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

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The Peugeot 508 PSE arrives more than half a decade after Peugeot, one of the great players in the emerging affordable performance car scene of the 1980s and 1990s, introduced its last hot hatchback: the Peugeot 308 GTi.

And how starkly the market context in which cars of its ilk operate has changed in that time. Europe is now well along its ‘road-to-zero’ new-car electrification glide path, and carbon-based taxes on higher-emitting performance cars are skyrocketing – not least in France, Peugeot’s all-important home market.

Peugeot Sport Engineered cars will have a prominent new logo – the three ‘Kryptonite’ claws, which adorn the nose of the car, sitting above the Peugeot crest itself, as well as the flanks and tailgate.

Considering all of that, the firm has had to think innovatively and boldly to maintain its standing as a key player in the market for real-world driver’s cars. And for several years now – while some of its key competitors have been carrying on as they were, avoiding the elephant in the room, or have simply concluded that affordable electrified performance cars either can’t be viable or can’t be much fun – Peugeot has been experimenting, innovating and daring to believe.

Back in 2015, the year in which the 308 GTi was introduced, it had developed the near-500bhp Peugeot 308 Hybrid R prototype to a high enough standard that it allowed journalists to drive it. And although a turbulent few years of market conditions since put paid to that car’s chances of making production, it has just launched this week’s test subject – the Peugeot 508 Peugeot Sport Engineered – with which, it claims, its performance engineering department is stepping forwards with both feet into a new electrified era.

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The 508 PSE is the most powerful series-production road car that Peugeot has ever made and one of the most technically daring. It combines a four-cylinder petrol engine with a powerful electric motor for each axle; and it also has a big enough drive battery to serve those motors with the current they demand during intensive performance driving, and to allow it to work for electric-only running as a tax-saving plug-in hybrid.

The 508 line-up at a glance

With the arrival of the 508 PSE, there are now two plug-in hybrid versions of the Peugeot 508 family saloon and estate, but only one diesel, the old 2.0-litre HDI having been removed from the UK price list.

The PSE becomes a de facto trim level in its own right, the uppermost of six in all, and with a generous equipment specification.



2 Peugeot 508 PSE SW 2021 RT hero side

The multi-motor hybrid powertrain of the 508 PSE is similar to the one used by that experimental 308 of a few years ago; but the ways in which it is different reveal a lot about the limitations of using electric motors, batteries and combustion engines in performance cars, and the challenges as regards robustness of power generation, and management of both weight and heat, that will exist for all car makers that attempt the same switch Peugeot is now making.

Just like the 308 Hybrid R, this 508 uses a front-mounted 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine as its primary source of power and also has an electric drive motor for each axle. The front motor is sandwiched between the petrol engine and an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and the rear one drives the rear wheels via reduction gearing.

From the beltline up, the PSE goes for menace rather than flamboyance. The integrated wing is relatively subtle, and the rear glasshouse is heavily tinted, whether you want it to be or not.

The electric motors could make as much as 110bhp each, which is roughly as they did on the Hybrid R, but the 508 PSE’s combustion engine is rated to produce only 197bhp, down from 266bhp in the 308 Hybrid R.

That change may allow the motor some margin to work as a current generator without affecting how much power it can supply to the front wheels but it is just as likely to be about preventing it from producing so much heat that the electric half of the car’s propulsion system becomes adversely affected.

Peak ‘system output’ for the 508 PSE is 355bhp, rather than the 400- odd you might have just tallied up, and peak torque is a combined 384lb ft on tap from just 500rpm.

The former is because the car’s lithium ion drive battery (11.5kWh, capable of facilitating a WLTP lab test 26-mile electric range) can only output enough current for the motors to draw up to 158bhp between them at any one time – and that’s only when the car is operating in Sport mode. It’s some improvement on the robustness of performance of the 308 Hybrid R – whose drive battery had only 3kWh of capacity, was depleted very quickly and was part of a car with some clear heat management issues – but it also only leaves this car in a broadly competitive place on power-to-weight ratio versus its nearest rivals, not the outstanding one that some might expect of it.

