TESTED 12.6.18, FRANCE ON SALE October PRICE £36,400
Sharp-suited Ford Mondeo rival has no qualms about chasing better-heeled buyers than its predecessor did. Will it succeed?
They used to be a really big deal, cars like the Peugeot 508 and its sort, the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Insignia, Renault Laguna. You know the type: big D-segment saloons and wagons, doyennes of company car fleets, discounted and flogged out to them for the sales reps. Nostalgic for those days? Suit jacket in the back window? Sales samples in the boot? Thirty-thousand motorway miles a year? Jumpers for goalposts? Mmm. Isn’t it?
Anyway, that was then, and this is now, and know this: Peugeot CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato doesn’t care. Doesn’t care, in fact, if you buy a 508 at all. Seriously, he literally just told me as much: “The 508 will not affect my profit-and-loss,” he said. “Sixty per cent of profit is SUVs [and another 30% is in commercial vehicles] so I don’t need 50% of revenue from fleets. It’s not important. I don’t care. If I’m killing the pricing, then I’m killing the residual value.”
Presumably, he does care, a bit. This D-segment – conservative saloons – is, worldwide, still one of the three most important market sectors. They love a boring big saloon in China, and even though we’ve gone off them in Europe, people still buy 1.5 million of them a year here. But what he means is he’s not going to beg you to buy a 508 by discounting it heavily through fleets. You want one? You buy one. You don’t? Fine, we’re not going to beg.
Peugeot’s choice has not been to go big. It has been to go… what, premium? Kinda
Already, apparently, according to those who are more au fait with spreadsheets and residual value figures than I am, this approach is paying off. Peugeot has designed the 508 to be interesting to look at and to drive, and you’ll buy it in quantities that overcome Europe’s perennial saloon oversupply problem. All of which sounds entirely reasonable.
Interesting to look at? I think it is. Still a bit nosey, but it’s shorter than the 508 it replaces. At 4.75m long, it’s quite a lot shorter than a Mondeo and Skoda Superb (both pushing 4.9m). It’s low too; at 1.4m, a good couple of centimetres lower than most of the competition despite being on the same architecture as Peugeot’s bigger ’008 SUVs. And ◊ ∆ now it’s a hatchback, albeit with a saloony rear deck, rather than being a straight saloon. Although they won’t use the word ‘hatchback’. Instead, it’s a fastback, or a five-door coupé…
Okay, I’ll buy it: it’s a fastback now and there’ll be a station wagon (estate) later. What’s the catch, given the new-found compactness and rakishness? Well, although rear leg room is good and head room reasonable, the boot’s 487 litres is more Audi A5 Sportback than Mondeo or Superb.
So Peugeot’s choice has not been to go big. It has been to go… what, premium? Kinda. While you can have a Mondeo, Superb or Insignia for under £20,000, no 508 is under £25,000 in the UK, the range goes up to £37,000 and Imparato thinks most will be bought in the top two trims.
All 508s get a decent amount of tech and software, although mechanically they’re more straightforward: steel monocoque, with MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link set-up at the rear. Engines are 179bhp and 221bhp turbo 1.6-litre petrols, a 129bhp 1.5-litre diesel, and 161bhp and 174bhp 2.0 diesels. Only the 1.5 diesel gets a six-speed manual. The others can be had with an eight-speed auto only. Part electrification comes later but Peugeot is mostly eyeing efficient internal combustion to get to the low CO2 averages it needs to by 2020.
We’re trying the most powerful petrol and diesel, both on adaptive dampers – standard on top-spec GT models, optional otherwise. Imparato is bullish about the way the 508 drives. “If you drive this car, you’ll buy it,” he says. Let’s see.
Is Peugeot’s i-cockpit getting better, or am I just getting used to it? I think the former. On its consistent theme, the 508 has a very small steering wheel, with the idea that you’ll be able to read the dials above it. It feels quite karty. In most Peugeots, the rim obscures the dials but, in here, it’s fine, although you’ll set the wheel lower than usual. The driving position’s otherwise good. Fit and finish are pretty high, with more visual flair than you’ll find in a Volkswagen Group car, or a Ford or Vauxhall, and the feeling of quality that’s in the mix for the class. There’s a touchscreen in the centre, with shortcut buttons on the dashboard below it. That’s sensible, but the need to stabilise your hand by resting a wrist or thumb somewhere while you use the screen means it’s a little less clever than it looks.
