Good looking Peugeot belies medium sector malaise
Ever since the indomitable rush of the German brands to our shores, most of the traditional car sector winners have been forced into retrenching mode, writes Iain Robertson, which has led to major fails from Gallic, Latin and British brands.
There was a time, from the 1960s to the early 1980s, when the Cortina was Ford’s best-selling salvation in the UK. While being ‘bread and butter’ ordinary, through four generations, it became the medium sector ‘king’, providing mass appeal like few models prior to, or even, for that matter, since. In fact, the only car to get close to its undoubted chart success was the Issigonis-designed Austin/Morris 1100/1300 of the same era, although its trip to the top was halted inevitably by its nationalised status, which led to BLMC (as the UK’s motor industry was known) changing a range in its prime to something non-prime.
While the lesson of ‘no government ever being involved in commercial enterprise’ has never been learned, the medium sector (family car class) would undergo gargantuan changes from the middle of the Thatcher era. Although I am not blaming the ‘sainted Mags’, her landmark reign, epitomised by Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character, was responsible for the growth of the German brands in the UK. Porsche had its now customary place within the corporate car parks of our capital city’s sorely spoilt financial trading community, while the new kids on the block were Audi, BMW and Merc. Nothing else mattered, apart from the prominent badge on the prow (or, on the tail, to impress the poor sod following) and the ‘Car in Front’ was emphatically not a Toyota!.
Ford suffered interminable pain from the loss of sales of, initially, Sierra (the Cortina ’jelly-mould’ replacement) and, then, the Mondeo. In some respects, it is little wonder that Dagenham is now a significantly smaller engine plant (shared with Peugeot) and the ‘Blue Oval’ cars and vans are no longer manufactured in this country. However, the erosion of the medium sector was felt far and wide.
Fiat’s last attempt to sell a car in the medium sector came with its Croma model, in 2005, which must obtain ‘classic car’ status soon, for its rarity alone. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the car. It arose during General Motor’s ill-fated partnership with the Italian giant and was based on the Vauxhall/Opel Vectra platform. To be fair to it, it ought to have succeeded, as it fell into the much-abused ‘crossover’ sector and felt more MPV than hatchback. A lowly 900 examples sold in the UK in 2005 alone and Italian production ceased in 2011.
Peugeot, a once proud brand that was easily the Gallic equivalent of Merc in its own market, let alone ours (just look at its repute in remote territories like Africa, for instance), used to enjoy decent medium sector sales in the UK (one of its best export markets). Like Ford, Peugeot no longer produces cars in the UK.
Despite a thirty year run of reducing sales, with cut-price deals being struck with police forces to use its products, Peugeot still feels it important to address the mainstream medium sector, which is predominated by company car registrations these days. The 508 is an inescapably handsome and apposite model that takes the fight directly to the Germans. It even offers an intriguing hybrid version. As long as fleet managers and those few private buyers can get over their Teutonic fixations, there is absolutely no reason for it to fail.
Although it seems like yesterday that the 508 was introduced (actually it went on sale officially in 2011), it was just ‘yesterday’, when Peugeot determined that a mid-life refresher exercise was needed for its mainstream contender. While Peugeot might feel that it needs a medium sector mauler in its line-up, the reality is that the 508 is velvet through and through. There is no question about its build quality, or integrity. Its interior possesses all of the visual purity of an Audi A4, with none of the clinical austerity, which should ensure a tremendous warmth of response. It does from me.
The driving position is perfection, aided by Teutonic amounts of rake and reach adjustability on both steering column and seat base. Tiny tweaks ensure support in all the right places and, whether the driver is Kylie-sized or man-mountain, the instrument faces are all visible, the controls can be accessed readily and the view outwards is uninhibited. Yet, even behind all two meters of me, occupants requiring rear seat space are uncompromised.
Featuring a hint of flat-bottomed steering wheel, rather than the monstrous slices removed from some sporty helms, as is now customary on every middle-grounder, the spokes and space behind them are packed with switches. This is intended for both convenience and safety reasons but, to be frank, I think I prefer a small reach to the centre console than a rash of electronic buttons. You might care to note that I have scarcely flinched in mentioning such switches. Peugeot assures me that I should have no fears about electronic failures, as the company has finally addressed those issues (mainly because it could not continue to dodge the flying armoury).
Beneath the GT model’s bonnet is a transversely located, 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine that develops a most useful 201bhp, mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission. While it boasts a slip-to-the-side manual ratio selector, it is a true auto-box and is thus a lot smoother than even the latest twin-clutch automated-manual devices, not losing out in any way in terms of shift quality, or speed of selection. However, the performance element, while not bristling with urgency, is aided in no small way by the substantial 332lbs ft of pulling potency. As a result, the 508GT despatches the 0-60mph benchmark in a mere 7.9 seconds and feels remarkably strident across its entire, if narrow, power delivery. The car’s top speed is given as 148mph, which is outstanding for an oil-burner and well above the class average.
However, an intriguing diversion lies in the way in which the GT model deals with its normal environment and we shall come to its frugality and emissions figures momentarily. Although unusual, the high-end 508 models benefit from a double-wishbone front suspension option. While MacPherson struts are normal, a multi-link alternative, while adding to the cost aspect slightly, does introduce a level of dynamic grace with which most cars in the class are not renowned. I would venture further to suggest that Peugeot has hiked its GT model onto a different and significantly higher plain as a result. In fact, the normally confused ‘GT’ designation is wholly appropriate in this case, as the 508 devours open road treks with aplomb, with a long-legged cruising gait that is more autobahn viable than any car I have ever driven from a French carmaker. Yes. Grand Tourer is right.
Contemplating its sheer comfort and leather-lined luxury, it is hard to believe that it sips fuel (Official: 49.6mpg; actual: 44.5mpg) and that its CO2 emissions are pegged at 140g/km, which equates to an annual VED of £130, affordable, if not bargain basement. However, it is worth bearing in mind that all this luxury and equipment comes at a price and this is the 508’s slight bugbear, its weight. At just shy of 1.8 tonnes, before filling it with people and their luggage, the 508 is hardly a featherweight, a factor that underscores its grand touring nature, although, to be fair, it motors along at such a respectable rate that it is not something most buyers will consider. It is also reflected in its price tag, which, at £30,645 (on the road) is not too far behind its trio of German rivals, which, given the chance, it would swipe off the tarmac ahead of it with consummate ease.
Conclusions: Peugeot ought to be proud of its medium sector resilience. While other carmakers have deserted this market segment, Peugeot perseveres. I believe that the 508, notably in GT guise, is more than mere rival to the controlling Teutonic Threesome but getting bums-on-seats is what Peugeot needs to achieve to demonstrate its overall competence. To me, the car is strong. It looks great. It performs well and running costs are pegged at a low level. Yet, buyers have to decide if that is enough these days.