Peugeot Sport has done its familiar thorough job on the Peugeot 508’s suspension, widening both axle tracks, reappraising its springs, dampers and anti-roll bars at all corners, fitting new adaptive dampers and new Alcon front brakes, recalibrating its electromechanical power steering and fitting 20in alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport 4S performance tyres.

The car can be had in saloon and SW estate bodystyles. We tested the SW, which came with a hefty but not discouraging kerb weight claim of 1875kg. (A BMW M340i xDrive Touring, which has little or no hybrid-related ballast, is only 130kg lighter.) Our test car weighed 1892kg on the scales with a full tank of fuel.


14 Peugeot 508 PSE SW 2021 RT cabin

The cockpit of the regular Peugeot 508 feels somewhat tight compared with many a mid-sized saloon, but in the PSE version, that feeling of closeness merely heightens the sense that you’re driving something serious and performance focused.

Bespoke touches for the PSE extend only to the fluoro yellow ‘Kryptonite’ of the stitching, dials and insignia on the flat-bottomed steering wheel, plus some faux carbonfibre finish for the heavily contoured dashboard, but it’s the high transmission tunnel and comparatively low roof that give the cabin and the driving environment some intent.

Piano-key buttons look great but continue to rob the driver of the only place to rest their hand while using the central touchscreen display. Style over substance.

The specification is also high, with Peugeot’s Focal hi-fi system, wireless smartphone charging and the Connected 30 Navigation system all included as standard. The seats even offer a massage function, although in their shape and construction, they are no different from the ‘comfort-fit’ model found elsewhere in the range, the only difference being that they are trimmed in a mix of nappa leather, Alcantara and a new 3D mesh.

However, they are comfortable and reasonably supportive and can be set reassuringly low, as befits the 508 PSE’s GT-style role. Perceived quality is also high, if not quite at the level of the BMW M340i xDrive, and neither does the place possess quite the same flair you’ll find in the Mercedes-AMG C43.

This being a modern Peugeot, there is also the i-Cockpit to contend with. The theory is that by shrinking the steering wheel and allowing the high-placed digital instrument binnacle to be observed over the top of the rim, you simplify the cockpit and make it more intuitive. However, at least one tester found that when the seat was set low – precisely how you might set it for a performance car – the rim obscured the dials. This, along with limited rear leg room, is the 508 PSE’s chief ergonomic foible.

As for raw carrying capacity, the 508 PSE’s drive battery sits beneath the rear seats, so doesn’t hinder the 530 litres of boot space of the regular car, rising to 1780 litres with the seatbacks folded. Those are healthy figures indeed, and only just shy of what you find in full-sized estates, such as the Mercedes E-Class.

Peugeot 508 PSE infotainment and sat-nav

The 508 pairs Peugeot’s top-specification 12.3in touchscreen with the i-Cockpit’s 10.0in driver display. Both screens possess adequately sharp graphics and the latter allows you to customise the nature of the readout: ‘Minimum’ even removes the fuel gauge.

Navigating the instrument binnacle via the steering wheel buttons isn’t particularly intuitive, though, and some drivers will experience limited visibility because of the way that Peugeot positions the car’s shrunken steering wheel.

The central display contains most of the climate control functions (some, such as the heated seat buttons, are haptic, and sit just below) and multimedia features, but it also usefully illustrates the energy flows of the engine and motors in the PSE’s various driving modes. In fact, the entire ‘skin’ of the PSE’s digital array has been customised with the sub-brand’s hallmark yellow-green tone.


28 Peugeot 508 PSE SW 2021 RT engine

There are two sides to the 508 PSE’s performance. One of those sides is illustrated by the 5.7sec 0-60mph time the car recorded during testing, which is some way off the claimed 5.2sec to 62mph, which in turn is behind the competition.

