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Striking French crossbreed aims to tempt people away from SUVs

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Welcome to the Peugeot 408. But before we delve into what this quite unusual car does well (and less well), a history lesson.

Peugeot’s three-digit naming strategy hasn’t changed much in decades – it’s well known that the original Porsche 911 of the early 1960s was initially intended to be called ‘901’ but then had to be renamed after the French brand complained.

It means certain conventions are well established. For example, models beginning with ‘3’ are always mid-size hatchbacks, whereas those starting with a ‘9’ are of course top-class endurance racers designed to win Le Mans, such as the wild Peugeot 9X8. However, the number ‘4’ is less predictable and it has been applied to some of Peugeot’s best-loved and most interesting products.

The 1935 402, with its rear-wheel spats, was one of the first family cars to attempt to address the aerodynamics concern, while the sweet little 403 that succeeded it performed a volte-face and dragged the brand’s design language into modernity. It was the first Peugeot to sell in seven-figure numbers. More recently, the 405 stole hearts in Mi16 guise – it was essentially a 205 GTi in saloon uniform – and the 406 that succeeded it included a Pininfarina-penned coupé that was one of the prettiest cars of the 1990s.

We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that the new 408 takes a somewhat unpredictable form. What exactly is it? “A mix between a saloon and an SUV,” Peugeot CEO Linda Jackson told Autocar earlier this year. It was a refreshingly straightforward assessment, but the idea needs no dressing. Notchback crossovers are gaining popularity. They offer the ride height buyers want from SUVs but package it in a less obtuse, more elegant body.

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We expect to see more of this car type in the coming years, so Peugeot’s decision to embody its new ‘Language of Attraction’ design approach in the eye-catching, interest-generating 408 seems shrewd. But is this a case of style over substance? Let’s find out. 

The Range at a Glance

Models Power Price
Puretech 130 128bhp £30,970
Hybrid 136 MHEV 134bhp tbc
Hybrid 180 PHEV 178bhp £40,050
Hybrid 225 PHEV 221bhp £42,375
e-408 EV tbc tbc

The 408 range will soon expand to include a pure-electric option at the top of the line-up and a mild-hybrid petrol at the other end. For now, your choice is limited to the pure-petrol Puretech 130 and the two plug-in hybrid options. Trim levels range from Allure to GT, with Allure Pack occupying the middle ground. Only on GT trim do you get featuressuch as the 3D instrument cluster, a frameless interior mirror and aluminium door sills.

DESIGN & STYLING

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peugeot 408 review 2023 002 panning side

Since Stellantis was formed in 2021, encompassing no fewer than 16 brands, the company’s scale of engineering rationalisation has been profound.

We see it here again in the 408, which shares its EMP2 V3 platform with the DS 4, Vauxhall Astra and Citroën C5 X, as well as the Peugeot 308. It means this car can carry pure-combustion, mild-hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery-electric powertrains, although for now the range offers only a three-cylinder petrol Puretech and two more powerful plug-in hybrid options. Mild-hybrid and solely electric versions are on the way, and are expected to land later in 2023.

Our Hybrid 180 e-EAT8 test car is the less powerful of the two PHEVs, making 178bhp from its 1598cc turbo petrol engine and electric motor, which is mounted upstream of the eight-speed automatic transmission. The range-topping Hybrid 225 e-EAT8 uses an identical set-up, only with a combined 221bhp massaged out of the powertrain. 

Both cars are front-driven and use a combination of MacPherson-strut front suspension with a torsion beam at the rear, all controlled by a passive spring and damper combination. This is a key difference between the 408 and perhaps its most closely related kind – the similarly sized, similarly shaped, similarly class-defying C5 X. In a mostly successful bid to bring ride quality to the fore, the Citroën uses hydraulic bump stops, and plug-in hybrid versions are fitted with a camera-based, adaptively damped suspension. The Peugeot gets neither.

Meanwhile, power for pure-electric driving is provided by a 12.4kWh battery pack beneath the boot floor. Claimed range is 40 miles, no matter what trim level you go for, while power is restricted to 109bhp if you want to keep the engine dormant. The 408 can charge its battery at speeds of up to 7.4kW.

In terms of footprint, despite its considerable presence, the 408 is shorter than a Peugeot 508 SW (that is, the estate), and only a fraction longer than the current BMW 3 Series saloon. Sharp creases in the body panels, pronounced haunches and wheel-arch claddings all play their part in making this car unmistakable, as of course does the silhouette and the LED fangs at the front, which have been toned down on the revised 508 but are particularly pronounced on the 408.

Note also the unusually tapered glasshouse. The bluff tail, with its hint of a spoiler and glaring LED lights, completes the package.

