Euro street fight: Peugeot 508 vs BMW 3 Series road test shootout
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You know you're onto a good thing when an entire market segment gets named in your honour.
For decades now, that's been the case for BMW's iconic 3 Series. Every car that wearily enters the premium sedan market knows it's going to be measured against that certain Bavarian benchmark. It's a reputation that's been decades in the making, crafted on a foundation of motorsport achievement and iron-clad consistency.
And earlier this year, they released a new one.
Known as the 'G20' in circles of BMW faithful, the new seventh-generation 3 carries the model's torch with plenty of confidence. And it's gotten something of a jump on many of its rivals. A new Audi A4 is incoming, but won't be here for a wee while yet. Replacements for the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Jaguar XE are even further away.
Thankfully, the French have come to the rescue — nominating the Peugeot 508 as their combatant.
On the surface this might look a little like offering a cute little mouse to a hungry, thick rattle snake. Against the established BMW, the 508 offers less brand cache, less power, and a front-wheel drive layout that's less exciting on paper. But, it also edges the 3 Series in two key areas straight off the bat; pricing and design.
Sizing is very similar, with the Peugeot's overall length and wheelbase measuring in at 4750mm/2795mm to the BMW's 4709mm/2851mm. The Peugeot is slightly wider, and the BMW slightly taller.
Let's start with money matters. The Bimmer starts at $77,500 for the 320d 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, with the more popular 330i 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol that's pictured here starting at $89,900. Both come well equipped out of the gate with things like 18-inch alloys (the 330i gets 19s), adaptive suspension, wireless charging, and a for-now mandatory M-Sport package. This includes racier bodywork, black window frames, and various other scatterings of 'M' goodness.
The 3 Series line-up will expand soon, with the addition of the 320i, 340i, and 330e plug-in hybrid. Expect the 320i in particular to further lower the price of admission.
The Peugeot on the other hand comes with just the single trim level spread across two body styles; a liftback/hatchback/'Fastback'/sedan and a station wagon. The one spec that Kiwis get is the top-spec model overseas; the GT. It's priced from $55,990, with the wagon another $2000 on top.
Upon first impression, you wouldn't pick that a price deficit of almost $35,000 would exist between these two cars. The options list on this 330i press car actually pumps the gap up to around $40,000, for the record.
The finely tuned styling changes to the G20 do well to retain the familiar proportions and lines 3 Series fans know and love, while making the platform look more chiseled and athletic than the outgoing model. The Peugeot on the other hand, quite simply, looks like nothing else on the road. The huge LED tusks on the front — complimented by the chequered chrome grille, wrap-around taillight bar, and intricate wheel design — give the 508 a fittingly unique character.
The German conveys sportiness and capability in its looks, while the Peugeot's appearance (rather successfully) sells an image of slick luxury. And, in this curious case, those judging these books by their covers will find their judgement to be pretty much spot on.
Engines. The 2.0-litre in the 330i packs a healthy 190kW of power and 400Nm of torque. Here, it comes up against the 508's turbocharged PureTech 1.6-litre four-cylinder, which makes 168kW of power and 300Nm of torque.
It's a performance gap that sets the tone for driving experience between the two.
The Peugeot performs admirably in all applications. The 1.6 — a unit shared across a range of Peugeot and Citroen product — is more capable than its size or output figures would suggest. It tugs the 508 along with reasonable urgency, aided by a well calibrated eight-speed torque-converted automatic.
It's worth remembering that Peugeot has a long and decorated history of engineering balanced and fun front-wheel drive canyon carvers. And while the 508 isn't exactly a definitive sports sedan when shown a series of corners, it nonetheless manages its weight well and feels suitably direct in its steering.
The auto isn't the quickest when controlled via the paddles, so it's best left in automatic mode. Conversely the adaptive suspension in Sport mode firms up a touch, but is still compliant enough for speed bumps and the like.
BMW's latest 'Ultimate Driving Machine', predictably, performs much better on a twisty bit of road.
The rear-driven nature of the 330i gives it a handling edge over the Peugeot from the outset, and it's one that the German car runs with. It offers bags more grip (both cars wear Michelins, but the BMW's low-profile versions have less sidewall to contend with) and confidence, with the added fruitiness of rear-wheel drive introducing a tasty whisper of danger and involvement to the mix. The new model's lighter weight but larger footprint undoubtedly help, too.
