What are you driving?
For those of us not blinded by the glare of appeal that comes with a premium German car badge, the last decade has been a rather painful time. The mid-market cars - the once dominant likes of the Mondeo, the Avensis, the Passat, and so on - has withered back, its roots and leaves blackened by the frost-like onslaught of both SUVs and posh German four-doors. Which is a shame. Those family four-doors made such good all-rounders, that one weeps for their passing.
Their passing may have just been postponed, a little at any rate, by the arrival of the new Peugeot 508. For every time a slinky, sexy Audi has wandered into my field of vision and I wondered 'why doesn't someone else just make that with their own badge on it?' Peugeot has now provided the answer.
By using the same basic mechanical package as its hugely successful 3008 and 5008 SUVs (EMP2 platform, 1.6 THP turbo petrol and 1.5 and 2.0-litre BlueHDi diesels), Peugeot has created the 508 specifically and precisely to appeal to those for whom an SUV is unappealing. Quite who that may be remains to be seen, but let's dive in anyway...
Name its best bits
To call it a looker is a bit of an understatement. From some angles the 508 is hopelessly gorgeous. I say 'some angles' as there are one or two where you can see Peugeot has had to strain to disguise the 508's height, and its wheelbase looks a little short compared to the VW Arteon (its closest rival in conceptual terms), but overall this is a seriously handsome car, from those LED 'fang' lights that cut into the front bumper to the dark-panel rear lights that do an enjoyable Knight-Rider-esque swoosh from side to side when you unlock the car.
The cabin's pretty pretty, too. There's a lot that's borrowed from the 5008 and 3008 - the all-digital instruments, the eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with the piano-like 'hot keys' to shortcut through the menus, most of the switches and buttons and that oddly tactile automatic gear shifter - but everything's set lower down and more laid back than it would be in the taller SUVs, so it just looks cooler. Feels cooler too - there's some slightly naff fake carbon-fibre sprinkled about, but aside from that, quality is good and the 508 feels tightly assembled.
The 1.5 BlueHDi engine in our test car might be a somewhat unfashionable diesel, but it's a ruddy good engine. As with almost all four-cylinder diesels it tends towards the noisy when cold and at low rpm, but warms up and shuts up in good order. With 320Nm of torque on offer, shove is good in a straight line, and you may not feel the need to upgrade to the larger, more expensive 2.0-litre engine. Shorn of its SUV brothers' bulk, the 508 feels fleet.
It's fine to drive, but perhaps not exceptional. As with so many great French saloons, it's a terrific cruiser, maximising its refinement and comfort levels to great effect. The steering is mostly light, largely lacking in feel, and that small, hexagonal, wheel never quite loses its oddness, but the 508 can still engage and entertain on a twisty road. It's just not a sharp driver's tool in the manner of the Mazda6 or the old Mondeo.
Anything that bugs you?
The rear seats are pretty tight, and under that vast fastback hatchback, the boot is only adequate, rather than commodious. The low-speed ride is too firm and jiggly, too, especially around town - French cars are supposed to glide, no? The menu layout for the infotainment system, in spite of those hot keys, is also occasionally frustrating and confusing. Why is the dimmer switch for the instrument panel buried three menus deep?
And why have you given it this rating?
I think Peugeot may just have done enough here to keep interest alive in the flagging family saloon sector. In its (well-equipped) base model form it's just about affordable enough to be a Mondeo or Superb alternative. Sneak further up the range, to this GT Line model, and it can almost reach out and touch the hem of the likes of the 3 Series, A5 Sportback and C-Class. Being as it's a sleek, sexy and interesting saloon (yes, we know it's technically a fastback), it also manages to feel more like a DS, a true DS, than anything the actual DS brand is doing right now.
What do the rest of the team think?
I adore how the 508 looks - it really is a breath of fresh air, grabbing attention like no other 'normal' family car on the market. I don't love the interior as much, but it is, at least, interesting, and feels of high quality. The frameless doors are a lovely touch, though those with reduced mobility won't enjoy ducking under the low roof to get in and, obviously, you can't expect the largest rear seats or boot in the world to fit under such a svelte exterior. In terms of driving, the 508 is competent and capable, but stops short of being engaging to drive. Still, a highly desirable family car for those that realise that SUVs are compromised vehicles.
Shane O' Donoghue - Editor