Screenshot 2023 10 19 at 09

 

INTERIOR

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peugeot 408 review 2023 011 front seats

Were you to slide from the confines of, say, the similarly conceived Mercedes GLC Coupé and into the 408, the French car’s deficit in visual impact and materials quality wouldn’t be night and day. Far from it. Peugeot has raised its game considerably in recent times, and the cockpit of its new fastback-crossover represents the current culmination of its efforts to be more premium. 

Slimline air vents neatly inhabit the upper edge of an artfully contoured dashboard and the transmission tunnel of our GT-spec car had a finish akin to what you would expect to find on high-end German kitchen goods. The display inside the instrument binnacle also has a surprisingly convincing 3D effect, and the three-strata control array – consisting of a touchscreen display, a touch-sensitive menu panel and then a row of physical toggle-type switches – marks an interesting and urbane approach. We like it.

Our test car had the £600 Focal hi-fi system with 10 speakers and a 690W amplifier. Specs needn’t mean anything, but it sounds truly excellent.

The 408 also has sound ergonomics that befit its personality. The high window line and concave dashboard give the cabin something of an amphitheatre atmosphere, which is what you generally find in purpose-built GTs. The multi-textured front seats are broad and enveloping, with plenty of electric adjustment, as well as heating and massage functions, if you opt for the Driver & Passenger Seat Pack.

With familiarity, even the tiny but substantial rim of the leather-trimmed steering wheel of Peugeot’s infamous i-Cockpit sits in the hands with ease, although even in its lowest setting it obscures the bottom of the instrument panel. On a related note, rear visibility is limited, but this is the price paid for that wickedly sloping rear windscreen. Mostly, this is a fine place to while away miles.

More prosaically, oddment storage is good, as is leg room for rear passengers. The 408 beats the fine 508 in this respect, although if outright luggage space is a concern, the 508 SW’s 530 litres of boot space comfortably trumps the 471 litres of PHEV 408 models.

Screenshot 2023 10 19 at 09

Multimedia system

Peugeot 408 review 2023 013 infotainment 0

Plenty of the details inside the 408 are recognisable from other former PSA brands in the Stellantis stable and it’s no different for the infotainment system. The car’s central, 10in touchscreen is large enough to avoid frustrating users but not so large as to feel overly imposing, as seems to be the current trend. The software sometimes shows latency but on the whole works seamlessly, and the graphics are adequately crisp in 2023. There is a physical volume dial too, as well as steering wheel controls.

Peugeot’s latest raft of interior updates also introduces i-Toggles, which sit in a row below the touchscreen proper and provide useful shortcuts to functions such as the media player, climate, navigation and smartphone pairing, for which the 408 has both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability.

As a family car, the 408 is well furnished with charging and data ports. The car has two USB-C connections in the front and two more in the back. There’s a 12V socket to be found both in the front of the cabin and in the boot of the car.

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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peugeot 408 review 2023 020 engine

The 408 range has yet to be crowned with a Peugeot Sport Engineered derivative, as you can have with the 508.

It means that even the fastest version, the Hybrid 225, musters only a 7.8sec claimed 0-62mph time. For the Hybrid 180 tested here, that drops to 8.1sec, and our recorded test time was 8.2sec to 60mph. That’s fine but perhaps a little unremarkable for such a rakish-looking car. A 30-70mph time of 7.3sec in kickdown is also on the leisurely side, but not to the extent that it hinders overtaking, as we have found can happen with the entry-level, 128bhp three-cylinder Puretech model.

On the road, the character of the 408’s performance is probably more important than objective figures. And it’s mostly agreeable when the powertrain is left in its default Hybrid mode. The eight-speed gearbox can hunt around at times and the car’s brain can sometimes conjure up an unexpected combination of petrol and electric force but, on the whole, tip-in response is satisfyingly crisp as the electric motor immediately reacts first with a dose of torque.

As the petrol engine joins in, acceleration thereafter is reasonably well sustained, and there’s little cause ever to engage Sport mode. You certainly won’t be engaging with the gearshift paddles, which are conspicuously flimsy and can often feel ineffective, such is the length of time the transmission takes to react to manual commands.

As a plug-in hybrid, the 408 Hybrid 180 can also be driven as an EV, and includes a ‘B’ mode that increases the force of the regenerative braking (although this can also be selected in Hybrid and Sport driving modes). The car works well as an EV, so long as you don’t expect too much from the 109bhp electric motor, being up against an as-tested weight of 1746kg. Progress is smooth and refined, and you can expect 30-40 miles on a full charge. If Peugeot could instead make that 60 miles, the PHEV would be a more compelling proposition. Remedying the spongy brake pedal would also help matters.

 

RIDE & HANDLING

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peugeot 408 review 2023 003 cation rear

If the 408 has a hallmark attribute beyond exterior styling, it is the car’s surprisingly engaging and polished handling. 

