Peugeot’s back in the big-car game with its striking new 508 GT. But can the wagon version beat one of the best load-luggers in the mainstream segment, the Mazda 6 Atenza?
Peugeot has been busy catching up on building SUVs in recent times, but this year it has introduced the latest-generation version of a vehicle it was once famous for: the medium/large passenger car.
Think 404, 504, 505, 406… Let’s forget the 407, which the previous 508 replaced in 2011 along with the larger 607.
It seems it’s here to make a statement rather than sales, though. Peugeot Australia, clearly acknowledging the decay in passenger car sales, has opted for just a single, high-specification GT model, though it continues with both sedan and wagon body styles.
And it’s the cargo-oriented Sportswagon variant we have here. While the 2020 Peugeot 508 is categorised officially as a large car, we’re pitching it against the Mazda 6 that is actually bigger (albeit fractionally) despite VFACTS industry stats labelling it a Medium Car.
This generation of the 6 was released way back in 2012, though a major update in 2018 introduced various changes – including the addition of a 2.5-litre turbo engine for higher-spec models.
And that gives us the flagship Atenza wagon as a natural competitor for Peugeot’s fancy new load-lugger.
Pricing and specifications
The Peugeot 508 Sportswagon is priced from $55,990, carrying a $2000 premium over the sedan, but still set to be the more popular variant according to the French brand.
It could be viewed as bold pricing considering another $7K/$8K can get you into a wagon from Audi or BMW. You wouldn’t get the same level of equipment, though.
The GT’s interior highlights include nappa leather upholstery, heating and massage functions for the front seats, wireless smartphone charging and a Focal 10-speaker, 515-watt audio.
Standard technology also includes adaptive cruise control with autonomous steering function, blind-spot monitoring, high-beam assist, fatigue warning, keyless entry/start, front and rear wide-angle cameras, adaptive dampers, gesture tailgate, 10.0-inch touchscreen and a customisable 12.3-inch digital driver display.
Aside from some paint choices, the only two options are a $2500 sunroof (fitted to our test car) and 19-inch alloy rims ($1224 not including tyres or fitment) instead of the standard 18s on our test car.
A non-panoramic sunroof and 19-inch alloy wheels are both standard on the Mazda 6 Atenza, and the gear-for-gear comparison looks even more in favour of the Japanese wagon when its pricing starts lower – at $51,190 before on-road costs are added.
It gets better, because the front seats – also nappa leather – have ventilation as well as heating, and the 6’s rear seats and steering wheel also have heating.
The Mazda matches most of the 508’s tech, with both models sharing AEB, lane-departure/keeping systems, front/rear sensors, LED headlights and speed-sign notification.
Before it all sounds completely one-sided, though, the Mazda 6’s touchscreen is two inches smaller (8.0 inches), its adaptive cruise doesn’t feature a self-steering mode, the Mazda’s Bose audio isn’t as powerful (232 watts), and there’s no semi-auto parking system.
The 6’s 7.0-inch TFT instrument panel is also smaller and simpler than the Peugeot’s driver display, though it counters to some extent with a colour head-up display.
Warranty and servicing
Both manufacturers provide five-year warranties and complementary roadside assistance. There’s a big difference between servicing costs, though.
The Mazda 6 will set owners back about $1820 over five years, whereas the Peugeot 508 costs nearly double that for maintenance over the same period: $3507.
Mazda’s annual charges are consistent, ranging from $325 to $354. Peugeot charges a minimum of $600 up to $853.
The only factor in the French wagon’s favour is 20,000km intervals – double Mazda’s – which benefit owners who do significant annual mileage.
Practicality and space
America’s liking for big sedans and Europe’s preference for not-so-big wagons gives us an anomaly with the Mazda 6: the wagon is actually shorter than the sedan both in length (4800 v 4865m) and wheelbase (2750 v 2830mm).
The wagon’s 506L boot is still bigger, though only by a relatively small amount of 32L. The 508 wagon has a 530L boot compared with the 487L volume of its 40mm-shorter sedan twin.
