Currently reading: Lion's pride: Peugeot 508 PSE vs BMW and Volvo rivals
Peugeot Sport, the French firm’s performance arm, has returned to the road to work its magic on the flagship 508. But rival fast hybrid estates won’t be easy prey

It’s all about the numbers with performance cars, isn’t it? You know, the headline stats that can be pulled out at the bar any time you’re engaged in an impromptu Top Trumps tussle. Power, torque, 0-60mph, top speed – bigger, better, faster, stronger and all that. Yet as we race towards 2030 and the looming cessation of the sales of pure internal combustion engines, a new breed of go-faster motors is appearing.

Big power outputs and greasedlightning acceleration times are still part of their appeal, but equal emphasis is placed on nailing a low CO2 figure and the ability to travel as many miles as possible on electricity alone. Welcome to the age of the high-performance plug-in hybrid.

It’s a genre that Peugeot has embraced wholeheartedly; one that it has chosen to pin all its aspirations for future fast car success on. Once the purveyor of some of the finest hot hatches to touch Tarmac, the French firm is now focusing on electrification – partly due to those upcoming rule changes and partly because the tax regime in its domestic market has made traditional high-performance models so crushingly expensive that they are essentially commercial kryptonite.

Which brings us neatly to the 508 SW PSE, a car bedecked in the firm’s lion’s claw logo that was inspired by Superman’s least favourite element. Arguably, it is the most important quick car from Peugeot since the 205 GTi. No, really. Sure, it’s a big estate (there’s also a saloon) and not a flyweight pocket rocket, but this sleek and sophisticated holdall has been tasked with setting the tone for all future hot shoes for Sochaux.

And if that were not a big enough burden of responsibility, the PSE isn’t aimed at the usual motley array of mainstream models but instead has premium rivals (and a premium price to match) in its sights, such as the Polestar-tweaked Volvo V60 complete with manually adjustable Öhlins dampers and the plug-in hybrid BMW 3 Series, available with four-wheel drive and roomy Touring body for the first time.

A tough ask? Maybe, but that PSE (Peugeot Sport Engineered, the French firm’s skunkworks for souped-up standard fare) moniker hints at some bespoke chassis fettling for enhanced driver delight, plus it also has those all-important numbers on its side. The headline figure is 355bhp, which makes this the most powerful production Peugeot by quite some margin. This is delivered by a 197bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol four-pot and an 11.5kWh battery that powers a pair of 110bhp electric motors – one sandwiched between the engine and eight-speed automatic transmission and another driving the back axle, for four-wheel drive capability.

98 Phev wagons triple test 2021 trio rear


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Peugeot returns to the sporting fold with a new division and hybrid tech. Is it a success?

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Bookending the Peugeot in the statistical stakes are the BMW and Volvo. The V60 is the most powerful at 399bhp, its 314bhp turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-litre petrol engine driving the front wheels and an 86bhp motor working the back axle. It can go farther on volts too, squeezing 34 miles of EV range out of its slightly larger 11.6kWh battery.

With 289bhp, the 3 Series looks like the weakling of the group, especially as that output is only available in short, 10-second bursts in either Sport or XtraBoost modes (the usual peak is 250bhp). Yet its 12.0kWh battery will carry the car at least 34 miles and, intriguingly, it’s the only one with a proper permanent four-wheel drive transmission, its sole electric motor (111bhp) sitting between the turbocharged 2.0-litre fourcylinder and eight-speed automatic.

Less interesting is the styling: the 330e xDrive Touring looks just like any other M Sport-tinselled 3 Series, which is to say like most you see on the road. The handsome Volvo tries harder, thanks to its 20in multi-spoke alloys and huge gold brake calipers, but at least one of our testers reckoned the Swede is starting to show its age.

However, neither can hold a candle to the 508, which – with its hunkered-down stance, taut lines and aggressive, LED headlight-enhanced scowl – has more than a hint of RS-badged Audi Avant about it. The trio of flicked-up canards set low down on either side the 508 are a bit much, but the lime-green accents make just enough of a statement without being gaudy.

That’s more than can be said for the interior, which for many will tip just the wrong side of try-hard, Peugeot’s i-Cockpit dashboard layout and garish TFT instruments still frustrating as many drivers as they please. However, importantly for an estate, it’s the roomiest here front and back and lavishly equipped, but it can’t match BMW’s top-notch premium appeal and flawless ergonomics, or the Volvo’s cool minimalist aesthetic and superbly embracing seats.

