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Peugeot 508

A comfortable, upmarket cruiser: is this, perhaps, what the average driver wants?

Which country do you think Peugeot is targeting, in particular, with its new 508? The clue is in the body style. There's no hatchback: the French challenger to the Ford Mondeo and VW Passat comes as a saloon or an estate, which makes sense when you realise that in China, a proper, 'three-box' saloon is the car with the kudos. China is becoming big business for Peugeot.

I can only assume that the Chinese appreciate superior comfort and a sense of in-car luxury, too, since the 508 has these qualities by the bucketload. While the badge on the nose isn't premium, the feel in the cabin certainly is. If, however, you like all the latest gadgets and gizmos, the 508 might disappoint. It has none of the cutting-edge technology that, say, VW has developed with its 'Fatigue Detection System' - and, even in range-topping GT guise, Peugeot's latest offering has no button to switch between soft-for-the-city steering and suspension, or a firmer set-up for sporty driving. Peugeot reckons it prefers to have "technology which allows the driver to be master on board." Which makes perfect sense to me.

The 508 is larger than the 407 (and correspondingly more knee-space for rear passengers), and smaller than the 607, both of which it replaces. The 407 Coupé, meanwhile, will carry on as it is. There are currently no plans for a 508 coupé. From the outside, the saloon is beautifully styled; personally, I'm less keen on the SW, although some pundits claims it's the estate car that has the pizzazz. To me, the long, thin slit of windows is reminiscent of a hearse: but at least there'd be plenty of room for the coffin. Meanwhile, the saloon has a flowing, balanced, carved, solid look that hints at prestige and performance.

The 508 is really about "comfort and driving pleasure, if not speed" - as we were told at the press conference. How refreshing that Peugeot avoided the overworked clichés cited ad nauseam at almost every new car launch: I don't think I heard the words "dynamic" and "sporty" once. Not that the 508 lacks punch, or poise, it's just that it suits a more refined buyer. Above all, it's a cruiser, and a darned good one.

On the road, Peugeot claims the start-stop system is "silent, quiet and efficient" - and yes, it is, with the added advantage that it cuts the engine before you come to a complete standstill. But it also has the problem of many rivals, in that you need to keep your foot on the brake if you don't want the engine to fire up. This means that, in traffic, you're dazzling the bloke behind with your 'three-claw' brake lights.

Meanwhile, the 508's build quality is excellent and the interior upmarket, if not quite up to the 'prestige' German marques; but then neither is the price. Efficiency-wise, the most remarkable model is that 1.6 e-HDi, promising 64.2mpg and 109g/km CO2 in saloon guise. Less good, on our test drive, was the transmission. While the 6-speed manual we drove was notchy, the 6-speed semi-auto in the 1.6 e-HDi proved slow to shift, and delivered a jolt when finally it did. The Peugeot engineer claimed the car was a 'pre-production prototype' and the problems would be sorted before it goes on sale - but bear it in mind, if you take a test drive yourself. In the UK, sales are expected to be 50/50 saloon to SW, and 80/20 diesel to petrol, with business and fleet sales taking a large slice. But as a family car, the Peugeot 508 does have a lot going for it.
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