2011 Peugeot 508 GT HDi, turbocharged four-cylinder, diesel, six-speed automatic transmission.
Alicante, Spain, isn’t the most salubrious of launch venues. It’s a barely comprehensible mishmash of traditional Spanish architecture and grey concrete high rise buildings erected to house tens of thousands of Brits and other Europeans for whom the words class and elegance are conspicuously absent from their vocabularies. But, crucially for a new car launch in February, the weather is extremely agreeable. And the roads are uniformly excellent throughout the country, meaning the assembled hacks can really explore a new car’s breadth of scope – providing the draconian speed police don’t get in the way of proceedings.
Class and elegance might be complete strangers to most of Alicante’s population but they’re two words being bandied around quite a bit when it comes to the car we’re here to become acquainted with for the first time: the new Peugeot 580. One of my contemporaries, upon discovering that I was attending the first drive of a Peugeot, said he’d rather slash his wrists and, if I’m honest, I was feeling rather ambivalent about the whole thing myself. But after a day and a half of driving the 508 in its various guises, I can report that it’s a car that drags Peugeot into the realms of Audi and Volkswagen for the first time. And that’s quite a statement.
There’s a clue to Peugeot’s aspirations with this car in its nomenclature. 508 doesn’t replace any 507 – that model didn’t exist. It replaces the unfortunate 407 but not only that, it does away with the barge-like 607, too. What do you mean you’ve never heard of the 607 before? Peugeot reasoned that the strides it had made with the new car made it deserving of going up a number from 4 to 5. It’s a car made from big ideas.
Wisely the French company has ditched any Mercedes pretensions it may have had with the 607 and concentrated its time and resources to produce a medium-sized car that should lay to rest the ghost of the past few years. The problem, in the main, for Peugeot, has been that after three or four years, when the cars are sold on to second owners, they’ve often been ropey. The feeling of nearly-newness that German cars seem to possess at that age just hasn’t been there, so residual values have been hammered. This, in turn, has made private and fleet purchasers alike scared to take a punt on Peugeots in the first place. The 508 just might change that.
It’s a handsome car and that’s a promising start. Gone is the guppy face of the 407, gone is the bland rear end. In their stead is a front that looks like a close relative of an Audi and out back is a rump that looks like a previous generation BMW 5-Series, only neater in execution. The overall shape is complex and lends the 508 an air of distinction. It’s colour sensitive, mind, and the choice of alloy wheel design does impact on the visual satisfaction – just as those things matter on the lovely Peugeot RCZ. Get the combination right on either car and it looks brilliant. The SW looks quite lovely, too.
All the visual flair in the world couldn’t make Peugeot a desirable brand if the build quality remained a joke and this is the one area they’ve properly gone to town. Every parts supplier was tasked with upping its game yet still offering value for money, every aspect of the car’s interior was subjected to a rapid ageing process to make sure the car still looked new after three or four years (fleet vehicle managers were invited to witness this by Peugeot, which shows how serious they are when it comes to perceived build quality) and the design was kept simple and classy. Interior space has been improved over the 407 – in fact the 508’s internal dimensions are on a par with those of the outgoing 607 and there’s plenty of room for passengers front and rear, even if they’re above average height. Boot space in the saloon is a generous 545 litres and the SW offers a cavernous 1865 litres with the rear seats folded flat.
It almost goes without saying that the 508 is greener than either of the models it replaces. It’s lighter than the 407 (by 35kg) yet longer (by 10cm). It’s quieter, too, thanks to advancements in sound insulation and there are two, more advanced, suspension options available – the majority of examples being supplied with a MacPherson Strut set up at the front with multi-link at the rear, with the range-topping GT models getting double-wishbones at the front end. There’s stop/start available on the e-HDi version, which offers emissions of just 109g/km and, just to give the Germans a few sleepless nights, there’s practically every toy and gadget available on the options list.
Sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s obvious that the 508 represents a huge leap for Peugeot. The dashboard design is lovely, the instrumentation is smart, the seats are trimmed beautifully and the steering wheel is nice and thick. It’s easily the best cabin in its class and anyone who’s been disappointed that Volkswagen didn’t overhaul the interior of the ‘new’ Volkswagen Passat would be advised to take a seat in the 508. There’s a new, Teutonic feel to everything and, at a stroke, the 508 is no longer competing with Renaults or Citroens. Instead it’ll be battling it out with the Passat and even the Audi A4 for dominance in the world’s company car parks. If middle management types can see past the badge then Peugeot could just pull it off.
On the road the 508 delivers in spades, too. A decent raft of engine and transmissions is available from the outset, with more to come in the near future. For now there’s a trio of 1.6-litre petrol engines and diesels come in 1.6, 2.0 or 2.2-litre form, with the 2.2 HDi offering performance superior to that of the 407’s 2.7-litre V6. They’re all quiet, refined and more gutsy than you might expect.
It feels like a mature, well sorted executive rather than something destined to be a taxi in two years’ time and the driving experience is impressively composed with quick and accurate steering, feelsome brakes and a supple chassis that allows the driver to actually get some enjoyment when behind the wheel. The manual gearboxes can feel a bit clunky but the autos are seamless in the way they shift cogs. In the stop/start e-HDi the only transmission is basically a clutch-less manual and this can take some getting used to. For smooth changes, it’s important to remember to back off the power as you would in any manual otherwise it feels a bit agricultural.
So, all in all Peugeot appears to have a winner on its hands with the 508. It devoured hundreds of kms of Spanish roads with me at the wheel and not once did I think about being in something else. The RCZ was evidently not a one-off and this company has got its mojo back by tackling its problems at the most basic level and starting again from the ground up. Time will tell if their efforts have been a success but, on the basis of my experiences in both the saloon and the SW, I have a hunch that they’ve cracked it at last. The timing could not have been better, either, because the new Passat and Ford Mondeo are nothing more than mid-life refreshers while the 508 is an entirely new model.
It deserves to succeed and it’s nice to see a company as big as Peugeot eating humble pie, admitting it has made mistakes in its design language and quality of construction. Instead of empty words, though, they’ve put in the hours, shaken things up and come back from the brink with a truly excellent car that I can highly recommend. And if they launch a coupe version, well won’t that be a desirable piece of kit? Here’s hoping…
Peugeot Australia boss Ken Thomas, has told CarAdvice that Australia will take 508 in the Allure (upper trim) level coupled with the following engines: eHDI diesel (stop/ start technology with 1.6l HDI diesel), the 2.2l HDI diesel GT, the 2.0l HDI diesel and the 1.6l turbo petrol. We will also gain access to the wagon version. The current production schedule should see 508 on sale by the July Melbourne Motor Show. Prices are not yet known but will be competitive.