Granted, this statement needs to be contextualised. Peugeot’s fastback lacks any sort of limited-slip differential and, as we have ascertained, the powertrain isn’t the last word in excitement, so it isn’t something that naturally begs to be taken by the scruff. In fact, its sole nod to athleticism is the fitment of Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres. And yet there’s lots for the keen driver here.

You notice it the first time you turn in to a corner. The 408 rolls enough to let you know the suspension is loading up neatly, but no more. The steering response is also well judged, and quite beautifully matches the car’s consistent roll rates. Feedback is limited but the weight of the rack ebbs and flows.

Meanwhile, the small-diameter steering wheel and quick off-centre response give the car an inherent feeling of agility that isn’t quite backed up by reality but, for the 408 owner driving at everyday speeds, empirical sensations matter more. You can flow the 408 through an S-bend with your fingertips and derive genuine satisfaction from the process. Grip and balance are better than they need to be, and the 408 even exhibits a whiff of mid-corner throttle-adjustability. There are hot hatch undertones here.

It takes a damp road to uncover the 408’s only real weakness, which is traction. The front axle can scrabble awkwardly when pulling swiftly out of the junctions or exiting tighter corners. It’s a relatively minor qualm for a car that will, in the main, be driven sedately, but worth noting. Also consider the fact that the 508 has a very similar dynamic persona, only enhanced by its lower-slung body.

Comfort & Isolation

In the main, the 408 is relaxing, unobtrusive company. It’s a car that establishes an easy-going gait on most roads, settling down conspicuously well at higher speeds, and the cabin itself is a fine place to spend time.

For a car of this class, it also does well against the noise meter. A reading of 69dBA at a 70mph cruise is exactly equal to that of the considerably more expensive Mercedes GLC 300 we tested recently, and also the Citroën C5 X Puretech 180, whose positioning suggests it should do a touch better than its mechanical cousin in this respect. Evidently, Peugeot’s aerodynamic work on the 408 has paid off, and the car’s downsized petrol engine is also mostly distant and subdued, remaining reasonably well isolated even under load. In all-electric mode, the 408 is quieter still, as you would expect.

Where the 408 falls short is secondary ride – that is, the suspension’s ability to absorb poor road surfaces, ruts, speed bumps and the like. It’s simply too reactive in these circumstances, and while we’d like to try this car on smaller wheels, we’re not sure our particular example’s 20in alloys can be entirely blamed, because they still permit 45-section sidewalls. There’s an argument to be made that, in order to achieve the car’s surprisingly fine handling, some ride-related compromises have to be made, but even if this is the case and the 408’s balance is deliberate, it hasn’t been struck quite right.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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peugeot 408 review 2023 001 action front

Plug-in hybrid versions of the 408 are considerably more expensive than the entry-level petrol, so if CO2 emissions have little financial implication for ownership and you can live with the blunted performance, the Puretech 130 is worth considering.

You might also consider the Citroën C5 X. It isn’t as traditionally attractive as the Peugeot and isn’t so sweet to drive, but it’s an interesting car, rides with more maturity and costs less in like-for-like specification, with the same engine. Both French cars have weaker residuals than alternatives from the Volkswagen Group and also the likes of Kia.

If the 408 – and a PHEV version – is the car for you, you can expect just over 42mpg during touring with minimal assistance from the electric motor. This gives the car a cruising range of 370 miles. Clearly, if you can charge the battery, your effective economy figure on shorter runs could approach, or even exceed, the Hybrid 180’s claimed 214.7-270.3mpg. In gentle suburban driving, we managed 3.6 miles per kWh in Electric mode, which translates to 40.3 miles of range. Expect less at higher speeds. 

It’s also worth noting that while the battery can be charged on the go with power from the engine, doing so severely hurts economy. During a touring run, we saw fuel efficiency drop to around 25mpg when the drivetrain was put into E-Save mode and power from the engine used to charge the battery on the move.

VERDICT

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peugeot 408 review 2023 021 static rear

There’s an argument to be made that, from a hard-nosed product planning perspective, the Peugeot 408 exists in no man’s land. After all, it doesn’t quite capture the high-riding, utility feel that now drives people towards SUVs. Neither is it as traditionally slick as an executive saloon, such as Peugeot’s own 508 or the BMW 3 Series. Perhaps the 408 exists only because the platform, engines and much of the interior were already to hand, and so the project required just a fresh  body-in-white. An easy win. 

And yet, in a sea of cookie-cutter family crossovers, the 408 is an unusually soulful car. It has an attractive, well-wrought cabin and surprisingly fine handling chops. It is spacious inside and, if the PHEV works for your circumstances, is adaptable and efficient, as well as being intuitively easy to drive. It is not without quirks – the i-Cockpit, for example, and the powertrain’s occasionally odd machinations – and it could be easier on the pocket compared with the competition. But those rivals lack some of the 408’s simple desirability. It also shows the concept of a raised-up, four-door fastback has potential.

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Peugeot 408 First drives