Wow, what a car Peugeot has served up here! The new 508 looks fantastic, it has a superb cabin with some of the French brand's deeply impressive technology crammed into it, there's a range of strong drivetrains to choose from, the chassis is a delight and it's a clever piece of design that hides a fastback rear. So why are we not singing from the rooftops about the all-new 508? Time to find out...
In the Metal:
The Peugeot 508 looks as good in the metal as it does in the pictures. Better, in fact. Crikey, it's a handsome machine - and not just by the standards of the three-box saloon, but by the standards of all modern vehicles. It appears as if it has just prowled off a motor show stage as a concept car, what with its vertical slashes of LED daytime running lights at the front and that signature black rear lamp arrangement, which spans the width of the boot. Sportier GT-Line models ape the look of this GT variant, with all such 508s gaining a chequered grille and meaner LED headlights to only further accentuate their Gallic beauty. Finish a GT model like this in Ultimate Red and, with it sitting on its exquisite 19-inch wheels, it's a truly jaw-dropping thing.
And then you realise its party trick is that it's not a three-box saloon at all, but one of those five-door 'coupes', or fastbacks, that looks sedan-esque, but is actually as practical (nearly) as an estate. Although don't worry, wagon fans, a 508 SW is also on the horizon. Anyway, squint and peer all you like at the rear shots of the 508, but you won't spot the shut lines that form the rear hatch because Peugeot's designers have ingeniously hidden them in and around the rear window. And there's more drama when you open the passenger compartment up through more conventional means, as all four doors forward of that fastback rear are frameless, like a proper coupe's should be.
This all means that, while you might consider the 508 to be a D-segment saloon to rival the likes of the Ford Mondeo, Opel Insignia, Volkswagen Passat or Skoda's similarly hatch-posing-as-saloon Superb, Peugeot itself has its beady eye on more premium fodder - such as the Audi A5 Sportback, BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe and Volkswagen Arteon.
But has the attractive 508 really got the means to take on such upmarket foes? Well, if you judge it on interior finishing, then yes. Emphatically so. The most advanced of the company's iCockpit arrangements is to be found here, which means - yes - tiny button steering wheel, full (and beautiful) 12.3-inch configurable instrument cluster and a crystal-clear touchscreen in the centre console (eight inches on base models, ten inches on anything upwards from there) complete with piano-key shortcuts beneath. It not only looks wonderful, but functions delightfully too, and there's a generous smattering of toys on this flagship specification to help seal the deal.
However, the 508 isn't quite perfect inside. One, that automatic gear lever - it's not the first time Peugeot has employed it, but the crooked stick isn't pleasant or intuitive to use. Two, the paddle shifts - why does only the plasticky little end flap move, and not the whole paddle? It feels bizarre to operate. Three, who on Earth thought it would be a good idea to mount the cruise control stalk in such a position on the column that the only place you can see it clearly, with the steering wheel straight, is if you're standing outside the car? Try peering over, under or around the wheel's rim and you won't be able to fathom out what any of the buttons do, so you'll need to familiarise yourself with the switches before you set off, because you don't want to be jabbing in an unnecessary quarter-turn of lock at 110km/h just because you're trying to set the cruise. Four, big, plush headrests might have seemed a good idea for the rear seats when the car was a 'proper' saloon in its early design phases, but once it got that shallow, sloping rear screen for its fastback production guise, they have the effect of transforming rear visibility from 'poor' to 'utterly abject'. And five, anyone taller than six foot who is forced to sit in the back is going to find their head brushing the anthracite cloth that lines the roof of the Peugeot, because it is not a great piece of packaging in the rear.
Right, mini-rant over. Peugeot will kick off the 508 with three engines: two BlueHDi diesels, of either 1.5 or 2.0 litres in capacity; and a 1.6-litre PureTech petrol. All of these are four-cylinder motors and all of them drive the front wheels of the 508, mainly through the new eight-speed 'EAT8' automatic gearbox - only the 130hp 1.5-litre BlueHDi has a six-speed manual option, as all other 508s are self-shifters from the off. Power ranges from 130- to 180hp on the diesels, and the PureTech comes with either 180hp or, for the GT, 225hp. Indeed, the 225hp petrol and the 180hp 2.0-litre diesel engines are reserved exclusively for the semi-performance GT models.
This is an exceptionally good car to drive. It takes barely a few kilometres before you notice how of-a-piece its controls are. Nothing particularly stands out as mesmerising, but the lightness and directness of its steering, the suppleness of its body and wheel control, the brilliance of its three-stage adaptive dampers (standard on the GT cars), the perfectly modulated brake pedal with its instant bite and the eager willingness of the 1.6-litre turbocharged drivetrain all make the 508 feel suitably luxurious and deeply talented. Oh, and the ride is magnificent. The Peugeot oozes through town in near silence, it lopes onto faster motorways with barely a noticeable increase in the cabin's decibel levels and then it keeps its composure when you start driving the 508 like a hooligan.
This is when you discover what a peach of a chassis it is. It has underpinned several of the firm's products in very recent years and not one of them has driven anything less than superbly. The 508 is no exception. There's minimal understeer to report, albeit not much in the way of lift-off oversteer either, and the grip levels in the dry are insane for a two-wheel-drive car with the power going to the front axle. The dampers do a marvellous job of holding the 508's graceful body in check, even during the fastest and most aggressive of cornering, and the result is the Peugeot gets into a flowing and ultimately rewarding groove on the right roads. In fact, you could possibly say it's like an elegant, grown-up version of a 308 GTi, which is high praise indeed for a big family car like this.
So, we thoroughly enjoyed driving the 508 GT, but it loses half a mark here, for two reasons. First, there might be a button to disable the traction control, but once you go above a certain speed, the car thinks for you and re-engages the system. That speed appears to be about 43km/h. So you can't get a feel for what the Peugeot's chassis can do without the electronics. And second, the 1.6-litre engine doesn't sound very nice. It's not bad, by the same token, but there's a lot of turbo whistle overlaying a rather gruff combustion note, which doesn't exactly acoustically match up to the way the 225hp 508 can pile on the speed. A sports exhaust might be an option Peugeot wants to give careful consideration to in the near future for this specific model.
What you get for your Money:
We're still waiting for Peugeot to qualify prices and specs for the 508 here. Equipment and value will be absolutely key to its success, as well, because if it is priced aggressively compared to the premium four-door coupes it is targeting, it would make it a tremendously tempting car. However, if it just looks expensive compared to the Insignia, Mondeo et al, then Peugeot might have made a mistake...
A glowing report card, then, for the all-new Peugeot 508, which completely charmed us within seconds of making its acquaintance and then went on to make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside about the brand's future. Until we thought of something quite alarming.
Which is: who is going to buy the 508? Peugeot assures us there's still enough margin in the European D-segment (which is what, officially, the 508 competes in) to make the fastback worthwhile, but customers are flocking (rightly or wrongly) in their droves to SUVs, which - along with the expansion of the premium cars like the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 - is killing off the traditional 'large family car' as we know it.
Therefore, we worry that the undoubtedly immensely gifted Peugeot 508 might just be one of the best cars you very rarely see on the roads. And that makes us sad, because the French company has pulled out all the stops here and given us a right stormer. Shame it'll not tempt people out of their inferior crossovers, isn't it?