After decades of resolutely conventional if well executed D-segment offerings, Peugeot has tried something different with the latest 508. It deserves credit for doing so, but has the market recognised and rewarded its innovation?
For over a century, Peugeot has been the very essence of French conservative respectability. Its automobiles have, by and large, been well engineered, durable and reliable, with quietly elegant and unflashy styling. At the heart of its range has always been a medium / large saloon car, a natural and uncontroversial choice for middle-class professionals in France and beyond.
The post-WW2 series of such cars began with the Pininfarina styled 403 in 1955, a neat and contemporary looking RWD car with smooth ponton(1) styling. It was manufactured for over a decade in saloon, estate, coupé, van and pick-up versions and sold in excess of one million units. The 403 was joined, then succeeded(2) by the handsome 1960 404 model. The 404 was produced in a similar range of variants to the 403. Its modern styling was an immediate hit, but it became exceptionally well regarded for its quality and durability. The 404 was sold widely and was particularly popular in developing countries, where its robustness was an especially valuable quality. Almost 2.9 million units were sold over three decades on the market.
Following the discontinuation of European production of the 404 in 1975(3), Peugeot covered the market segment with the slightly smaller FWD 305 and larger RWD 504 and 505 models until 1987. That year saw the launch of the 405, a new D-segment FWD model that quickly established itself as a success, thanks to its elegant styling, again by Pininfarina, and excellent ride and handling characteristics. It was voted European Car of the Year in 1988 and went on to sell over 2.5 million units(4).
The successor to the 405 was launched in 1995. The 406 was, in essence, a slightly enlarged and more refined version of its predecessor, maintaining its strengths and adding more space and comfort. The styling of the saloon and estate models was elegant and understated, if perhaps a little too derivative of the 405.
Nevertheless, the 406 was still adjudged to be the pick of the mainstream contenders and was even a match for the German premium trio in many respects, if not car park bragging rights. An exceptionally pretty Pininfarina designed 406 coupé, with more than a hint of Ferrari to it, was a fitting halo model for the range. The 406 remained on the market for nine years during which time a total of almost 1.7 million units were sold.
This was, unfortunately, the point at which things began to go wrong for Peugeot. The aforementioned German premium trio were making deep inroads into the mainstream D-segment market, thanks to attractive lease-finance rates based on their models’ lower levels of depreciation. Peugeot realised that it could not simply reprise the sober if elegant conservatism of the 405 and 406 again, so it went for a more radical and distinctive style for the 407, which was launched in 2004.
The new saloon was characterised by an unusually long front overhang with large headlamps swept back into the front wings. The windscreen was very deep and steeply raked, lending the car a distinctly cab-forward aspect that exacerbated its awkwardly short screen to front axle ratio. The rear side window had an unusual reverse-raked trailing edge, behind which was a broad triangular C-pillar. Overall, the car looked as though Peugeot had simply taken the centre section of the smaller 307 C-segment hatchback and tacked new front and rear ends onto it.
The 407 estate was, if more coherent, barely less controversial, with a reverse-rake D-pillar bisecting the two-part fixed rear side window. Unwisely, Peugeot chose to design the 407 coupé in-house and made a complete hash of it. All three variants shared an overly large front grille that gave them a piscine appearance, exacerbated on the coupé by gills ahead of the front wheels.
The market did not appreciate Peugeot’s attempt to do something different with the 407: total sales over seven years were under 750,000 units. By comparison, Ford sold almost 1.1 million Mondeos and Opel / Vauxhall over a million Vectra / Insignia models over the same period.
Chastened by its experience with the 407, Peugeot decided to revert to a much less polarising design with its 2011 replacement, the 508. This was an altogether more conventional saloon and estate duo, although the shape of the head and tail lights exacerbated an unfortunate impression that the car was drooping at both ends. In any event, if potential buyers were no longer repelled, they were now merely indifferent: total European sales over eight years were just 383,175 units.
