We, or rather, they who can, want an A4 or a 5-series or an S-Class. Infiniti and Lexus and Jaguar chip away small numbers but without causing any stress in the German machine. That said, the German big three all lost more ground than Lexus in the UK last year, while Jaguar improved thanks to its SUVs but Infiniti went to pieces. Of the premium contenders it was Volvo which did best, rising 9 per cent.
Into this hotly fought arena comes another French challenger, the fabulous Peugeot 508 Fastback. It is all-new five-door coupe, replacing the 508 saloon. An SW estate is on the way. Its forerunners include the hopeful Citroen C6 and the hopeless Renault Avantime. Its mass market peers range from the Volkswagen Passat and Arteon to the Vauxhall Insignia (now part of Peugeot) and Ford’s once dominant Mondeo, now being offered with a hybrid engine.
These are all terrific cars, in practical terms just as good as the posher brands. They are cheaper to buy but long-term do not keep their value as solidly as the prestige German brands. This influences three-year rental rates and their appeal to fleet buyers. These predictions are made by specialist companies. The 508’s prospects are optimistic. That goes with the territory, ditto the flattering value retention rating. In three years we will know if they were right.
It looks lovely and drives sweetly with impressive mechanical refinement. Prices start at £25,039 for the Active model with a 1.5 litre diesel engine and manual gears. This is the only engine with manual gears. The eight speed automatic is £26,639. It is well equipped. The digital dashboard and touch screen are more intuitive than on the 5008 SUV. The high level instruments and squared-off steering wheel are now Peugeot norms. A bank of flip down “piano” keys select screen functions. Further input is by a subliminal touch and the overhead lights also respond to the same gesture.
The rear seats fold flat in unequal parts and there is a temporary spare wheel under the boot floor. There is plenty of major and minor storage space, including a deep compartment with side hinged lids between the front seats. Navigation is by TomTom.
Another £1,300 buys the more alluring second tier, the aptly named Allure, which brings more engine choice and active suspension on all but the 1.5 diesel. There’s a colour rear camera, speed and traffic sign reading, a hatch in the rear seats for your skis or yard brushes, behind a central armrest, a better info screen, push button ignition, blind spot detection in the power mirrors, flashier alloys. The top trims are GT Line and GT, offered with the most powerful engines, 18 or 19 inch wheels, brighter and energy efficient LED lights front and rear, a power tailgate, plusher fittings.
The car tested was the GT, which has sole use of the most powerful engine, a remarkable 1.6 petrol turbo automatic rated at 221 bhp. It costs £36,014. This is the car tested here. A more economical 175bhp high torque 2-litre diesel is £36,439.
The performance from the 16 turbo is stunning, quiet and smooth. The front wheels are fitted with traction control to deal with wheel spin and steering tug. In theory it helps with grip in snow but the 508 was on broad summer Michelins on its 19-inch alloys so it was almost halted on a moderate hill start on snow. Time for winter rubber.
The low rakish body shape cramps rear headroom and the doorway into the rear seats and to some extent vision. The cabin is narrower than expected, measuring 56 inches between the front doors, more like a family hatchback than a grand tourer executive saloon.
Rear passengers get two USB ports, as do people in the front but they are buried under the central tunnel so large hands will despair. There you will also find a smartphone charging pad. This USB access is a Groupe PSA kink. The manufacturer’s 5008 and the DS7 Crossback are similarly afflicted.
This is also the second Peugeot recently with an unreliable speed sign reader. Mostly it was accurate. Occasionally it was not, and giving a speed limit which is too low could lead to speeding. So much for the brochure’s advice that it leaves “you in no doubt over the speed limit”. Bah.
That’s something of an own goal in a car that in most respects is charming. It parades the latest Peugeot shape, with the 508 lettering on the bonnet – reprising the 504 of the late Sixties. The door windows are frameless. The daytime running lights are long vertical strips either side of the purposeful grille. The view of the tail is just as dynamic with triple “claw” lights at the ends of a lateral glazed strip. The tailgate lip integrates a subtle spoiler lip. This is a great looker.
Verdict: Time to embrace the French lion?