You might wonder at the wisdom of the Car of the Year judging panel in this year’s shortlist voting, which saw Peugeot’s 508 in and BMW’s 3-series out. You might think that if you have one of these cars in any sort of shortlist you should really have the other, but I’ve never understood the mind of a Coty judge – in spite of the fact I count myself among that number.
Nevertheless Peugeot is ecstatic; Nicholas Bayon, its chief communications officer, could scarcely keep the glee out of his voice, especially as the Coty shortlist announcement coincided with the launch of the SW estate version of the Coty contender.
Like the saloon/hatchback, this is a good-looking car, especially the front end, which is heavily borrowed from the 2014 Exalt concept shown at the 2014 Paris motor show. It’s a shame Gilles Vidal’s trademark Peugeot branding, set just under the bonnet, has been dropped, which smacks of malicious costcutting (although in a nod to the 1969 Peugeot 504 coupé, there's a 508 badge on the bonnet).
The estate is 40mm longer than the saloon and 17mm higher, and the frameless windows on the side doors lend a glassy feel. It feels big and stylish, with a swage line along the side that hints at but never quite says “shooting break”.
The European estate market is an interesting one, occupying more than 60 per cent of D-segment sales, mostly in Germany, where one woman journalist once told me that station wagon owners were regarded as having “interesting lifestyles involving lots of equipment” rather than being put-upon parents. Hum.
The next biggest estate market is Sweden, with sales of more than 60,000; the UK has sales of about 50,000, then France and Italy.
Competitors for this new Peugeot include the Ford Mondeo and Skoda Superb, as well as the European market leader, Volkswagen’s Passat estate; none of them as stylish, but efficient load carriers all the same.
The 508 SW’s 530/1,780 litres seats up/seats down load space isn’t class-leading, but it’s big enough for a family. Considering, however, that this is an all-new car, it’s surprising that Peugeot has made the schoolboy errors of not allowing the rear seats to fold completely flat so the load space kicks up at the front, and by not providing an underfloor home for the luggage compartment cover, which is set to join all those others in the garage providing a cosy home for communities of spiders.
The engines are the PSA HDI turbodiesels displacing 1.5 and 2.0 litres with various power outputs, laong with two versions of the four-cylinder, 1.6-litre petrol unit originally developed by BMW. There's a new eight-speed, torque-converter automatic gearbox, with a six-speed manual in the lowest-powered, 129bhp turbodiesel.
Drive is to the front wheels and will remain so, even with the arrival of the plug-in hybrid version next year (although the 3008, which has a similar system, drives all four wheels). There are four main trim levels, with the best selling version likely to be the well equipped GT-Line, which is higher than Active and Allure but below the full top model GT
The cabin (referred to somewhat pretentiously as the “iCockpit”) is actually pretty good. The seats are comfortable and there’s room enough for two six-footers to sit one behind each other, with just enough space for three adults across the rear bench.
The facia takes its design cues from the Exalt, with radical curves, matt-finished materials and lovely and impeccably joined materials, although the black Zebrano wood of the first launch cars looks and feels spectacularly artificial.
Also filed under not so good are the central screen, which is actually much smaller than the glass it sits behind, the door pockets, which feel flimsy. Then there’s the small (14-inch diameter) steering wheel. It's a polarising proposition, with some taller drivers (such as I) finding the limited upward adjustment and obscuring of the instrument binnacle irritating.
That said, this application isn't as bad as in the 208 supermini and 3008 SUV you learn, grudgingly, to live with it - although, being so small, the back of the wheel is far too overcrowded, with three function stalks and the pair of gearchange paddles.
Along with active dampers (which firm up according to driving style, vehicle load, driving style and the drive mode setting), there are various driver aids including camera- and radar-based automatic braking systems, fully automatic parking, a night-vision system and limited SAE level-two autonomy. The latter requires hands on the wheel and despite Peugeot’s protestations it wanders around in the lane rather too much for comfort.
The most popular UK engines will be the 180PS turbo petrol, which we tested earlier this year in the saloon/hatchback, and the 160PS turbodiesel. We also drove the 130PS 1.5-litre turbodiesel which, while brilliantly economical (its Combined consumption is over 72mpg) and decently boosted in the mid-range, feels a bit gutless at low revs.