As on paper, visually there’s little in it. Without the wheel-house intrusions found in the Mazda, the 508’s boot is indeed a bit wider (112 v 102 centimetres), though the 6’s boot is then that bit longer (109 v 104cm).
Tape measures aside, both boots are usefully big (with temporary spare wheels beneath). And practical. Each provides a net partition to prevent items falling into the main cabin, low loading lips, cargo blinds, bag hooks and 12-volt sockets.
The 508 offers elastic storage straps and the Mazda has side storage trays. Tie-down points for both, too, though the Peugeot is alone in offering adjustable load rails – and that hands-free/auto tailgate.
Release levers flop down the seatbacks in both vehicles. Peugeot quotes a 1780L total cargo space compared with the Mazda’s 1648L, though the 6’s seats fold virtually flat whereas the 508’s don’t. That makes a difference when loading larger items.
Cabin design and comfort
Peugeot didn’t leave striking design for the exterior only. The 508’s stylish cabin – accessed by frameless doors usually reserved for coupes and helping to create that low roof line – emphasises the GT badge with a heavy sporting flavour.
With its pretend carbon-fibre trim sections, wedgy dash and hexagonal instrument binnacle, there’s even a hint of Lamborghini to the design.
It also feels like the best execution yet of the company’s i-Cockpit layout. The steering wheel feels even smaller in the 508 than it does in smaller Peugeots, yet importantly it doesn’t obscure the digital driver display to the (annoying) extent it does in the likes of the 2008 SUV and 308 hatchback. It’s still not perfect, though.
Beyond the importance of speedos, it’s worth being able to see the instrument ‘cluster’ because it features cool-looking, customisable graphics.
Dials mode is a digital take on the conventional speedo and tacho, Driving mode has a vertical speedo and tacho, Navigation is self-explanatory, and Minimum shuts out all info to focus on a digital speedo (and speed-sign advisory). Personal brings up some basic trip info.
It’s just not as customisable to the same extent as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit or VW’s Active Info Display.
In the centre of the dash, the driver-oriented 10.0-inch infotainment widescreen display is more harmoniously integrated than in other Peugeots.
Contemporary graphics combine with ease of use, and there’s smartphone integration. The Focal audio system promises more than it delivers, though – lacking in bass and offering nothing special in terms of clarity. (The Beats system we sampled in the $24,990 Volkswagen Polo Style the same week was far superior.)
Seven piano key shortcut buttons below the display add to the system’s user-friendly nature (though can be difficult to see, owing to glare), while adding to both quality and style underneath is a slick-looking row of haptic touch buttons for heating and ventilation controls.
Piano black on both the infotainment surround and centre console is perhaps a case of gloss overkill, though doesn’t detract from the cabin’s overall premium feel.
The quilted nappa leather seats play a big part here, too – not just looking expensive but generously padded, electrically adjustable, and with a manual cushion extender to ensure under-thigh support for longer legs.
Function hasn’t been forgotten for form. The door pockets are narrow but designed to hold a bottle, there’s a lidded compartment on the rising centre console, a large twin-lid console bin, and underneath the console is a wireless charging tray along with two USB ports. The tray will accommodate larger phones without covers.
The Mazda 6’s interior looks conventional and conservative in comparison, also mirroring its more understated exterior. Yet perhaps that’s exactly the reason the company’s mid-sized model has aged so well.
The Atenza looks particularly upmarket with its range-exclusive trim elements, which introduce traditional Japanese timber and a synthetic suede-like material that feels more tactile than actual suede.
Slim air vents as well as the climate controls look classy, and there’s soft leather flanking the centre console that features smart touches such as a sliding compartment lid and rotary menu controller.
The Atenza also gains an extra dose of technology with its circular 7.0-inch TFT centre ‘dial’, which displays a conventional speedo counter in digital form, speed in digits, and other information such as distance-to-vehicle-ahead selection for the adaptive cruise. It’s flanked by regular physical dials for the rev counter (left) and fuel/engine temp gauges (right).
The 8.0-inch infotainment system looks small in this size of car, though, and the Mazda 6 runs the outgoing MZD Connect system rather than the much improved interface that debuted in the latest Mazda 3.
