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Peugeot 206 SW


Modern Peugeots are helpful cars that like to go the extra mile for you.

Drive them into a multi-storeyed carpark and they'll turn on the headlights for you as onboard sensors detect a dimmer light.

The lights switch off after you get out of the car and lock it.

Then the windscreen wipers start up when sensors detect sufficient moisture in the atmosphere.

And these helpful touches - which at first can be a little annoying if you happen to like making all your driving decisions yourself - aren't confined to range-topping models as they are with other makes. They're spread cross the range as you'd expect of cars made by a nation that had its modern foundation in a revolution whose slogan was liberty, equality, brotherhood. In the NZ range, only the base model XR and, curiously, the ultra-chic 206cc automatic don't have light-sensitive headlights.

As we said you might resent this helpfulness at first, but you soon grow to appreciate it, as we did with the road test 206 SW.

But the mini five-door wagon had an extra trick up its sleeve, a helpfulness that sprang a surprise.

We were heading back to the office after picking up the car one Tuesday afternoon. Not a good day, a Tuesday. Production day, no time to spare. Stopping briefly at the waterfront McDonald's to grab whatever burger was available immediately, then back into the 206 for the tedious 4 o'clock crawl along Auckland's congested Quay Street. Suddenly the 206 became increasingly filled with traffic noise. Front windows were up, back ones too. Check the rearview mirror. Tailgate in place. But the noise persisted.

Crane neck around and there it is (English for Voila), the separately-opening hatchback window has somehow opened itself. A look out the driver's window reveals the window sticking up in the air like the tail of a cat heading for its foodbowl.

Quay Street is full of traffic lights, but we reach the arch that leads into the Viaduct Basin before I strike a red one: several hundred metres looking a bigger Wally than usual before I get a chance to leap out and close the window. It stays shut all the way to the office and to home and for the next couple of days.

Then it does it again when we're leaving Pukekohe after a race meeting. Manukau Road on a Sunday evening and the Peugeot is playing its contended cat routine again.

This seems to be taking the "I'll-do-it-for-you" approach too far. I'm sure, anyway, that I must have hit a button or something. But then maybe I didn't.

It's this sort of incident that gives a car character.

If it persists it either becomes an endearing little secret shared by you and an inanimate object that apparently has a mind of its own; or it drives you to the sort of fury that caused a frustrated Basil Fawlty to attack his non-cooperating Morris 1100 with a tree branch.

Fortunately it happened only twice, on neither occasion was it raining, and it became a little thing that the Peugeot and I, well, we knew about it, you know. Dismissed and accepted with a shrug of the shoulders and a pursing of the lips. A little sign of Gallic flair.

But the Peugeot 206 SW's character amounts to much more than a mysteriously-opening tailgate window.

It's about sparkling road manners, excellent performance, a little torque steer sometimes when you nail the throttle with too much lock on and the steering wheel gives your shoulder muscles a workout as the 206 does its best to break free of your grip. This is a car that will occasionally challenge you. A car that in many ways does much of the work for you but doesn't want you to become complacent. Doesn't want you to think you're a better driver than you are on the strength of the way its compose chassis flatters your driving. A driver's car that will occasionally remind you that occasionally you have to drive it with care and a gentle touch.

So add spirit to character.

Character like a very individual interior that looks just right, blending leading edge design with soberly-functional controls.

Character like the stand-out looks that mix the swoops and sweeps of the hatchback with the round-edged box of a traditional station wagon.

Peugeot New Zealand says the 206 SW has arrived here earlier than expected.

It's intended as an up-market, well specified estate car, offers a level of performance not usually associated with small station wagons.

The car is based on the 206 GTi specification and uses the four-valves-per-cylinder, double overhead camshaft 2.0-litre GTi engine.

The DOHC, 16-valve four-cylinder, 100kW engine is fitted with Magnetti Marrelli sequential injection with twin-static ignition.

Maximum power is delivered at 6000rpm.

Peak torque of 190Nm arrives at 4100rpm, though 170Nm of that is on tap from 1800rpm, increasing to the peak as the revs rise, then falling off to 170Nm at 5750rpm.

The 206 SW drives the front wheels through a conventional five-peed gearbox. The final drive is relatively low, giving an engine speed of a shade over 3000rpm at 100km/h.

Peugeot says the car will hit 100km/h in 9.9 seconds and has a top speed of 208km/h.

It feels more urgent that the 9.9 seconds Peugeot quotes for the standard sprint and we're inclined to think the figure is conservative.

Certainly this is a sparkling car to drive on demanding roads. The SW and its agile chassis were born to storm winding, tight roads.