The 160PS 2.0-litre turbodiesel, which is the penultimate oil-burner, provides a decent mix of economy and performance - a Combined consumption of 61.4mpg, CO2 emissions of 122g/km, a top speed of 143mph and 0-62mph in 8.5sec. We managed 38.2mpg on a soaking, mainly motorway route.
It’s a bit noisy from outside, but the combustion rattle is well insulated from occupants. We only got to drive the automatic version, which is fine once bowling along, but gear changes can be abrupt and snappy around town.
It’s a bit slow to kick down, although in Sport mode it wants to drive everywhere with the rev counter needle bouncing off the red line. The steering wheel paddles aren’t particularly nice to touch, but they solve the problem of instant acceleration when in Normal mode.
The chassis is PSA’s EMP II, which underpins all similar-sized Peugeots and Citroëns. At the front are MacPherson struts and there’s a multi-link rear. It’s quite a clever mix of soft springing and fluent damping, although the 18-inch wheels of the launch cars thumped abruptly into potholes and crashed into sharp-edged bumps - it's going to suffer in the UK.
As with the saloon/hatchback, the electronically-assisted steering is inconsistently weighted, demanding weightlifting levels of muscularity at times, butterfly-sneeze puffs at others. The load builds up, but the yaw doesn’t, so it’s effectively understeering (or not steering enough) around the corner.
Nor are the brakes particularly progressive, with an inconsistent slowing and a dead-feeling pedal action. It’s this artificiality, together with the iCockpit steering position and wheel size, which deters you from driving the SW hard on a twisting road, which is a shame as the 508’s basic chassis balance isn’t bad and its damping control, while soft, is accurate and progressive.
You might reasonably point out that going fast around corners isn’t the raison d’etre of a family estate and you'd be right, except that rivals manage the tasks of family haulage and mildly entertaining driving with either equal aplomb or better than the 508 SW.
On a long journey this car is a comfortable and effortless shooting break, but on A and B roads, and in everyday life, there are too many inconsistencies in the chassis and thoughtless omissions in the execution to warrant any more than three stars.
Peugeot 508 SW 2.0 HDI
TESTED 1,997cc four-cylinder turbodiesel, eight-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE range from about £26,689 to £42,539 (as tested £32,689)/January
POWER/TORQUE 158bhp @ 3,750rpm, 295lb ft @ 2,000rpm
TOP SPEED 143mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 8.5sec
FUEL ECONOMY 50.4mpg/61.4mpg (EU Combined/Urban), 38.2mpg on test (figures for 18in wheels)
CO2 EMISSIONS 122g/km
VED £165 first year, then £140
VERDICT Peugeot’s reluctance to discount prices in this heavily discounted non-premium market is earning it friends, particularly among private buyers who relish the resulting lift in residual values. And the 508 is a good looking car and, for the most part, a fine-riding one, but there’s a few too many slips in development, not everyone will like the iCockpit and rivals offer more for less.
TELEGRAPH RATING Three out of five stars
Mazda6 Estate, from £22,825
Nicely realised estate, though the design input tails off as you travel back from the stylish front wings. Mazda's engine strategy is different from everyone else's and we're hearing not-so-good things about reliability, which is highly unusual for this Japanese company.
Ford Mondeo Estate, from £20.945
Cheap basic price, but the 1.0-litre Ecoboost struggles a bit in 1.5 tonnes of estate; the big diesel is a better bet. Huge inside, with limousine levels of rear-seat accommodation - this car can swallow 1,605 litres. It rides and handles pretty well, too.
Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer, from £20,850
It's hard not to like this German-designed and built estate, which will be one of the last ever Vauxhall/Opels before the marques become subsumed under Peugeot Citroen branding. The sad thing is, however, that the last laugh is on the customers as Vauxhall has drunk too hard from the fleet segment discounts well, and that means residual values aren't great.
Skoda Superb Estate, from £23,410
As we used to say about the Rover 75 estate, it's a lot of car for the money. Looks it, too, with sports-hall levels of space and a reputation as one of the finest-riding D/E segment cars out there. Not everything is premium, however; some fixtures and fittings aren't great, and it's pricey.
Volkswagen Passat, from £23,795
The toast of the non-premium class (and one that makes the premium makers sweat). Refinement and attention to detail mark out this big German load lugger, with excellent VW Group engines and decent ride comfort. There's also an excellent petrol hybrid, but it's been in short supply lately.