It started at the Paris motor show in 1934 when Peugeot displayed its 401, a mid-sized, modern-looking replacement for the luxurious but distinctly vintage-looking Type 176. Through the majority of the ensuing 88 years, the 4-series has been a phenomenal success, assembled and selling across the globe and proving extraordinarily tough, durable and versatile.
The 405 from 1987 to 1997 is perhaps the pick of the bunch, but each generation combined a blend of ride and handling that rivals struggled to better. It might not have been the most glamorous car, but the 4-series would keep going without emptying your wallet and not be an embarrassment on your driveway.
That didn’t stop the steep decline in sales of this class of non-premium saloons and hatchbacks, however. In the UK, Ford’s Mondeo has gone and its fleet-favourite rival the Vauxhall Insignia faces an imminent axe. The Japanese and South Koreans tried and largely failed; only the German “big three of Audi, BMW and Mercedes managed to increase market share and make profits.
As for the French, for the last 20 or so years their big cars might have been de rigeur for French civil-service mandarins, but they’ve struggled everywhere else.
So why on earth is Peugeot launching the 408, a C/D-segment five-door hatchback, in the UK? Phil York, its global marketing and communications director, outlines an alternative world in which families seek out such non-premium cars instead of premium German saloons or high-riding sport utilities (SUVs), the second of which continue to occupy more than half of all European car sales.
This is a well-worn mantra heard from Saab, Honda, Alfa Romeo and Kia among others over the last 20 years, but the recent SUV tide has shown little sign of turning.
To some extent, Peugeot is doing this because it can. Its flexible EMP2 V3 platform cost Peugeot a rumoured €630 million to develop so there’s some investment to amortise here. It will accept transverse combustion engines, battery-electric and petrol-electric in mild hybrid, full hybrid and plug-in hybrid forms. It can be driven by the front or all four wheels and underpins pretty much everything large in the Stellantis stable including the Citroën C5 X, DS4 II, Vauxhall Astra and Peugeot 308. And the latter’s new 408.
Under the skin
Everything changes but everything remains the same, or at least it does under the skin for this large Peugeot, which is 4,687mm long, 2,062mm wide and 1,478mm high with a 2,787mm wheelbase.
At launch there are three major trim packs: Allure, Allure Premium and GT. There are three main drivetrains: a 1.2-litre 130PS petrol, a hybrid with 180PS and a hybrid with 225PS, tested here. All are front-wheel drive and feature an eight-speed, torque-converter automatic gearbox. Suspension on all models is front MacPherson strut with a twist-beam rear.
Prices range from £31,050 for the Allure 1.2 to £43,200 for this GT 225PS hybrid. For comparison, Citroën’s similarly based and proportioned C5 X starts at £26,490 and rising to £35,290 for the equivalent 225PS model.
The top GT hybrid version has a 177bhp/184lb ft, 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine with a 12.4kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a 108bhp AC electric motor giving a combined total power output of 222bhp and 266lb ft of torque. The top speed is 140mph and 0-62mph acceleration is achieved in 7.8sec.
It will travel a claimed 40 miles in EV mode in the equivalent all-electric range (EAER) and can reach up to 84mph on battery power alone (although not at the same time). Fuel consumption and CO2 emission figures are based on an unrealistic EU test, but for the record the provisional homologated Combined figures are 235mpg, with CO2 emissions of 24-30g/km.
The standard on-board charger is rated at only 3.7kW, which means a full charge on a home wallbox will take 3.5 hours; with the £400 optional 7.4kW charger that figure drops to 1hr 40min. Why this faster charger isn’t standard seems a mystery.
It weighs 1.7 tonnes and will tow up to 1.4 tonnes, the boot capacity is 471 litres and the rear seat backs fold 60/40 per cent onto their bases but don’t give a fully flat load bed all the way through. The warranty is three years/unlimited mileage while the battery is warrantied to hold at least a 70 per cent state of charge for eight years and 100,000 miles.
Looking good – outside and in
Well, that’s all the facts and figures, but what’s it actually like? Pretty good looking, that’s what, with a fastback feel to the roofline (reminiscent of the Kia EV6) and the side views are curvaceous and compelling. The colour choice, particularly Obsession Blue shown here, is stunning (so is the red) and the “waterfall” grille is a quite lovely complement.
The matt black textured plastic cladding along the sill sections and on the rear valance might be practical but there’s a lot of it; this bodywork addenda (and the slightly high-riding stance) give a crossover vibe to the 408 which didn’t need to be there.
I thought the 19-inch wheels of this GT version suit the body and filled the wheel arches well but, if you must, there are 20-inch options.