We haven't enjoyed a small front-drive car so much since we drove the Mini Cooper. And where we feel the Mini has an edge in steering precision and chassis balance, the Peugeot has livelier performance and a much better and more responsive engine.

Given a choice between the two we'd be inclined towards the French car, not just for its blend of handling and performance, but also for its more useable (if still a little tight) rear cabin and for its better list of standard equipment.

But back to the 206's on-road feel. The steering, nicely light at parking speeds, weights-up at open road pace and gives good feedback.

Turn-in is instant, and the firmish suspension's typically Peugeot travel soaks up mid-corner bumps.

Handling is biased towards neutral and there's little understeer, save perhaps when you find yourself a gear higher than you need to be and the front end washes-out a little as you dive for a lower ratio.

Pushed hard in tight going, in fact, there's a satisfying feeling of rear-end movement from the chassis, almost certainly a result of the wagon's longer overhang and greater vertical mass.

In a favourite 90-minus, and hence relatively low-speed, Ess bend sequence, the rear end could actually be made to move out a little bit and you'd wind on a touch of opposite lock. Satisfying, and enormous fun and proof that this is indeed a chuckable car with a lively, responsive chassis.

It felt as quick as the Mini through our benchmark sequence of challenging corners and equally didn't need braking.

But unlike the Mini, you were never in doubt about which wheels were being driven. Occasionally the 206 SW will give you a little nipping bite.

There's a little torque steer when you mash the accelerator pedal to the floor under hard acceleration in a straight line.

Hit the throttle hard as you reach the apex on a tight corner in second gear, and the effect is exaggerated. The torque arrives in force and in left-handers can pull you deeper into the corner. This is not a car to hang a front wheel on to the gravel shoulder in sharp left-hand corners. The road wheel will scrabble for grip and the steering wheel will dance in your hands.

Keep all four wheels on the tarmac, though, and things are much more composed.

It's a reminder that there's a lot of torque running through the front wheels and that the car requires a gentle touch in really tight going, despite its chuckability.

It's a moot point whether you really need second gear in all but the tightest corners. There's enough torque on tap to ensure brisk progress in tight going if you leave the car in third gear.

One point about the performance: watch the speedometer. In the city and on the highway the car can easily be going at a higher speed than you think.

Ride is a good compromise between comfort and handling, offering crisp behaviour without making you uncomfortable on rougher roads.

Road and mechanical noise are well-controlled, though there's some wind-whistle, maybe from the exterior mirrors, at 100km/h.

The cockpit is a pleasant place to be, with comfortable seats - form hugging and with good lateral support in the front cabin - and a well laid-out, logical array of controls. We particularly liked the instrument cluster, though we're a little bemused by Peugeot's insistence in having the 110km/h marking at top-dead-centre of the speedometer where you might expect the 100 marking to be.

The gear-lever is nicely-positioned and good to use with a smart alloy knob. Shift quality is light, though it feels a little rubbery. That said, we never missed a gear, even when pressing on very hard.

You get excellent headlights and very efficient windscreen wipers, though they still sweep the screen in an arc for left-hand-drive cars (Well, we French, we drive on the left-hand side of the car).

The driver's footwell is a little cramped. Three drilled alloy, race car-style pedals are down there along with a left-foot footrest. I don't have big feet, though they are wide, and I found things a little busy, sometimes catching an edge of the wrong pedal.

Rear seat accommodation is comfortable, though with the front seats at the rearmost point of their fore-aft travel there's very little legspace.

With the driver's seat at the setting I like, though, there was adequate legroom for an adult.

The loadspace is good - more than a third bigger than the 206 hatchback's - and the rear seatbacks fold forward. A luggage area cover is standard and the load area wide and rear windows are tinted - the sides darkly so - for extra security.

Standard equipment includes automatic air-conditioning, a good quality Compact Disc sound system, electrically-wound front and rear windows, 16-inch diameter alloy wheels, front foglights, heated electrically-adjustable door mirrors, leather-covered steering wheel (handsome and nice to use), an aluminium, racing-look petrol filler cap, sports seating finished in leather, a trip computer, and aluminium door handles.

Black load-carrying rails run the length of the roof.

Peugeot NZ sees the 206 SW appealing to people who want a vehicle with sporting qualities but one that also is practical.

It certainly appealed to us, offering a fine blend of handling, performance, practically and flair. It was serious fun to drive and we extended our test route by repeating sections on which the SW's fine chassis could be enjoyed to the full.

It sells for $36,990 and we think offers excellent value for money. Without doubt one of the most enjoyable cars we've driven this year.

Story and pictures by Mike Stock.

Auto Trader New Zealand