Medium-sized door pockets offer more storage space than the Peugeot’s, though the 6’s console bin is smaller and the storage tray for phones misses out on inductive charging.
Leg room in the rear is agreeable despite the wagon losing 8cm in its wheelbase compared with the Mazda 6 sedan. Head room is plentiful, though toe space will prompt rear passengers to ask those up front to raise their seats. We don’t recommend trying to squeeze three adults into the back.
The wood and pseudo-suede trim continues the quality up back, and practical nods come in the form of door pockets with angled bottle holder sections and an armrest with cupholders and a lidded tray, inside of which are two USB ports (one an iPad-friendly 2.1a socket). There are also rear vents.
Peugeot’s wagon has a 4cm-longer wheelbase, though rear space is similar in all respects. It’s not as comfortable, however, despite softer cushioning. The 508’s short, flat bench leaves the legs of even average-height adults in a slightly knees-up sitting position, while the seatback is too upright.
A little bit more width to the 508’s cabin allows three adults to squeeze in if necessary (but you would want to know the people very well), and the 508 matches the 6 for centre armrest, cupholders, vents, and two (regular) USB ports. It also adds a ski port, and the ISOFIX child-seat points are tidily hidden by zips.
On the road
The new 508 sits on Peugeot’s EMP2 platform, which is good news as this architecture has done good things for the likes of the 308 and 3008.
Similarly light for its segment with a kerb weight of just 1440kg, there’s a sportiness to the way the 508 drives – befitting its dynamic exterior design.
It’s best equipped for twistier tourist routes when the electronically adjustable suspension is switched into Sport mode, which allows the 508 GT to turn into corners more assertively and maintain extra composure over bumpy surfaces.
The front-drive 508’s enthusiasm for changing direction is complemented by fairly direct steering. The undersized steering wheel adds to the sporty sensation, though it needs more heft in Sport mode and offers keen drivers nothing in terms of feel.
There’s no torque steer if accelerating with gusto out of corners, though perhaps it simply doesn’t get a chance to materialise as the 508’s stability-control system is a little too enthusiastic to reduce engine power.
While the GT does its best to impersonate the plush-riding 406 of early last decade on country roads, where it also rolls along quietly, the Comfort mode could be more effective at cushioning occupants over potholes in the city and suburbs.
On average-quality roads, you’re often conscious of the suspension working away, and enough to prompt us to caution against the optional 19-inch wheels – even if they would further improve the GT’s aesthetics by better filling the wheel arches.
Mazda isn’t an adaptive-dampers kind of company. Its engineers instead prefer to work on a single suspension set-up that works for both handling and comfort, though often with a bit more emphasis on the former.
That’s often resulted in firm low-speed rides as a trade-off for ‘zoom-zoom’ cornering characteristics, but here we have a Mazda wagon that errs more on the side of pampering.
Because while the first- and second-generation Mazda 6s were widely regarded as the driver’s picks of the mainstream medium-car segment in their day, today’s 6 isn’t quite as sharp to drive as the 508 GT (in its Sport mode).
It’s not a huge margin as the 6 is still highly competent at tackling a set of curves, and it’s more fun out of uphill corners where there’s some brief wheelspin from the inside-front wheel that barely interrupts the driver’s request for heavier acceleration.
The Mazda’s electric steering is also even smoother than the Peugeot’s and more ideally weighted in our view. Torque steer only presents itself when accelerating aggressively in a straight line, and it’s mild rather than violent tugging of the steering wheel.
More importantly for a car (and brand) trying to push further up-market, the 6 Atenza’s ride is impressive. Despite the Mazda’s larger, 19-inch wheels, it's more compliant around town than the 508, while continuing to offer a similarly pleasant ride on freeways and country roads.
Mazda’s efforts to quell cabin noise in its vehicles are also bringing results. Tyre roar – historically an Achilles heel for the company – is subdued even on coarse-chip surfaces, while wind noise is kept to a minimum even at freeway speeds, and less noticeable than in the Peugeot.
