Sales of conventional saloon cars have been falling for over a decade. So much so, in fact, that even premium manufacturers like BMW and Audi have attempted to diversify with stylish four-door coupes, sports cars and SUVs.
To combat this demise, Peugeot has completely reinvented its sole saloon offering. The 508 is no longer a frumpy three-box; from July the French firm’s executive option morphs into a fashionable ‘fastback’. A redesigned estate version, badged 508 SW, arrives early in 2019.
It’s certainly a more striking design than before, lifting many of its exterior details from the hugely successful 3008 and 5008 SUVs. The fastback is lower and wider than the old 508, giving it a squatter and more purposeful stance on the road. The standard-fit LED daytime running lights offer a sharper signature, while the sloping roofline gives away nothing to rivals like the Volkswagen Arteon or Mazda 6.
It’s equally impressive inside. Everything we’ve grown to love about other modern Peugeots has been put into practice in the 508, with excellent build quality and a dynamic driving position. The car’s designers have implemented an adaptation of the familiar i-Cockpit dashboard layout, using a small, squared-off steering wheel and raised dials.
Automatic models (only the entry-level diesel uses a manual gearbox) get a raised centre console, with the joystick-style gearlever sitting alongside a space-saving electronic parking brake. Basic cars get an eight-inch capacitive touchscreen (Allure and up use a 10-inch HD display) – and while the air-conditioning controls are hidden within a sub-menu in the infotainment system, everything else is accessed via the intuitive piano key shortcut buttons.
All cars come with a fairly generous spec sheet, although it’s easy to see why most buyers are expected to bypass the entry-level Active models and plump for the better-equipped Allure or GT Line cars.
Allure adds things like ambient lighting, heated faux-leather seats and a reversing camera to the Active’s 3D connected nav, DAB radio, automatic lights and rain-sensing wipers. All cars boast autonomous emergency braking and Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA), while that better-specced Allure gets Active Blind Spot Detection, road sign recognition and Driver Attention Alert.
GT and First Edition models, which are only available with the most powerful engines, top the range with LED lights, wireless phone charging and 18-inch wheels. The interior is given a lift with contrast stitching, flocked door pockets and aluminium pedals. It’s a really lovely place to sit, in fact, and easily rivals a BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe for fit and finish.
Of course, in the move from conventional saloon to four-door fastback, compromises have been made when it comes to practicality. In reality, Peugeot says, few buyers will ever put passengers in the back of a car like this – and if they do, they’re likely to be children. Still, knee and legroom are good, though headroom is at a premium for adults over six feet all.
The 487-litre boot is actually 14 litres bigger than before, however, while the hatchback tailgate will make loading bigger items much easier. Peugeot claims a total of 1,537 litres with the rear seats folded flat, too, which just 61 litres shy of the outgoing SW estate’s load capacity. There’s even room for a spare wheel under the boot floor.
But owners of cars like this cover notoriously high mileages, so what the Peugeot 508 is like to live with on a daily basis will revolve heavily around how it drives. Pleasingly, the latest version displays a massive improvement over the car it replaces.
Aside from a slightly fidgety ride around town, the new 508 is a refined and surprisingly sporty alternative to its German rivals. On the motorway, our BlueHDi 160 diesel test car was quiet and composed, with a firm but well-judged ride. It’s not overly soft like the old one, yet it doesn’t crash over ridges and ruts like some of the more sport-biased saloons.
With all that kit, however, it’s a shame the 508’s adaptive cruise control isn’t more adept at removing the stress from long motorway journeys. While it’ll happily maintain a safe distance from the car in front, the LKA set-up is jerky, and on occasions it dropped out completely. Rival systems are smoother and more intuitive to use.
Like on the firm’s other models, however, the small steering wheel gives the 508 a darty and dynamic feel – and with very little body roll, it’s surprisingly fun to drive. The relatively short paddles are fixed to the steering column, though, which means they aren’t always where you want them when fishing for an upshift mid-corner. A rear-wheel drive BMW is sharper, then, but the Peugeot is on par with the Arteon when it comes to driver fun.
Our car’s punchy 158bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine is expected to be one of the biggest sellers, and it’s easy to see why; with plenty of torque and a smooth eight-speed auto box, few buyers will be left wanting when it comes to extra shove. Even under heavy load, the four-cylinder BlueHDi unit rarely raises its voice.
Peugeot will also offer a cheaper 1.5-litre 128bhp diesel engine from launch, as well as a more powerful 178bhp 2.0-litre. There’s a pair of petrols, too; the entry-level 1.6 PureTech also boasts 178bhp, while the range-topping ‘225’ is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder with 222bhp. Fuel economy and emissions are competitive for a car of this size, with CO2 ratings ranging from 98g/km (BlueHDi 130) to 131g/km (PureTech 225). A plug-in hybrid is due some time next year.
For now, however, Peugeot is unable to give us a representative finance example for any model in the range. Prices start at exactly £25,000, and while the £31,050 list price of our middling diesel version seems steep, the French firm’s ability to nail the monthlies could be the difference between a good car and a great one.