The BMW M340i xDrive Touring, Mercedes- AMG C43 Estate, Audi S4 Avant and Volvo V60 Polestar Engineered all dip below the five-second mark, thereby putting daylight between their performance level and that of the quicker front-driven hot hatches. By our reckoning, the Peugeot is only as quick off the mark as sub-£35,000 athletes such as the Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus ST. For £55,000 and the promise of not one power source on tap but three, plus four- wheel drive, owners of the 508 PSE might reasonably expect more.

You can carry plenty of speed into, through and out of corners, all the while enjoying a blend of keen control and forgiving pliancy not usually associated with 1.9-tonne cars.

Compounding this shortfall in straight-line performance is the nature of the eight-speed gearbox. It shifts reasonably effectively, though hardly with lightning speed, yet offers the driver little in the way of control. You cannot, for example, lock it into ‘manual’ mode, and even if you do elicit an upshift or downshift yourself, you’ll get that shift, but almost immediately thereafter the gearbox will resort to executing its own strategy. It’s therefore best to let the PSE do what it wants to do in this regard, treating it as you would any purely automatic car.

It must also be said that the pedal for the special Alcon brakes is woolly in feel, low on communication and during emergency-stop testing went fully to the floor by default. The brakes are at least highly effective, bringing the 508 PSE to a standstill from high speeds with absolutely minimal drama, and without delay.

But here’s the other side of the coin: the hottest Peugeot on sale is also effortlessly and enjoyably quick in the real world. The trick is to treat the driveline like it is purely electric, with a single-speed gearbox, because that’s how it can feel.

Of the two, the rear electric motor is naturally preferred, but it is then joined by the front motor if your right foot demands it, and their combined efforts give the 508 PSE an immediate jolt of propulsive force and ‘torque fill’ the lull that the gearbox creates while it locates the right gear. The manner in which the various driveline elements dip in and out of service is also impressively finessed, leaving the driver with an intuitive, responsive and appreciably potent – if somewhat aloof – powertrain at their disposal.


29 Peugeot 508 PSE SW 2021 RT cornering front

Despite its kerb weight, the 508 PSE comes alive when you show it an interesting road. What’s striking is the manner in which the car’s deft body control (both vertically and laterally) never spills over into outright force, and with it harshness. This Peugeot really does breathe with the road in the fashion of the French greats of yesteryear, and often seems impervious to becoming in any way flustered, which breeds confidence.

It’s a confidence the steering builds on. This electrically assisted set-up remains vaguely synthetic in feel, and the nature of its variable-speed gearing can at times make it an inconsistent companion. However, in the main, it transmits the ebb and flow of grip well and exhibits a lovely sense of precision and finesse on turn-in.

The 508's chassis demonstrates good balance through wide, fast corners, with the rear motor providing neutrality

That extra track width at the front axle, courtesy of longer wishbones, and the increased negative camber: you can feel it, and enjoy it. The 508 PSE loves nothing more than to be flicked into bends on a trailing brake, where it’ll show the kind of agility and rotational energy normally observed in the better-sorted front-driven hot hatches. It then pays to get back into the throttle early and engage that rear electric motor, which neutralises the car and helps provide drive out of the bends.

The 508 PSE also benefits from the regular model’s relatively narrow width, which makes it easy to place on the road and work this malleable, playful chassis without feeling the white lines are getting too close.

Of course, there is another side to the 508 PSE’s handling: that of the more laid-back, GT-type sports car. It adopts this role well, flowing with balance and poise when you can’t be so committed in your driving, or simply don’t want to be. This chassis generates substantial grip and carries speed effortlessly.

Indeed, it’s difficult to find a road on which this car doesn’t, at least to some degree, impress you with its ability and spirit.

Peruse the literature for the 508 PSE and you’ll find there’s no mention of track testing, or any such activity. It should therefore come as no surprise that the car feels ill-suited to circuit work, despite the general excellence of its handling.