While these wagons stretch to 4.8m, they’re easy to park once you find a suitably sized space thanks to sensors front and back, plus '360-degree' cameras.
The bird's-eye views differ as the Mazda’s is immediate, whereas the Peugeot’s doesn’t start building the picture until you’re moving.
Neither feed impresses for picture quality, though the 508 is extra useful by also showing a close-up of the Peugeot’s bumpers as you get closer to a parked car or obstacle.
Performance and efficiency
The 508 GT’s 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo is the first petrol engine available in Australia to incorporate a soot-busting particulate filter in its exhaust system. While such filters have been commonplace in diesels, the high sulphur content of Australian fuel has until now ruled them out for petrols.
Peugeot found a solution, though 95 premium is the minimum fuel required.
It’s a likeable engine beyond its cleanliness. Endearingly smooth and keen to rev, it too fits in with the Sportswagon theme. There’s even a muted growl during acceleration, if amplified via the speakers.
The Aisin eight-speed auto that’s standard to GT-badged models manages the process of changing gears smoothly and promptly, while a Manual mode gives drivers the option of using the paddle-shifters (though they’re fixed to the steering column).
Although the 508 GT is light for a wagon of this size, it’s also about 200kg heavier than the 308 GT hatch that shares the same engine. So, there are times – particularly hills – when its 165kW/300Nm engine would welcome extra muscle. There’s also some initial lag.
If we were reviewing the Mazda 6 Atenza of early 2018, we would be saying the same thing about a shortage of torque with its 2.5-litre petrol engine. But now, like the GT, it benefits from the excellent turbocharged 2.5-litre four-cylinder Mazda first used in its CX-9 seven-seater SUV.
There’s a 21 per cent spike in peak power, to 170kW, but the biggest difference to the non-turbo engine is the leap in torque from 252Nm to 420Nm – which is also produced at a much more useable spot in the engine range: 2000rpm v 4000rpm.
It’s clearly a stronger engine than the Peugeot’s 1.6-litre, providing more urgent in-gear acceleration and able to hold a gear on inclines where the 508 needs to drop down a ratio. Turbo lag isn’t an issue, either, and it’s generally more linear in the way it delivers power to the front wheels.
The auto is only a six-speed, though you never feel shortchanged on gears. The 6, too, gives drivers the option to use paddle-shifters, and they’re more helpfully attached to the steering wheel.
Don’t bother with the available Sport mode, which seems pointless. There’s already sufficient throttle response, and it changes little except making the engine noisier and more hyperactive.
The Peugeot’s extra ratios see it running on the freeway at a very lazy 1850rpm, though the Mazda is hardly exerting itself with 2100rpm at 110km/h.
Mazda’s bigger engine invariably fills its cylinders with more fuel, while it misses out on the cylinder-deactivation technology of the non-turbo 2.5-litre.
Trip computers during testing pointed to the Peugeot saving a couple of litres of fuel over 100km – at 10.9L/100km after dynamic and freeway testing compared with the Mazda’s 13.0L/100km before they settled into the 8.0s and 10.0s, respectively, with further driving.
The official consumption gap is 1.3 litres: 7.6L/100km (Mazda 6) v 6.3L/100km.
The Mazda’s ability to run on regular unleaded compensates.
Let’s put aside the fact that for the same money here you could have Mazda or Peugeot SUVs with bigger boots and seven seats in the form of the CX-9 (albeit in lower-spec Touring guise) and 5008 GT.
This twin test caters for more traditionalist parents who prefer the design and handling characteristics of a wagon.
And what two fine specimens we have here. The Mazda 6 Atenza and Peugeot 508 GT are so different in philosophy that for some buyers the choice will come down simply to aesthetics: the French brand’s dynamic styling versus the Japanese carmaker’s mature elegance.
The driving experiences could be similarly categorised, making the 508 the pick for those who want the sportiest drive and the sportiest engine.
But if wagons are ultimately about pragmatism, the Mazda convinces that bit more with its smoother manners, more effortless engine, more comfortable (and flatter-folding) rear seat, and better all-round value.