Have a care when climbing in, however, as the edge of the roof is low and you’ll see stars if your bonce makes sharp contact with it. Once in there, the roof line is high, there’s plenty of leg and head room in the front and rear seats and the cushion shapes and padding are pretty comfortable. It’s a useable car, not too big, with decent vision out and a respectably tight turning circle.
Touchscreens have been a bit of a bugbear with Stellantis products (Peugeot included), but the 408 has the latest generation with a set of tiles at the bottom of the screen which return to a series of pre-assigned destinations: Car, Navigation, Music etc. The heating controls are mostly still hidden in the touchscreen and functions such as storing the battery charge, or switching off the lane-centring system, require several keystrokes, so it’s far from perfect, but an improvement on what went before.
Not so the i-Cockpit which combines an attractive and modern instrument binnacle with intriguing three-dimensional graphics alongside a small, squared off steering wheel which adjusts just high enough to partially obscure the main dials. At its introduction in 2016, Peugeot bosses admitted the i-Cockpit would be a “Marmite proposition”; some people absolutely detest Marmite.
On the road
Three driving modes (Electric, Hybrid and Sport) dictate how the car pulls away, but for the most part the electric motor takes the strain. The petrol engine, when it starts, isn’t the most euphonious device, particularly at medium-to-high revs, while the gearbox is plain rubbish at changing down to the correct ratio to allow the combined 222bhp to pull the car along calmly.
It’s the non-linear fine response of the major controls that lets the 408 down. The brakes, for example, have a first movement of nothing happening, followed by a grabby response which has passengers’ heads nodding and the car’s nose dipping. The accelerator response tends to be all or nothing even in Hybrid drive mode, where you might have thought that the battery power could be flowed in discreetly and smoothly, but instead the gearbox changes down a couple of cogs and the engine blares.
Stroke it gently, as you might a juvenile lion, and it rewards with fine body control and responsive steering and feel, combined with a fleet-of-foot power delivery which is capable of comfortably tucking serious miles under its wheels.
Just don’t overdrive it, or the clodhopping response, the rasping engine note and the overeager kickdown will quickly earn the 408 a place in a list of your least favourite things.
The ride is pretty good on 19-inch Michelin tyres, but this was on smooth Spanish routes. The peculiarly undulating British country roads and sharp-edged potholes and bumps might show it up.
The Telegraph verdict
Any rational argument wouldn’t result in this car, which while quite meretricious in many ways is simply bashing away at the same door which non-premium executive cars have beat on in vain for the last 30 years.
However, the shared relationships, chassis and drivetrain technology and investment between the many Stellantis marques means that the outstanding risk isn’t so very risky. The other thing is the EMP2 platform’s ability to accept pure battery powertrains which means the 408 can (and will) be fitted as such fairly soon, although Peugeot isn’t saying exactly when.
Quite likeable, then, with some highly laudable traits, but is it enough to tempt the huge majority of family SUV drivers out of their faux 4x4s? Right now, I don’t think so…
On test: Peugeot 408 GT 225PS hybrid
Body style: five-door C/D-segment hatchback
On sale: now, first deliveries February 2023
How much? £43,200 (range from £31,050 for the Allure 1.2)
How fast? 140mph, 0-62mph in 7.8sec
How economical? 235mpg (WLTP Combined)
Mechanical powertrain: 1,598cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol engine with 177bhp/184lb ft, eight-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
Electric powertrain: 12.4kWh lithium-ion battery, 156bhp electric motor, front-wheel drive
Charge times: 3.5 hours on 7.4kWh wallbox, 1hr 40min with £400 7.4kW on-board charger
Electric range: 40 miles on Equivalent All Electric Range (EAER)
Maximum power/torque: 222bhp /266lb ft
CO2 emissions: 24-30g/km
VED: £0 first year, then £155
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited mileage, battery 8 years/100,000 miles
Spare wheel as standard: no (not available)
Skoda Superb iV PHEV
This Czech contender is a bigger car yet starts at a cheaper price. Its 154bhp, 1.4 litre TSI petrol engine, 114bhp electric motor and 13kWh battery from the Passat GTE work well together to give decent performance and decent fuel savings. For all that, however, the Superb isn’t the most charismatic automobile in the world and it doesn’t have the looks of the Peugeot.
Citroën C5 X 225 PHEV
Officially Peugeot says that its sister company’s effort on the sme EMP platform is in a different size class. Of course this is horse feathers, but the Citroën is a slightly larger car for which you pay slightly less. While the touchscreen isn’t as intuitive and the style isn’t quite as cogent, the C5 X more than makes up for it with its sensational ride quality.