Friday, October 29, 2004

Review: Peugeot 407

The power of marketing is indisputable. Advertisements create previously unrecognised needs as much as they reinforce awareness. And regardless of a product’s actual merits, a slick campaign (with a little help from cool styling) can be essential to creating that elusive ‘want one’ factor.

Take Peugeot for example. Never sold well in Singapore, but they’re still sponsoring prime TV shows like the recently-departed Friends. And with excellent ads too – who can forget for instance, the Tata being beaten into a 206 look-alike by its proud owner? And now the 407 is being featured in the new ‘Playtime is over’ series, again banking mostly on the car’s striking looks to instil automotive lust into viewers’ hearts. The question must be asked though: Is it any good under the skin?

There’s no denying the feline shape is distinctive. A snout this long hasn’t been seen on a new car in ages, but get used to it. Because firstly, increasingly-stringent pedestrian impact laws will necessitate space between bonnet/bumper and engine; and next, Peugeot actually makes it look good, without enlarging the rest of the proportions in the name of ‘visual balance’.

How is it done? Well, the windscreen is so steeply raked that the driving position has to be pushed way back to prevent decapitation upon entry/exit. The entire glasshouse is also pulled forward to mask the front immense overhang. Unfortunately, the combination of these two factors results in a squashed cabin. As can be seen from other recent examples, a cab-forward stance does liberate cabin space, but it all goes to the useless area between windscreen and dashboard, instead of truly benefiting passengers.

A car with a 2725mm wheelbase should be a lot more spacious than this – as it is, the Peugeot struggles to better a Civic for rear legroom, compounded by the limited foot space under the front seats. The driver has it better, with both room and a wide range of seat/steering wheel adjustments to ensure decent comfort.

Another shocker comes after figuring out how to open the boot – there are no obvious buttons or latches anywhere, and the secret lies in a button hidden in the numbered badge, very nifty – you are greeted with a truly unforgivable 407 litre space. Never mind that it is well shaped or conceals a full-sized spare – it is a full 160 litres or 30% smaller than a Camry’s. That difference alone is larger than a Mini’s total boot capacity.

And what’s with the dreadful 206-standard materials on the dash, wiper stalks and door handles? Even the roof lining flexes when you push the interior light buttons. This is a 2.0l vehicle, for goodness’ sake! Cars from the class below would be ashamed to be clad with such grades of plastics nowadays. Arch-rival Renault has on the other hand really upped their game in this respect, taking the fight right to Volkswagen, the benchmark when it comes to interior trim.

Disappointments continue when you continue to look around the cabin. The passenger glovebox is close to astonishingly tiny, due to the fuse box that takes up half the space. Also, the lever to open the bonnet also resides on the passenger side, making it inconvenient to do simple oil checks. Both I suspect are due to poor planning for RHD conversion, seeing that the UK is probably Peugeot’s only major RHD market.

Two versions are brought in, with 2.0l and 2.2l engines. In addition to a larger displacement the latter also adds 17” rims (compared with 16”), dual zone climate control, chrome accents on the rubbing strips, rear armrest, as well as rain, light and tyre pressure sensors. All for an $8,000 premium over the 2.0litre’s $107,900 price tag. Electric front seats can also be specified in the larger-engined car, for another $2,000.

We tested the 138bhp 2.0 litre, partly because of the SE’s assertion that there isn’t much difference between the two engines, and partly due to the rain outside, which would have negated any power advantage.

It’s never a good sign when a salesperson makes excuses for a product before you have commented on it, but this was precisely what happened here. The engine’s low-ish power was explained as being offset by high torque, which is stretching the truth somewhat. 190Nm is no better than class average, and while perfectly tractable when cruising around, the entire performance of the engine is really nothing worth shouting about.

The four-speed auto gearbox allows for Tiptronic-style manual shifts, which is how you will use it to get anywhere in a hurry. Because its regular brain is simply too indecisive to deal with anything between the laziest and most manic throttle inputs. Decide that you want to go two notches faster, and it stays in the same gear for a while, hesitates, then decides to shift down. By which time any window of opportunity for overtaking has long gone.

The steering is not too bad, light and responsive. And turning into a corner proves to be a fuss-free experience, the chassis providing a fair amount of precision to do what you ask of it. It’s a pity the wet roads prevented us from exploring its dynamic capabilities further, but I really wonder how that would change my mind about the car as a whole.

I’m still quite perplexed as to how much has been sacrificed in the name of style. It’s like Peugeot spent all their money on good stylists and forgot about the basics.

Now, if I really needed to spend this kind of money on a car, and put driving pleasure at a premium, I’d look straight at the Alfa Romeo 156 JTS – equally cramped, but with a really special engine, cabin and driving experience.

But perhaps the most damning thing I can do is to compare the 407 with Renault’s Megane, another Gallic offering that costs $25,000 less, and should be in the class below. Sure, the Megane is 17% down on power in theory, but in the real world it’s hardly noticeable. What’s more, it matches or even betters the Peugeot in most of the crucial areas, including space, quality, safety, ride comfort and gadget count. One would be daft not to consider the extraordinary value that one offers over the other.

Playtime is indeed over. Peugeot needs to get serious if they want to sell on more than just good looks and a nice slogan.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Letter to ST Forum: Mixed media

Here's another one sent to ST Forum today.

I refer to the forum letter by Mdm Kay Ren Tse on 18 October 2004.

I totally agree with her observation that the good and the salacious are all too confusingly mixed up in our local media, such that monitoring what I and my children see and hear has become a task of exacting vigilance.