The 190kW 2.0-litre feels much more smooth and substantial under foot than the Peugeot 1.6. It's quick to jump down a cog or two thanks to the 8-speed ZF automatic, and torque arrives low in the rev range. In Sport mode most of its induction howl heard in the cabin sounds like it's being pumped through the speakers, but when the overall performance picture feels almost significant enough to compare with BMW M3s of old it's hard not to be impressed.
In contrast to the Peugeot, which favours understeer when pushed hard, the BMW enjoys to give the driver hints of oversteer. The limit of performance and grip is very high, and the car's stability control is always present to save the day.
Of course, there's nothing particularly shocking about any of this. A front-wheel drive Peugeot is always going to be challenged in the handling department when stacked up against a rear-wheel drive BMW.
Grin-inducing driving dynamics are a nice-to-have, but they aren't exactly king for those shopping for a premium car. Just because it can zip through a few apexes, that doesn't make the 3 Series the default winner here. Especially against the Peugeot — a car with more than a few surprise aces up its sleeves when it comes to luxury.
Above is the G20's cabin. Like the exterior changes have been tasteful. There's a greater mixture of materials, the new 'Hey BMW' infotainment system has debuted, and there's a few notable new tech features. These include the 'reversing assistant' feature from the X5, in which the car can reverse itself out of tight parking-lot or driveway squeezes by re-tracing the route it used to get in in the first place.
But even with its impressive array of toys in the 3 Series, it's hard to argue that the 508's living space isn't the more luxurious of the two. While the BMW feels incredibly well bolted together, the Peugeot's cabin is the nicer place to sit.
The seats are fabulous. Incredibly comfortable, supportive both in terms of lumbar and lateral movement, and fitted as standard with massage functionality. The dashboard layout, as you can see in images, is jaw-droppingly different. Faux carbon fibre and piano black surfaces are everywhere, mated to a tiny football-shaped steering wheel and a two-tier design that's unlike anything that anyone else out there is doing.
It is beautiful, weird, madness.
Among the funky piano-key-like buttons linked to the 508's 10-inch touchscreen is the button that links to Peugeot's i-Cockpit Amplify functionality. Hit that button and it takes you to a menu where you can automatically trigger a range of presets designated for either relaxed moods or excitable moods (under the names 'Ambient' and 'Invigorating'). Each mode is customisable and can include massage modes, air-conditioning temperatures, soft music and more — all of which can be activated through a two-button process.
Gimmicky? Absolutely it is. But it shows that Peugeot are very serious about this desire to reach upmarket with the new 508. A booming Focal audio system, an electronic tailgate, wireless charging, adaptive cruise control, active lane-keeping, and night vision via an infrared camera are among its other notable features. This car is brimming with standard kit, at a fraction of the price of other Euros with a similar spec.
It loses some ground to the 3 Series with the back seats, admittedly. Legroom is fine, but the sloping roof-line costs some rear headroom; with the fifth seat being particularly compromised by its raised platform. The BMW on the other hand has no such worries, and will gobble up three adults much more comfortably.
The Peugeot reclaims some practicality points in the boot area. Its rear storage space is 487L with the rear seats up. That might only be 7L more than you get in the BMW, but because the opening is square and because the tailgate is a hatch instead of just a standard boot-lid, the space inside is also much more easily accessible.
Given the Peugeot's interior wins, it casts the way it drives into a different light.
It may not be as sharp at the limit as the BMW, but the 508 also soaks up the bumps much better. It may have been the 330i's 19-inch wheels talking, but its ride is quite jittery around town and on broken pavement (even in Comfort mode). The Peugeot doesn't deal too well with big jolts in the road, but it does iron out just about everything else perfectly.
And then there's those little touches. The 508's pillar-less doors ooze cool, the animations in the 12.3-inch digital screen are fun to watch, and the little zips that cover the ISOFIX anchor points for child seats in the back are a subtle solution for a problem hardly anyone else thinks about.
Look, clearly the BMW is the better driver's car here. And, those in the market who favour the familiar will be more than happy with the slick and comprehensive update that the G20 provides. It's quick, looks sharp, and is built to a superb standard. Those who have long been engaged by the history of BMW's smallest sedan will not be disappointed in the slightest.
But, if the question is 'which of these two cars is the better luxury car?', then it would be an almost inseparable contest. What's more important in that case; having something that handles well, or something that makes the driver feel like they're behind the wheel of something a little bit special? (With a $30,000 saving, no less). I'll leave that call to you.
It could perhaps do with some more engine choice and maybe an even cheaper entry level model, just to further tap into that market of people wanting premium quality at mainstream prices. But as it stands, the 508 is more than a rival for the 3 Series. The fact that it's so close should be classified by Peugeot as a victory in its own right.