Sure, the car demonstrates fine body control on the Hill Route at Millbrook Proving Ground, and the nose is quick to respond to steering inputs, inspiring a great deal of confidence. Grip levels are also very high, although not so great that the car cannot be rotated on the way into bends (although any tail-happy, power-on antics are nipped in the bud by an ESP system that cannot be switched off).

What frustrates are the brakes, which are powerful enough but imprecise and uncommunicative in their feel. The inability to take manual control of the powertrain is also in stark contrast to the precise nature of this car’s German rivals.

Comfort and isolation

One glance at the PSE’s 20in alloy wheels, and its pavement-hugging stance, and you’d be forgiven for thinking Peugeot had sacrificed ride comfort at the altar of body control and kerb appeal. Certainly, for something with at least half an eye on refinement and premium-ness, it looks an uncompromising thing.

However, appearances can be deceptive, and the reality is that little troubles the 508 PSE as it rolls along at sedate speeds, and only when the road surface becomes truly evil is an ever-so-slight brittleness to be detected.

In general, it’s one of the finest-riding machines in the class, able to connect with the road, and permit only minimal vertical suspension movements, but never labouring progress. Comfort mode, in which the dampers resort to their most relaxed setting, simply isn’t necessary nine times out of 10.

The car’s EV mode also makes for serene progress, particularly at town speeds, where the responsive throttle and smooth, quiet running of the driveline feel natural.


Peugeot 508 Sport Engieneered 2021 road test review - hero front

A car with as many independent sources of propulsion and lithium ion battery cells as the 508 PSE was never likely to come cheap but, for private buyers at least, this car should certainly test the bounds of acceptability on price for a fast Peugeot.

The saloon version has a before-options price of just under £54,000, the SW estate just under £56,000. You can get a Volvo V60 T8 Polestar Engineered, the wagon’s only direct performance PHEV rival, from just under 10% less, or have an Audi S4 TDI Avant or a BMW M340i xDrive Touring for less still.

If performance cars must go hybrid, then fast wagons are arguably where the technology makes most sense. They’ve got the heft to absorb the battery and an EV mode plays to their Swiss army knife appeal. This Peugeot pulls it off well.

So, yes, the 508 PSE certainly does stretch the definition of affordable somewhat, but before you dismiss it, consider that you get a fully loaded car here as standard. Besides paint colour choices, Peugeot’s cost-options number fewer than five, whereas you could easily exceed this car’s price, and keep right on going, by adding your chosen optional equipment to the Volvo, BMW or Audi.

Then there’s the 508’s pecuniary appeal as an upmarket, tax-saving f leet option to consider, and its potential to save you money on running costs. The 30.5mpg our car averaged on test isn’t representative of what this car might return for someone who could charge it at home and use it for fairly short-hop work commuting. Our testing suggests you should expect an electric-only range of around 20 miles.



33 Peugeot 508 PSE SW 2021 RT static

Peugeot’s performance-flavoured offerings have been sporadic in recent years, but the very first product under the all-new Peugeot Sport Engineered sub-brand should be seen as a success, albeit with caveats.

It is an expensive car, the 508 PSE. It’s also heavier than rivals and does without their cylinder count – or their rear-biased powertrains. However, handling in the spirit of the finest four-wheel-drive hot hatches and an ability to genuinely engage its driver propel the PSE high up into the fast estate (and saloon) ranks.

Hits notable handling highs but feels less than sharp elsewhere

That this flagship 508, so rich in personality, matches that B-road agility and composure with fine road manners and deft ride quality during more mundane tasks shows that Peugeot has not cut corners.

The slick calibration of the PSE’s three power sources also speaks of expertise, although there’s no escaping the driveline’s flaws. While responsive, it lacks outright shove and, unlike the car’s handling, is hard to truly engage with. Were the electric range greater, it might have been worth it.

As it is, though, the 508 PSE’s hybrid elements feel more a necessary evil than virtuous in their own right. This car’s magic resides elsewhere.


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 508 PSE First drives