On the basis of its scarcity, Peugeot’s large estate ought to be an also-ran. After a week behind its wheel, it’s a minor revelation.
Estate cars don’t sell the way they used to. Non-German estate cars even less so, which meant that prior to my pre-Christmas trip to the rental car company, where I was supposed to pick up a VW Passat estate (or similar) that was to take two to three people, one to three dogs and quite a bit of luggage all across Germany and back, I’d seen a grand total of two new Peugeot 508 SWs on the roads.
‘Or similar’ turned out to be a Seat Alhambra, which didn’t set my heart aflutter – to say the least. A bit of haggling eventually resulted in a premature Christmas present of sorts, in the form of the metallic olive green Peugeot 508 SW I’d seen on the forecourt and had hoped to be leaving with. So it was to be.
While I always liked this second-generation 508’s appearance – despite a few slightly too busy details and the superfluous ‘lion’s fang’ DRL, I wasn’t expecting an awful lot from the driving experience. At best, I was hoping to encounter Passat-like competence in a slightly more inspiring ambience, although I was somewhat dismissive of Peugeot’s i-Cockpit, which – on the basis of looks alone – seems to try a bit too hard to be different from the norm.
The first surprise came in the non-round shape of the steering wheel. I typically detest such squared-off items, particularly in ‘sporty’ Audis, where I perceive them as a constant source of irritation. In the Peugeot, thanks to its very fast and well-weighed steering, this design takes on a control yoke-like quality, which felt harmoniously in keeping with the car’s overall mien. The main gauges above the steering wheel also worked fine for me (maybe aided by my lanky 1.91m frame), to say nothing of the centre console ergonomics, which turned out to be the best I’ve encountered in a recent car – by some margin.
Like an evolution of BMW’s traditional driver-focused cockpit architecture, the Peugeot’s center console is inclined upwards, toward the dashboard and infotainment display. On a plane below the touchscreen display, a row of physical buttons allow quick access to any main submenu. Again, my physical built might have helped, but I perceived the i-Cockpit’s ergonomics as astonishingly well thought-out.
For most inputs, I could rest my elbow on the centre console, which isn’t the case with many VW models, just as Peugeot’s far mightier (and better funded) rival has abolished physical buttons for the main submenus some time ago. On top of these boons, the 508 even featured a dedicated button for switching off the dreaded lane departure warning system – this needed switching off before every journey (just like a VW), but no browsing through a number of submenus beforehand, which was most welcome.
The graphics were also surprisingly sophisticated. While the Peugeot’s instrument display also featured an overwhelming number of warning icons, these didn’t pop up in annoying or irritating fashion, but would simply flash. In the case of speed limit signs (which are never read with perfect accuracy by the cameras anyway), the 508 refrained from any acoustic reprimands and would only show the speed limit, with the figures turning red if one was driving any faster. On this basis, I felt less like being at the mercy of an incompetent nanny (as I did in a similarly equipped VW Tiguan) and more assisted on a voluntary basis. Chapeau, Peugeot.
Driving the Peugeot wasn’t as much of a revelation, but in this area too, the 508 performed far better than its poor (German) sales performance would suggest. Noise suppression was very good – and welcome, given the turbocharged four cylinder engine’s lack of aural charisma, as was the agile handling. The steering, as stated before, is excellent by modern standards at lower speeds and only becomes a bit too heavy at high (150 kph+) speeds. It delivers no real feedback, but its weighting and responsiveness are well calibrated to almost make up for this. Damping is the only area where the Peugeot veered towards the harsh side, but even so, it was never unsettled, even at 180 kph. All in all, the car always behaved perfectly predictably and remained stable under any circumstances, with unexpected agility.
The 508 drivetrain’s only truly weak spot is its transmission. The eight-speed automatic gearbox was over-eager to change up, resulting in the car feeling a bit gutless at higher speeds or when immediate acceleration was required. Moreover, when caught at (too) low revs, engine vibrations would be transmitted to the central tunnel in an uncouth manner. This behaviour was likely due to the gearbox’s economy-focussed programming, which makes the overall fuel consumption of about 9 litres per 100 kms (31 MPG) appear less than impressive. In fairness, this 508 had only three kilometres on the clock at the start of our trip, which might explain this mediocre result – and, possibly, the failure of the stop-start system (due to ‘inappropriate conditions’), which remained the only glitch, electronic or otherwise, experienced.
I had to drive the final leg of the trip, 800 kilometres from the Swiss border back to Hamburg, in one go, despite a rather nasty cold. Due to the qualities already mentioned, as well as the very good seats (which are second only to Volvo’s), this drive turned out to be only half as awful as I’d feared. I doubt I’d state the same if we’d gotten that Alhambra.
Not only compared to a full-size MPV, the 508 cuts quite a dashing figure. As stated before, I’m no big fan of its ‘fang’ daylight running lights, but even so, I didn’t mind them a great deal. Their opal glass cover clearly separates them from the headlights, which appear far neater solution than many other arrangements (for example on its French competitor, the Renault Talisman). The Peugeot’s low stance also helps lend it an overall appearance that’s not dramatically, but perceivably more athletic than the norm. The frameless windows and – again – unobtrusively interesting colour and (in particular) trim choices result in the impression of a car that’s special in a very inconspicuous way – as befits a family-friendly estate car.
After having experienced the Peugeot 508 in some detail – and not having come across another example while driving 1800 kilometres through Germany, I ended up wondering what keeps this car from being far more popular. A quick browse through the ‘net suggests professional car journalists disagree with my assessment, for a start.
Then there’s the elephant/SUV in the room, of course – what with its taller 5008 sibling outselling the 508 in ridiculous fashion. But there’s another factor I was alerted of when I started discussing the Peugeot with relatives during Christmas: ‘That’s not a proper car!?’ being the first reaction elicited by our holiday motor, followed by widening pupils once I explained that it’s ‘really rather good’.
So it turns out the mantra of German automotive excellence has become properly engrained, certainly on these Teutonic shores. This, I’d argue, is the 508’s biggest hurdle around here. Judged solely on its merits, it most certainly is a good car – a surprisingly good car, given the state Peugeot and PSA were in during its development. Not solely, but particularly against that backdrop, I’m left quietly impressed by what Messrs Tavares, Imparato, Vidal et al have achieved: A car that’s not ‘good for a Peugeot’ or a non-German car. But a good car, full stop. A moderately characterful car too.
When I returned the 508 to the rental car company’s premises, I intentionally parked it next to a car that’s not just its competitor, but what my family member would unquestionably have considered to be a proper car: a BMW 3 series. Try as I might, I failed to find the German premium alternative more attractive than that green Peugeot I’d become rather fond of over the previous days.
Which probably says just as much about the car market anno-2020 as it does about me.