The electronic gearlever, though, and the generous three-turns-between-locks steering and fine turning circle suggest an easy-going nature, as does the muted backbeat of the 2.0 diesel I drive first.
So, too, is the ride. There are modes (obvs) and, in Comfort, the 508 mooches along quite agreeably. It’s pretty well damped, with the occasional thud around town. The steering’s light and positive, but with a consistency to its weight and response that means its lack of ultimate accuracy and involvement passes you by. It’s pretty pleasant. There was a time when Peugeots were consistently among the best cars in their class to drive; not just the GTis that crusty old beardies like me swoon over, but normal 306 estates with normal petrol engines. I have a feeling it’d like to get back there.
On twistier roads, the 508 changes direction agreeably. Body control is good, roll is deftly controlled, and it all does what you ask it to with more involvement than, say, a VW Passat or Insignia, less than a Mondeo or a rear-drive German car. Switch the dampers to Sport and you hesitate: is it worse, or better? To Peugeot’s credit, there’s little detriment to the ride, but tighter body control to go with heavier steering and a more responsive powertrain. Some company’s management would want the difference to be more marked. The 508 is better for it that it’s not.
The 1.6-litre petrol is more engaging again, mind. It’s still short of being a car that I’d choose to sell on its dynamics, but it’s 1575kg rather than 1683kg, and that’s evident in an extra dose of agility. Away from town, the auto – smooth though it is – is frequently on the hunt for the right ratio in the petrol. Decide to take control via the paddles and you realise why: below 2500rpm, the engine’s not overly interested, and it feels like there are a couple of flat spots if you accelerate through the range; which is maybe what happens when you want 221bhp from 1.6 litres. It emits only 131/km of CO2 on its drive cycle but, if our experience is anything to go by, don’t expect much over 30mpg rather than the near-50mpg the combined cycle says.
The noise levels of both petrol and diesel are restrained, as is road and wind roar. This is a good motorway car; stable and comfortable, although lane keep assist and adaptive cruise, if you get ’em, are a bit jumpy.
Ultimately, though, if the boss of the company says he doesn’t care, why the hell should you? Only he does, really, but he has to keep up the mantra: end massive discounting, boost residuals, and finally you’ll have a car that, month by month, which is actually how people pay for cars, is competitively priced. Sure, you might sell fewer of ’em, but you’ll actually make money on those you do sell rather than punting them onto hire car fleets.
Anyway, all of that is his problem. Yours? Whether to choose it. There are bigger cars. There are more fun cars. There are more premium-feeling cars. There are certainly more premium-badged cars, and there are SUVs, which is back to where we came in: the 508 is obviously none of those.
I’ve always thought that a car in this segment really needs to give you a reason to buy one. The premium stuff has the right badge on the nose. A Mondeo is really good to drive, although this is better than the rest. A Superb is vast at the money, although the accommodation is actually fine. The 508, then, isn’t stacked with reasons you should definitely go out and buy one. But, then, nor does it give you the remotest reason not to. I quite like it. You might not. That’s fine. They’re not going to try to force you, and I like that even more.
I CAME, I SAW, I-COCKPITTED
The digital instrument panel that makes up part of the Peugeot i-cockpit theme is standard on all 508 models and seems to us to sit higher than ever, although we suspect that tall drivers will find some dials obscured unless they accept a particular compromise in their favoured driving position.
Still, now it comprises a 12.3in digital screen, on which, in its regular ‘dial’ mode, you get a speedometer on one side, a rev counter on the other and some other information in the middle, just as with an analogue set-up.
But you can swap that set-up for ‘navigation’ mode, which gives you little roller dials for speed and revs and a 3D map in the middle; or ‘driving’ mode, which keeps the roller dials but increases the size of information about lane keep assist and cruise control and the like; or ‘night vision’, if you’ve ticked that box and it’s working. Or, finally, you can personalise it and put what you like at each side and in the centre.
You scroll between all of these using a button on the steering wheel, which, given that you’re likely to pick one and stick with it forever, seems a waste of a button.
The BMW-esque kick around the rear windows is a sweet, if derivative, touch, although it makes for a really small frameless quarterlight. MP
Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, diesel
Power 174bhp at 3750rpm
Gearbox 8-spd automatic
Kerb weight 1683kg
Top speed 146mph
Fuel economy 60.1mpg
CO2, tax band 131g/km, 27%
Rivals Ford Mondeo, Skoda Superb