Peugeot 408: Good looks can only get you so far

Visual attraction isn’t enough to carry this fastback saloon past its sibling rival

New Peugeot 408

Sir Alec Issigonis, the designer of the original Mini, is credited with describing a camel as a “horse designed by a committee”.

Issigonis coined the camel phrase to underline his hatred of committees. Great innovations don’t result from the constant search for compromise. One wonders what he would make of this Peugeot 408.

In some ways the new 408 ideally sums up the uncertain state of modern car design. It’s part-electric/part-petrol powered, it’s part saloon/part coupe/part crossover SUV. It’s got the digital screens of a luxury car and the steering wheel of a sports car. It claims to handle like a hatchback but with the functional space of a five-seater people carrier.

As someone who abhors coupé crossover SUVs, the 408 should be on my hate list, but I fell for its fastback profile from the start

It’s eagerly trying to be different by being everything to everybody. Each and every faction got its way on the committee that came up with this car. That should suggest this 408 is doomed to ignominy. Yet there is a lot to like about this particular Peugeot.


For a start, it’s a really good-looking car. As someone who abhors coupé crossover SUVs, the 408 should be on my hate list, but I fell for its fastback profile from the start.

Inside, there’s the sort of practicality you just don’t get with a regular coupé, while you can’t really credit this car with any worthwhile SUV traits, which is a positive feature.

The boot, even in our plug-in hybrid test car where the battery pack was under the floor, still boasted 471 litres. If you opt for the regular combustion offering that grows to 536 litres. In the back seat, there’s the sort of legroom that would impress a taxi driver, while up front you get all that touchscreen and piano-style toggle switches. True, the small steering wheel takes a while for some people to get used to, but I’m a fan of it on Peugeot’s smaller cars, so am not inclined to complain about the format here.

Peugeot's new 408 fastback

Certainly, that little wheel makes you feel a lot more engaged with the car’s handling than you might expect.

Having initially driven the 408 within weeks of its sibling the Citroen C5X, my preference was for the chevron brand. I’m happy to report that after spending a lot more time on Irish roads with the Peugeot, the gap between the two has certainly closed, and I can see the nuanced differences: for comfort and all-round appeal you would still opt for Citroen, but for a little more driving fun the 408 is probably the answer.

In plug-in hybrid format, power comes from 1.6-litre petrol engine married to a 12.4kWh batter pack powering an electric motor that will run the car for a claimed 62kms solely on electric before turning to the engine for help.

Running on electric, the big car feels agile and graceful, but once you turn to the engine power things start to get a little less impressive.

The 408′s ride quality is fairly smooth, but not quite on a par with the Citroen C5X. And that’s why the Citroen wins out in the battle of the French fastbacks

Continue to drive with the enthusiasm you did under electric power and the engine starts to hit the high notes. It’s not helped by the eight-speed auto transmission that is all too eager to drop down a few gears in its earnest effort to get you more torque.

Performance is pacey, if not lightning-quick, with 0-100km/h times of 7.8 seconds for the 225hp version.

Peugeot has attempted to apply the much-admired dynamics of its 308 hatchback to this larger car, but hasn’t quite pulled it off. That’s largely due to the sizeable differences in all scales between the two cars.

New Peugeot 408

And that’s the rub: it simply can’t be as sporty and agile as its hatchback sibling while at the same time promising to be a big spacious family crossover saloon. The laws of physics simply won’t give way to the wishes of the committee.

The 408 is refined and the ride quality is fairly smooth, if not quite on a par with the Citroen C5X. And that’s why the Citroen wins out in the battle of the French fastbacks. By not trying to be sporty, it instead dials up the comfort levels to deliver a car that ends up feeling more luxurious.

The new 408 starts at €39,995 for the regular 1.2-litre petrol version, but opt for plug-in petrol and prices rise to €45,745 in its 180bhp guise. Opt for the 225bhp GT version that was our test car and it hits €53,345.

There was a time when the €50,000 price tag on a Peugeot forecourt was reserved for small-volume sports cars or unsellable luxury saloons designed specifically to ferry around French presidents. Nowadays car showrooms are the front line of the inflation war.

At €40,000 for the 1.2-litre, this car does seem like a very good buy, but extend into the PHEVs and it starts to lose some of its allure. The GT version promises to be more sporty and engaging, but it simply isn’t as sharp on these points as the smaller 308, so if you are making the leap to the larger car, then the more affordable 180bhp version seems the wiser buy.

New Peugeot 408

And when you start to forgo performance for price, then it begs the question why you would opt for this Peugeot over the equivalent Citroen.

True, the 408 is arguably a more strikingly good looking car. But is that enough?

Peugeot is seeking to be the sportier sibling to Citroen, which in turn responds by playing up its reputation for comfort and refinement. In this particular instance, with a sizeable fastback saloon crossover in play, there’s not enough dynamism for Peugeot to make its sporting DNA stand out.

It’s something the committee that came up with the 408 seemed to forget, in its efforts to create a great-looking car that seeks to pander to everyone’s wishes.

Lowdown: Peugeot 408 PHEV 225 GT

Power: 1598cc four-cylinder in-line 180bhp petrol engine combined with a 110bhp electric motor powered by a 12.5kWh battery pack. Transmission is eight-speed automatic.

CO2 emissions (annual motor tax) 28g/km (€140).

Fuel consumption: 1.2/100km (WLTP).

0-100km/h: 7.8sec. Price: €53,345 as tested, 408 range starts from €39,995.

Our rating: 3/5.

Verdict: Sleek crossover that looks great and drives well, but the sibling Citroen C5X is a better all-rounder.

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor, Innovation Editor and an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times