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Peugeot revives its sexy saloon magic

Wednesday, 13th March, 2019 4:34pm

To those of us who came of age in the eighties and nineties, Peugeot really meant something. A combination of the amazing 205 T16 rally car of the eighties (driven by giants such as Vatanen and Kankunen) and the Le Mans-winning 905s, with the astonishing 3.5 litre V10 engine would have been enough their own.

But then there were the wonderful road cars. Cars such as the 205 (which even when it wasn’t a GTI was utterly delightful to drive), the 306 (ditto) and the 405 saloon saw to it that Peugeot’s reputation for creating truly entertaining drivers’ machines out of humble family car ingredients was unmatched.

The 405 has a particularly special place in my heart — my dad had one, a 2.0 litre injection with the optional boot spoiler, and it was one of the cars with which I cut my driving teeth on the roads of West Cork.

Never, well rarely anyway, was tarmac and machine melded in such perfect harmony, with the 405’s beautifully engineered steering making good my cack-handed teenage fumblings on the road between Schull and Skibbereen.

Sadly, that magic touch was lost for a while, and Peugeot fell into a state of enthusiast disrepair, but the good news is that, of late, the old touch has returned. The 3008 and 5008 SUVs are among the best of their breeds, and now we have this — the new 508.

Although it shares a badge with its sensible, upright predecessor, the fact is that this 508 is a very, very different beast.

Gone is the slightly bland styling of the old 508, and in comes something far more daring. The 508 is less a trad four-door saloon, and more a four-door coupe in the mould of the Mercedes-Benz CLS. Or, slightly more realistically, the Volkswagen Arteon.

Although it uses the same basic mechanical package as the 3008 and 5008, you’d never know it — the shape is low and very slinky, and the styling has moved on a notch.

Although there are some stylistic similarities between this and the SUV models, there are also dramatic touches such as those LED slashes below the headlights on the nose; the frameless, coupe-like doors; the LED brake lights that swish from side to side, Knight Rider-style, when you plip the unlock button.

Pop the frameless door and slide behind the wheel and you’re confronted with the best interpretation yet of Peugeot’s ‘iCockpit’ layout. I know not everyone appreciates the combination of high-set digital instruments, small, low-set hexagonal steering wheel, and big central touchscreen, but I’ve always kinda liked it.

Here, it’s been improved by bringing the touchscreen down and back a bit, bringing it within easier reach of an outstretched finger, while the lower-slung driving position gels better with the small wheel than does the perched-up seating of the 3008 or 5008.

The 508’s cabin also happens to be beautifully made, with lots of (fake, but still handsome) carbon-fibre, sculpted seats, and a sense of very high quality. It’s a lovely place to be, and not too impractical — the rear seats are tolerably roomy, and the boot, under that big liftback hatch, is reasonably useful at 487 litres. Could it have been made bigger, more Arteon-like? Doubtless so, but Peugeot’s theory is that if it’s space you’re after, you’ll naturally gravitate to the 3008 or 5008.

The 508 is more for selfish drivers who aren’t as bothered about rear space, but for those who do want to mix practicality with their coupe-like styling, there is a thoroughly gorgeous 508 SW sports estate coming later this year.

Also on the coming soon list is a plugin hybrid variant, with CO2 emissions of just 49g/km but for now there’s a more traditional mix of petrols and diesels. The petrol model, using the familiar 1.6 litre THP turbo four-cylinder, is possibly the best engine in the 508’s lineup.

It’s smooth, has excellent punch, and yet can be surprisingly frugal (better than 45mpg on a long run).

Diesel is still important for many saloon buyers though, especially in the company car market, so perhaps this 130hp 1.5 litre BlueHDI diesel represents a good balance between performance and economy. Certainly, you’d not feel any need to upgrade to the 2.0 litre version, so good is its acceleration.

It’s a touch noisy at low speeds, and actually the 508 in general isn’t as happy chuntering around town. The big wheels and low-profile Michelin tyres mean that the low speed ride bobbles and fidgets more than you’d ideally like. Better by far to get it out onto the open road.

Motorways are a happy place for the 508, where is cruises in very clam refinement and great comfort. Better. though, to go and find the nearest analogue to a French N-road; something with a decent surface and long, sweeping corners.

Hit the drive mode button to find Sport mode and here the 508 is truly at home. While it doesn’t quite have the steering delicacy of that 405 of my youth, neither is it a million miles away.

I’d never describe the 508 as a true drivers’ car — it’s not quite sharp enough for that — but it finds a lovely, flowing rhythm on a good road, one that just makes you want to keep finding more corners, and more tarmac to swish beneath that square-jawed nose.

Will it always be a minority interest compared to Peugeot’s big-selling SUVs? Doubtless so, but for those who appreciate still a low-slung, stylish sports saloon with striking looks and a slick chassis, there’s a lot to appreciate about the 508.

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