For: Solidly-equipped, particularly for safety; roomy interior; looks smart.
Against: Not quite enough verve for all occasions.
Big cars mean big space but generally also big fuel bills. Small cars are the exact opposite: Cheap to run, but tightly confined and hardly ever overwhelming on the performance side of things.
So how about a big car with a smallish engine? It's happening more and more. The best recent example is the 2.0-litre Falcon EcoBoost, but the big Ford is hardly alone. Peugeot has also played at little and large extremes, placing a 1.6-litre petrol engine into the almost as sizeable 508.
A good idea? I know what you’re thinking and, fair enough, I had some reservations as well, having been here before.
It was 1989, my wife and two friends had gone to Europe for the big OE and I'd signed up to directly rent a Peugeot from the factory. It was a great way to get around; unlimited mileage in a brand-new car at lower than rental price.
Being a cheapskate, I'd found it impossible not to economise even more, stupidly as it transpired. There were four of us and a lot of luggage, most it mine.
I knew we really needed a medium station wagon, in diesel. But the base petrol sedan was cheaper. Thus we toured Western Europe in a 405 1.6-litre petrol sedan. It never failed - even did a lap of the original Nurburgring – but was clearly overburdened and underpowered.
Not so much this week’s test car, with a 1598cc turbo petrol co-developed with BMW. Times have definitely changed. As well as being a lot roomier than the 405, and considerably better finished, the 508 Active has much more kit and comfort and also presents better oomph: With 115/240Nm, today’s baby almost beats the gruntiest petrol engine PSA had in 1989, a 2.9-litre V6. Yet, with a claimed best of 7.1 litres per 100km, it is thriftier than that normally-aspirated 1.6 I thrashed to the point of death 23 year ago. There’s just a 5kW deficit on the 2.0-litre HDi in the 508 Allure, though the torque gap is much wider, a 100Nm difference.
The 1.6 is here as a means to placing the 508 below the $50,000 mark, which is a price barrier for some, especially fleet operators. At $46,990, it costs $7000 less than the cheapest of the diesel models, though the saving isn’t wholly through a change of powerplant.
Active is a new specification status though it’s still rich: Alloys with a full-sized spare, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, partial leather seat trim, rain-sensing wipers, auto headlights, rear parking sensors, Bluetooth, USB connectivity and cruise control system with speed-limiter.
And it is still a substantial car; measuring a considerable 4.8 metres stem to stern, the 508 sedan sets the size standard in this category and puts it to good use, with a big boot as well as a commodious cabin. On the other hand, it is still a large car with a small engine, and you know how hard it is to change perception.
Peugeot's styling has definitely improved and at the moment the 508 is definitely the best example of the latest look. Yet anyone who suggests this car is a wholesale stunner is looking to spark debate: Some elements look better than others and, overall, the wagon is more handsome than the sedan.
One immediate positive about the Active is that it doesn’t look any less interesting than the more expensive Allure and GT. A lot of this is to do with wheel size; the old rule of thumb that says the smaller and plainer the rim, the cheaper the car doesn’t work here. Yes, the Active downsizes to 17s, but since the rims are shod with a taller aspect tyre that fills the wheel arches adequately, you don’t really notice. It’s not a ‘cheap’ looking alloy, either.
Full cloth trim aside, the Active's interior isn’t that different to the Allure’s, and all the fundamentals are there. Interior space is good, although storage space could be better: Just two cup-holders, a small bin under the central armrest and a narrow glovebox.
Comfort is good – if anything, the ‘cheap’ seats seem particularly embracing – and there's a fair amount of knee room for rear passengers. Boot space is excellent and there's the option to fold the rear seats down.
NCAP has given the 508 a five-star crash test rating, and awarded it a 97 percent rating for its safety equipment. This runs to six airbags, stability control, anti-lock brakes, emergency brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution, cornering brake control and traction control. Then there are the little touches; for instance, a front bumper designed to keep a struck pedestrian from falling beneath the wheels.
The 508 petrol is almost as enjoyable to drive as the diesels – the twin-scroll turbocharged 1.6 hasn’t the oiler’s low to mid-range muscularity, of course, but once on a roll it delivers a pretty good impression of a larger-capacity unit in feel and sound.
Indeed, in most everyday situations it doesn’t ever feel utterly overburdened by the 508, either; quite an achievement for a mill that has previously served in the patently smaller 308. A benefit of going to the smallest engine is significant weight-saving. In clocking 1485kgs at the kerb, the 1.6 Active is 110kg lighter than the 2.0-litre diesel Allure, and that has positive influence on the handling. It feels lighter in the nose, so better balanced overall.
Still, there’s no avoiding that there has been some degree of give and take here. With Peugeot claiming a 0-100kmh in a languid 9.2 seconds, it’s the least accelerative 508 I’ve experienced. There are also occasions, most notably when tackling significant ascents, when it is clearly working reasonably hard and jumping up and down the six-speed transmission; a reminder that maximum power comes in at a peaky 5800rpm.
It’s hard to say if going to this petrol over the base diesel delivers any greater running costs; the oiler is blighted by Road User Charges, of course, but from my test the petrol just doesn’t have the same litre-eking thrift, with our week resulting in a 8.7 litres per 100km average.
The entry 508 reinforces that comfort was a priority for Peugeot this time. Notwithstanding that, even on the tallest rubber for the series it still exhibits a certain degree of ride firmness. Yet, curiously, it avoids being stiff-legged. Actually, it copes well over rough surfaces. Little mechanical and road noise filters through. The steering is responsive, if not especially full of feel.
The 1.6-litre engine allows the 508 to enter a price sector previously denied it and perhaps it will also open the door to customers, business more than private, who for various reasons don’t want to go diesel. It faces a number of larger capacity Japanese and Korean products, not all as thoughtfully equipped.
Performing above and beyond expectation, the 508 Active sedan would probably make a reasonable fist of carting four perpetually hung-over Kiwi budget travellers and their bags of stinky t-shirts around Europe’s top sights. My personal tastes still lend toward the torquier diesel, however.