fuel economy figures that match its cruising characteristics. Our test car returned a figure of 13,25 litres/100 km, a pretty respectable performance. Its Italian rival did not fair as well, so it seems one has to pay a bit of a price for the aural pleasure delivered by the tail pipes. Considering how much lighter (some 200 kg) the GT is than the 407, the fuel figure of 14,29 litres/100km seemed a tad high. The rotary engine in the Mazda returned an average fuel index of 13,56 litres/100km, though expect this to increase with enthusiastic driving, economy being the Wankel engine’s Achilles heel.
COMPARATIVE TEST RIDING AND HANDLING
Alfa Romeo 16/20
With all the other characteristics leaning towards cruising rather than point and squirt driving, the 407 throws up a surprise or two when it does have to press on a bit. A slightly lost in the crowd sport button on the fascia stiffens the shocks when depressed and firms the otherwise comfortable ride. Steering remains a bit too light but does attempt to make an otherwise large vehicle seem more nimble. Unfortunately the 407 never really feels like a small car, but it does remain stable under high speed cornering and resists the nose-heavy urge to understeer. Our test team agreed that the Peugeot was a very easy car to drive, but concurred that it is set up for cruising more than being thrashed about.
Another car with very light steering, the Alfa GT can feel a tad nervous on turn-in before one has become used to the steering feel. Balance is superb, and is aided by the large wheels, although these also contribute to a fairly bumpy ride over uneven surfaces. It must be pointed out that the GT possesses one of the worst turning circles of any modern car to pass though our test garage.But there is great fun to be had in the Alfa with a bit of concentration on maintaining a smooth driving style.
Great fun is the name of the game with the screaming RX-8 as well, though here too a smooth style needs to be adopted. Electric power assisted steering takes away some of the feel through the driver’s palms, but is accurate nonetheless. Driving the Mazda fast is not at all intimidating, thanks to the levels of balance on offer. Understeer is steady and controllable at the limit. Oh, and all three coupés offer failsafe traction control…
COMPARATIVE TEST VALUE FOR MONEY
Alfa Romeo 16/20
At R349 900, the Peugeot is the most expensive of our selection, but it is also the biggest and offers the most versatility. There will be a level of exclusivity with a purchase of any of these vehicles, and given that Peugeot 407 buyers have the option of saloon and SW versions as well, one would imagine the coupé will still be turning heads and looking fresh, like its 406 predecessor, for a good few years.
The Alfa GT’s looks are set to become classic. Few motor companies can boast so many great looking cars in their stables, though there are a few other brands, notably German, whose reliability and build quality has yet to be matched by the French or Italian. R329 000 is not cheap for a two-door car that has a firm ride and nor the greatest quality reputation, but we reckon the GT’s looks and sound make it a good deal.
The high strain that the rotary engine is constantly under makes one wonder just how long it might last but, for stand out in the crowd looks, those suicide doors and the strange pleasure that holding the revs up and over the 6 000 r/min mark brings, the R339 950 price tag attached to the RX-8 will probably be good value.
COMPARATIVE TEST VERDICT
Alfa Romeo 16/20
All three of our contenders are likely to turn heads in any crowd for a long time to come. All three offer something different, and sport lines that aren’t “interrupted” by the addition of a second row of doors. The Peugeot offers a relatively safe bet, with sleek lines, lots of space and an element of luxury that lifts it into a classier bracket. But it is very much a cruiser rather than a boy racer, which is more the Mazda’s calling card. With a high-revving engine, focused interior and minimal passenger and luggage space, the RX-8 will appeal to those with a need to rebel against the norm. The Alfa Romeo GT fits in somewhere between the other two. It has arguably the best looks, which shouldn’t date any time soon, and offers a balance between a compact exterior and practical interior.
One hesitates to mention age groups but, as coupés in this price range go, the Mazda will suit a younger, boy racer, non-conformist, while the leisurely character of the Peugeot, with practical space and classy looks, might appeal to a more settled soul. The Alfa fits in between the two, appealing to a buyer who yearns for the more stylish, with looks and character that are not as in your face as the RX-8’s, but isn’t ready to give up sportiness and driving feel. Our choice? The team vote settled on the middle ground, going the way of the Alfa…