83 Phev wagons triple test 2021 508 cabin

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Move away in all-electric mode and the Peugeot and BMW feel the most brisk, while the Volvo’s 86bhp motor struggles a little against a two-tonne kerb weight. Still, as with the 330e, it benefits from the smooth integration of petrol power and electric energy – unlike the Peugeot, which occasionally trips up when tipping in and out of the throttle at low speeds, leading to the odd jerky getaway.

All three, however, deliver a smooth transition between regenerative and friction braking. Here, the BMW is the best of the three, closely followed by the Volvo and Peugeot – although the 508 is less convincing when in energyrecouping B mode, when suddenly the motor and discs seem to take on a tetchier relationship.

Surprisingly, it’s the Peugeot that feels the most relaxed and refined when merely mooching. In their softest setting, the three-way adaptive dampers serve up an admirably supple ride that’s at odds with the arch-filling 20in alloys wrapped in Michelins with a wafer-thin profile.

The equally adaptively damped BMW is stiffer, particularly at low speeds when its run-flat Bridgestones relay too much information about sharper imperfections. And expensive and impressively engineered though they are, the Volvo’s dualflow Öhlins deliver brittle progress over scarred surfaces. Still, you can slacken them off if you wish, although you’ll need a trolley jack and patience to tweak the rear units.

Okay, let’s get a wriggle on, because these three are billed as purveyors of performance above all else. Toggle it into Dynamic mode to access the Volvo’s full-fat performance and there’s no doubt which power source is doing the lion’s share of the work.

While the electric rear motor helps with whizzbang starts, it’s the gruff and vocal twin-charged 2.0-litre that puts in the hard yards. It’s certainly quick, the 4.6sec 0-62mph dash is the fastest here despite the portliest kerb weight of 2021kg (versus 1890kg for the BMW and 1850kg for the Peugeot; none of our trio treads lightly, but then that’s the plug-in way), but there’s a surprising amount of disruptive torque steer, the wheel pulling this way and that in your hands as the V60 scrabbles over cambers and crowns.

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97 Phev wagons triple test 2021 tracking pair front

There’s no such problem with the BMW, which even when it is deploying the full 289bhp tracks straight and true thanks to a sophisticated four-wheel drive system that effortlessly shuffles torque to where you need it. It also feels far from out of its depth in this company, which is largely down to the excellent integration of the powertrain and the well-calibrated throttle, meaning the car responds instantly to your commands. It’s enough to leave you thinking that a 340 badge wouldn’t look out of place on its rump.

More than that, it is consistently the most efficient. Limited time means we can’t plug our cars in as often as we would like, but the 3 Series is returning well over 40mpg, while its rivals here can only manage high-30s. Obviously, the more you hook up to the mains, the better these figures will get.

Either way, neither rival feels as rapid as the Peugeot, particularly in the mid-ranges, where it is helped along by two electric motors that contribute heartily to the rippling 384lb ft. Yet it is surprisingly serene when catapulting down straights.

The petrol engine is much better insulated than in the other two, even in Sport when all you get is the most distant, electronically augmented growl. It’s not as responsive or as engaging a power unit as the BMW’s, and its eight-speed automatic is not as crisp in its shifts, but it’s mightily effective when you’re in a rush.

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There are more surprises when you tip the Peugeot into a corner. Even with the dampers on high alert, the 508 has a lovely fluid feel that used to be a French calling card. The brains at PSE have widened the track by 12mm and lowered and stiffened the springs, but the Peugeot doesn’t pummel the road into submission. Instead it breathes with it, keeping you abreast of what’s going on but neatly filtering out what you don’t need to know.

Yes, the steering is quick, if a little mute, and there’s plenty of turn-in bite, but you pour the Peugeot down the road, slicing through corners with deft, gloriously measured inputs. It’s a car that majors on finesse, its finely honed damping control allowing it to be both languid and alert depending on your mood. Not that many years ago, it seemed that Peugeot’s chassis engineers had lost their mojo; with the PSE, it’s clear the magic has been rediscovered.

96 Phev wagons triple test 2021 tracking trio rear

By comparison, the BMW feels gnarlier and sharper, a more traditional take on the driver’s car genre, one that’s more keenly keyed into the road surface. Its meaty steering is just as quick as the Peugeot’s yet more talkative, while the car wants to rotate faster into corners, engendering the BMW with great agility.

It’s more immediately invigorating than the Peugeot, but both deliver satisfaction for keen drivers, just in different ways. Both also do a fine job of disguising their increased mass, up to a point. Ask for a sudden change of direction or have a change of heart through a fast sweeper and you can feel the pendulous mass of their rear-mounted batteries. It never gets wayward, but there’s the odd moment of scrappiness at the limit.