Watching TV nowadays, with or without the children, almost always involves sitting ready with the remote control in hand, so that I can immediately switch the channel when the advertisements come on. Even during toddler programmes on Kids Central, we get advertisements promoting plays about homosexuality or cross-dressing, to name a few, not to mention the frequently aired trailers for violent and sexual late night programmes on Channel 5 which pepper all their earlier timed offerings.

Because of this, and as a working parent, I have since implemented a blanket ban on all airtime TV programmes for my young children, save a very select few, simply because I cannot expect their grandmother or the maid to sit there monitoring everything for them when I am out at work.

It is also virtually impossible to take a journey by public transport, of any kind, without seeing a woman or man clad only in underwear somewhere along the way. Our MRT stations and bus-stops are full of these pictures, as are the underground passes in the shopping districts where parents often bring their young children on weekends.

At the end of the day, I really can't see how such common and open displays of nakedness and violence in Singapore is in anyway indicative of societal progress, much as those who are clamouring for more "liberation" may argue. I would think that progress involves an uplifting of the human condition, in both mind, body and spirit. Progress is most certainly not to be found in the debasement of people through violence or the blatant exploitation of women's bodies just to sell some products.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Letter to ST Forum - PSLE Slaughter?

I sent this to Straits Times after reading quite a few letters from parents whose children came out of the PSLE papers crying.

I'm rather put out to read that a number of students sitting the PSLE papers this year came out crying. I suppose this must happen every year but if recent reports are anything to go by, this year's papers appear to be especially killing.

First of all, why are these students so unable to deal with a situation that appears not to be in their favour? Are they so used to achieving all their goals and so conditioned to find failure and imperfection unthinkable that a simple matter of not being able to answer each and every question can so easily break them, to bring on tears?

It would have been a lot more reassuring to have read that they can console themselves for having done their best, and being truly content and comforted with that despite the tough papers. I would then know that we have a generation of tough young people growing up. But that was not the case.

I'm deeply concerned that the drilling and grilling that these students have been put through in the past year has only been focused on driving them to believe that failure or imperfection is not acceptable. If so, parents and teachers had better beware that such methods and emphasis are simply doing these children a great disservice: it is setting them up for a lifetime of continued disappointment and dissatisfaction. After all, whoever has heard of a life with not a single failure or imperfection in it? If students cannot cope with an artifically set up situation such as an exam, what more the much harder real life issues that come up later on?

And so what if they do not get the cut-off points to enter that very secondary school that they (or more likely their parents) have been eyeing? There are lots of schools in Singapore which offer a very decent secondary education, not just that small handful deemed good enough.

Secondly, why worry about the outcome when the entire cohort of Primary 6 pupils are taking the very same tests? This simply means that upon marking, the distinction between students and their abilities will be made all the clearer, and I can bet that the scores will be moderated such that the top students will still get their fair share of A*s whether or not their actual mark is 91/100 or higher. It will all be adjusted and scaled accordingly in the end.

I do wish parents and students alike can look beyond the immediate goal of merely answering every question correctly. No doubt an easy paper will allow this, but so also will just about everyone taking the paper do equally well. Then what's the point of having an exam if it can't scale the students's abilities meaningfully?


Monday, October 11, 2004

Thank you for the amnesia - ahem, ahem

We're all not sick. No one is in hospital or on any medication. Eating, sleeping fine. It's quite amazing really. I'm impressed. Keep me that way!

Can't imagine or remember just how exacting it gets when any one or more of us are down with something. And we've only been all four clear a day ago, but I've already forgotten. And even thinking about K-Bunny. At least that's what Matthew says he wants another brother baby to be called.

I suppose it's a blessing to have only memory for the happy things. Honestly, I can't remember horrors, or at least they become dismissably inconsequential when things are coasting again. Sean's fever miraculously disappeared when Sunday dawned, and we actually all went swimming in the afternoon. Today it's like it all never happened, that started with Sarah having to be admitted to KKH.

But at the back of my mind lurks the fear of her showing asthma signs. The slightest cough or sniffle triggers our awareness alarm - and we start staring and feeling at her chest or listening with ear pressed to her back. It's getting rather a strain so we're taking her to work out a future action plan with our newfound family doctor tonight. It's great we've been classmates and they're so conveniently situated and available.

Anyway, just a few words of gratitude for having passed through the valley, and truly, as promised, it feels like we're soaring.

Monday, October 04, 2004


Are you? Do you feel a tightness in your chest, that you're holding your breath, food's a turn-off, sleep won't come at night, and you can't seem to remember what it's like to feel normal and not afraid?

Not to worry. Yaright. Really. It passes. I'm psyching myself. I know how it feels. But so far it has always passed. Hearing now that Matt is no longer hot and Sarah isn't coughing is also very consoling. I just wish breathing was a bit easier, and the headaches wouldn't keep coming back. It'd be also good not to feel dizzy just turning my head round to look at something.

Whine whine whine, gripe gripe gripe. It gets boring after a while though. Can I go to sleep now? Anarax! My favourite painkiller + relaxant. Have to save them for the nights.

Tomorrow is supposed Sarah's jab + zoo trip. Hmm. Can we make it? Will Matthew be recovered enough? 5 days of high fever (39.6) that comes down with panadol or ibuprofen and absolutely no other symptoms. Eating drinking sleeping pooping peeing playing well. How do you figure that? Tests are clear too. Damn the virus.

Sarah can't sleep with us at night. Drove us nuts and me sick. So Matt's with us instead. Don't want them sleeping in the same room while there's any chance of her catching the same thing from Matt.

Very sorry isn't it, each one coming down in turn. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, and they shall mount up on eagles wings. Cool.