Performance, refinement, dash layout, cabin quality, value, equipment levels, front seat space, versatility
Room for improvement
Firm ride, thick pillars, steering rack rattle on rougher roads, dash rattles
By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS
ON PAPER, the 508 GT shapes up as a formidable alternative to anything from a Hyundai i45 to a Mercedes-Benz C-class.
Compared to its 407 predecessor – which was hampered by a hard ride, tight cabin, cheap plastics and a ridiculous nose, and felt old before its time, with newcomers like the Volkswagen Passat, Ford Mondeo, Skoda Superb and Mazda 6 comprehensively outclassing it – the facts of the 508 speak for themselves.
It is a larger car with more space, better quality, sleeker aerodynamics, stronger body, sharpened dynamics, improved safety, heaps less weight, better performance, decreased consumption, lower emissions, fixed-price servicing and greater value.
After sampling pretty much only the mid-range Allure 2.0 HDi turbo-diesels at the Australian launch back in July, we felt – with only a couple of reservations – that the 129-year old French marque had finally found its groove again after a decade lost in the wilderness.
Of particular interest is how much lighter this larger and safer car is compared to the model that came before. For example, an aluminium bonnet and more composites in various body bits cut an extraordinary 200kg off the scales.
So why are we so disillusioned with Peugeot after an exhaustive test of the $52,990 GT, the range-topper we only drove briefly beforehand? At face value, it ought to have knocked our socks off.
The 508 trades its predecessor’s rather misplaced originality for a more mainstream appearance, with a bit of Honda Accord up front, a modicum of Nissan Maxima in profile, early Ford Mustang at the rear and a whole lot of Audi A5 inside (if you’re going to copy a competitor’s cabin then covet the best in the business).
Take the dials: classy crisp white markings against an elegant backdrop, they’re set within a contemporary yet conservative fascia that speaks as much about the brand’s customer targets as it does quality aspirations.
There’s more A5 imitation in the shape of the vents, the carbon-fibre-like spear across the top of the dash, the piano black finish around the controls and (especially) the Audi-style menu controller.
Yet it’s not like you’re sitting there cursing Peugeot for any of this because it looks and feels very nearly as good as the more expensive German car.
Familiarisation is required to learn the multitude of buttons for the audio and climate-control settings, but none present problems.
Our car was finished in a mocha-on-black leather combo, which sounds worse than it looks. That is also something the Ingolstadt folks would do, but maybe the French do it with more taste.
The equipment story is interesting. Our car included a heads-up display – which annoyingly causes reflections in the windscreen, as does the dash-top speaker – taking the speedometer count to three, since the analogue item that mirrors the tacho is joined by another digital readout as part of the trip computer options.
Going beyond the call of its $52,990 pricing, the GT boasts electrically operated and heated front seats, with a massaging function for the driver’s side, a rear-seat fan with directional control for the heating/air-con and blinds for the back and side-back windows.
Peugeot also – rather unexpectedly – provides a double-wishbone front suspension system to deliver better dynamics instead of the MacPherson strut set-up on lowlier 508s. Clearly there’s intent behind the GT.
So we rate the upmarket look and feel of the 508 and appreciate the massive step forward it represents for the company. But how does the cabin actually work in terms of accommodation?
Being almost the size of a VT Commodore, there is space aplenty up front in all directions, on a firm set of seats that contour around your torso to maximise comfort.
We like the way the headrests can push out for better protection. And there’s ample room in the back seat for adults, though the curvature of the roofline limits rear headroom for taller people and the middle passenger needs to be tres petite.
The glovebox is a bit small while the boot is long and wide, yet shallower than the shape of the rear overhang suggests. At least the backrests fold forward and include a ski-hatch for longer loads.
Yet our biggest gripe with the interior is the number of rattles generated over less-than-smooth surfaces. It really undermined the premiumness that otherwise swathes the 508 – and it also sadly means the newcomer falls well short of the plushness for which French cars were once renowned.
While you can blame the stiff suspension for the hard ride (and 235/45 R18 rubber), it offers no trade-off in terms of body control or general overall dynamism. Isn’t this meant to be the driver’s car?
Around town, where speeds tend to be low, the 508’s underpinnings perform an admirable job coping with the potpourri of ridges, bumps, humps and lumps that come with city commuting – even if the ride is never less than firm.
Though a big turning circle combined with poor rear visibility means parking in confined spaces is no fun, despite the inclusion of parking sensors and mirrors that dip down, the steering gets a thumbs-up for its reactive, precise and informative nature, imbuing the driver with the confidence to zip around obstacles with ease despite the Peugeot’s considerable proportions.
But driven at or near the posted speed limit on our tried and trusted rural test route – where rivals like the Mondeo and Passat have recently revelled – the GT’s ride deteriorated markedly, feeling under-damped as it crashed and shuddered over pot-holes, rough surface edges and uneven ridges.
The steering rack shook in concert with the cabin trim, the body felt like it shimmied at times, and the tyres transmitted too much noise. At least they didn’t surrender completely as the 508 ran wider and wider through tighter corners.
One passenger’s comment that the GT felt “half-baked” seemed like a harsh yet succinct summation.
Our country road route made a mockery of this 508’s ‘grand touring’ aspirations. Peugeot has built a loyal rural buyer base in the six decades since the Redex Trial-winning 203, so it gives us no pleasure in criticising this one-time global suspension-tuning leader.
The GT’s crude rough-road behaviour came as a double shock, since the cheaper 508s we drove through the Dandenong Ranges during the launch shone despite their firm ride, impressing us with responsive steering, excellent grip and commendable body control.
Maybe it’s simply a case of the GT’s chassis not coping with the powerful engine’s performance up front.
A genuinely brilliant piece of engineering, the 2.2-litre 1800-bar injection pressure turbo HDi delivers a punchy 150kW of power at 3500rpm and 450Nm of torque at 2000rpm. Jaguar uses a variation of it in the latest XF diesel.
Mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox and boasting a 10kg/kW weight-to-power ratio, the GT is no slouch, sprinting to 100km/h in what seems faster than the official 8.2 seconds suggests. At freeway speeds, a tickle of the throttle had us reeling-in slower traffic, yet the engine remained superbly quiet and refined.
Of course we struggled to match the official 5.7L/100km as a result of relentlessly revelling in the terrific turbine-like torquey goodness of the GT.
If we only drove on billiard table-smooth bitumen, this diesel bombshell might be one of our 2011 favourites, for in benign conditions all that performance marries beautifully with the chassis set-up, to make for a blisteringly quick family car with a set of stoppers to match.
Yet even the lush interior and winning drivetrain could not overcome the GT’s monumental dynamic disappointments. This 508 is not the sporty sedan the promising specifications suggest.
Not only does the Audi A4 have nothing to worry about, but even the Kia Optima – another class act that misbehaves the moment the road becomes bumpy – can rest easy.
Unless you only ever commute on smooth roads, our recommendation is to bypass the GT and choose the cheaper yet sweeter 508 Active or Allure models, or shop elsewhere. Our disappointment in this Peugeot is profound.