Of course, sales of all mainstream D-segment saloons and estates were now being squeezed by the relentless rise of the SUV / crossover. Ford still managed to shift over 500,000 Mondeos and Opel / Vauxhall over 700,000 Insignias over the same period, so Peugeot’s decision to play it safe with the 508 was apparently of little benefit.
So, where next? Peugeot realised that the virtues of space, comfort and practicality on which D-segment saloons and estates traditionally sold to European buyers were now fully met by much more fashionable crossovers. It could at this point have decided to abandon the market segment completely, as Ford is planning to do when the current Mondeo ends production in March 2022. Instead, it decided to reinvent the 508 as a four-door coupé, where space and practicality would be subordinate to visual appeal, even in the estate variant.
The latest 508, launched at the Geneva motor show in March 2018, is a strikingly handsome car, to my eyes at least. Its best aspect is the rear three-quarter view, which shows off its rakish lines to best effect. The rear light bar appears to be a uniform gloss black when not illuminated, while the frameless door windows give a very smooth DLO and side profile. Only at the front, where the walrus-tusk DLRs look a bit awkward, is the 508 less than very good. Even the estate model largely reprises the saloon’s svelte style.
Except that it is no longer a saloon. Peugeot has given it a large liftback tailgate instead of a boot lid. This is a wise move, as the boot opening on fastback cars such as these is typically very shallow, limiting the access to and usefulness of the boot space.
There are, of course, compromises with the new 508’s format. Reviewers report that headroom is restricted for anyone over 1.8m (6’) tall and rear legroom is very tight for anyone sitting behind a more than averagely tall driver or front seat passenger. Visibility through the letterbox shaped(5) rear window is restricted and the C-pillars create substantial blind spots, as do the steeply inclined and broad A-pillars. Peugeot’s i-cockpit, with its small, low-set steering wheel and high mounted instrument cluster, is not to everyone’s taste.
If these drawbacks are deal-breaking issues for potential buyers, they can always choose the well regarded 5008 crossover instead. At least Peugeot is giving buyers a clear choice to satisfy their different priorities, for which it should be commended. Unlike, for example, Volkswagen, which offers the (more expensive) Arteon four-door coupé alongside the conventional Passat, Peugeot has chosen not to hedge its bets.
Or has it? For the Chinese market, Peugeot offers the 508L, which is not, as one might assume, simply a long-wheelbase version of the European 508. Instead, the 508L is a four-door saloon rather than a five-door liftback. It is larger, but more conventional and lacks some of the distinctive features of the European model, like the frameless door windows. The 508L has also provided the basis for the DS Automobiles DS 9, a large saloon built in China which, unlike the 508L, will be exported to Europe.
Returning to the European 508, is Peugeot’s strategy of offering something distinctively different to a conventional D-segment saloon working? It is difficult to say with certainty so far, but the signs are not auspicious. European sales of the new 508 started strongly in 2019, its first full year on the market, when 41,329 found buyers, but this number fell to 29,011 in Covid-affected 2020. The first five months of 2021 saw sales of 11,175 cars, which is 26,820 annualised, so perhaps the novelty and appeal of the new model has faded rather quickly. If so, this is a shame, as the current 508 might well be Peugeot’s last stab at a D-segment competitor for Europe that is not a crossover.
Author’s note: My thanks to Peter Wilson, assistant editor of The Pugilist, the Peugeot Car Club of New South Wales magazine, and Emmanuelle Flaccus of, l’Aventure Peugeot, the Peugeot Archive, for their assistance in completing this piece.
(1) Ponton is the name that describes full-width bodywork with fully integrated front and rear wings, rather than the separate wings and running-boards that typically featured in pre-war designs.
(2) The 403 and 404 were both in production simultaneously for five years between 1960 and 1965.
(3) Production of the 404 continued in Argentina until 1980 and in Kenya until 1991.
(4) Although the 405 ended production in Europe in 1997, overseas manufacturing continued, notably in Iran until 2020, albeit in heavily modified form.
(5) When viewed from the driver’s seat or via the rear-view mirror.