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This is less of a problem for the Volvo, which keeps the extra weight of the battery between the axles, the cells running up the spine of the car in the transmission tunnel.

Even so, the ever so slightly stolid Volvo proves to be the least dynamic here. Those keep-fit dampers do a great job of controlling vertical movements when hustling hard, but the light steering is aloof and slow, the V60 proving lazier and vaguer in its actions. It’s not that the Volvo isn’t capable or grippy, just that it’s rather one-dimensional in its delivery and, in stark contrast to its rivals, offers few rewards when you push harder.

So it’s the wooden spoon for the Volvo, but that’s probably too harsh a verdict because the stylish and sybaritic (jarring ride aside) Swede is still a quick and capable fast family wagon. Given the price, the fancy dampers and the Polestar expertise, we would expect more of the V60, but in the end it simply lacks dynamic sparkle, or a solid sense of what it’s attempting to be.

Separating the BMW and Peugeot is harder. On paper, the less costly and more instantly engaging 3 Series makes the most sense, although in Peugeot-matching spec as tested it was a similar £55,000. In an increasingly electrified world it’s a smart choice, feeling little different from its more traditional siblings.

However, 2030 is a little way off yet, and unless you’re a company car user, there are equally talented, traditionally powered Touring alternatives that cost quite a bit less.

The thick end off £55,000 is a big ask for a Peugeot, even a very attractive one. Yet there’s something beguiling about the PSE, and its chassis in particular, that makes it difficult to resist. It’s not without flaws, but it’s a plug-in with personality and also represents a welcome and long-awaited return of the truly desirable fast Peugeot. Vive la difference, as they say in France.

54 Phev wagons triple test 2021 trio static

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Price and practicality

We have already discussed the pace, but what about boot space? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the least spacious is the BMW, which can swallow only 410 litres of luggage with the 40/20/40 rear seats in place, or 1420 litres when folded flat – around 10 litres less than the Volvo’s maximum. With the rear bench in place, the V60 holds 519 litres and has a handy pop-off boot divider. King of the load is the Peugeot, which has figures of 530 and a cavernous 1780 litres. Its rear seats also fold totally flat easily.

Of course, one perceived benefit of plug-ins is the low company car tax rates, and in this respect the £49,685 M Sport Pro Edition 3 Series will make fleet managers the happiest. Its 11% benefit-in-kind rating works out as a £2184 annual liability for higher-rate earners. The same driver would face a £2294 bill for the identically rated Volvo and a £2904 outlay for the 13% Peugeot. As a counterpoint, a fleet user would pay £6053 for a BMW 320d xDrive M Sport Pro and £7616 for an M340i, which comes closest to our cars for speed and focus.

67 Phev wagons triple test 2021 508 boot

Used alternatives

Volvo V60 Polestar: Polestar has history with Volvo’s entry-level estate, having also fettled the previous-generation machine. Early models had a 345bhp 3.0-litre straight six, but from 2017 it got a 362bhp version of the twin-charged engine used in the current car. All are four-wheel drive, and have Öhlins adjustable dampers and a jarring ride.

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One we found: Immaculate 2018 car with 21,000 miles and a full service history, but for a strong £33,450.

BMW 5 Series Touring: Electrification is coming, so how about one last hurrah for internal combustion? You will certainly burn a lot of unleaded with an E61-generation M5’s 503bhp 5.0-litre V10, but the howling noise makes it all worthwhile. Roomy Touring body adds to the car’s appeal; clunky sequential manual gearbox does not.

One we found: Two-owner 2007 car with all the toys and a full history for £18,750. What could possibly go wrong?

Peugeot 308 GTi 270 by Peugeot Sport: Okay, it’s not an estate, but this hugely underrated and engaging Peugeot Sport hot hatch gave a hint as to how good the 508’s chassis would be. Turbocharged 267bhp 1.6-litre engine has titanium conrods, plus it shares rally car brakes with the PSE.

One we found: A 2017 car with fully stamped service book, 35,000 miles and one owner for £14,750.


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James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

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VicciV 10 August 2021

Congratulations to Peugeot for making an excellent car that raises the bar and is a perfect all rounder. The reviewers cant just bring themselves to declare it the outright winner despite being clearly better in aspects of comparisons, or even give a recommendation to buy it. We understand, and prefer to conclude for ourselves. Viva Peugeot!.

xxxx 2 August 2021

Not often you get a review where all 3 are losers.

ricequackers 2 August 2021

At that price, you might as well consider an M340i or M340d. Both are lighter, both are much faster, and the latter will almost certainly be more efficient. Oh, and you get BMW's amazingly smooth straight six, which imo sells it for me.