Driving the new Peugeot 508 on France’s route nationale 508

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Viewed from the UK, where the new 508 is about to begin flowing through dealerships, you might argue that this first one needed no replacement at all. Yet Peugeot bosses were aware of a continuing strong demand for saloons at home and in eastern export markets led by China, so they decided to launch another one and make it special, adopting the design style first brought by the SR1 concept car of 2010. The result is the shorter, lower, lighter and far more beautiful new-generation 508, just launched in France and generously praised in first tests.

How to mark this important moment? Well, it just so happens that the new model’s return to class-leading status has occurred exactly half a century after its iconic ancestor, the 504, also established a plethora of new standards. After reflection, we decided on a sojourn to France to collect a new 508 and drive the length of the old route national 508 that runs south-east from Annecy through some of France’s most breathtaking scenery, connecting two wonderful, mountainous national parks.

And it just so happens that route  D1508 (as it is now known)  is within comfortable driving range of the Musée de l’Aventure Peugeot at Sochaux, which lays out Peugeot’s entire 200-year industrial history, and is itself close to Mulhouse, the flexible manufacturing plant from which new 508s emerge, along with other models that use the PSA Group’s flexible large-car platform.

We’d fly to Lyon, collect the car, then drive down the eastern side of Lac d’Annecy to join route 508 halfway to its south-eastern extremity near Ugine, directly below Geneva. Then we’d head 80 miles north-west to the top of the old route, continuing north to Flammerans, near Auxonne, to stay the night. Next day we’d turn due east towards Sochaux, the museum and Mulhouse, then to Basel airport and home.

Two things strike you about the new 508 when you drive it for the first time in its natural habitat – with your head definitely not in road-testing mode. The first is how rakish it is, literally lower than everything else that isn’t a sports car. It’s 6cm lower than its predecessor, plus 8cm shorter and 100kg lighter. Survey the new 508’s cab-forward screen, and frameless doors, and your instant impression is that this car has been styled to be beautiful in its own skin, not as a slightly dowdy mothership for a svelte coupé and a capacious estate that take the glory. Sure, a 508 estate is coming, but the promise is that’ll be beautiful too.

The other thing you notice is the lack of Germanness. Volkswagen, Vauxhall-Opel and the rest seem to have taken conservative command of fascia design in recent years, but the 508’s best-yet version of Peugeot’s i-Cockpit concept, dominated by a prominent set of piano keys in the centre (allowing logical shortcuts to infotainment functions), provides a complete break from that. Interesting snippet: possibly motivated by Peugeot’s success, the VW Golf will move to something like this in its next generation.

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