Peugeot’s striking cruise missile - Peugeot 508 HDi 140
Anyone who’s ever spent any time in what novelist Wilbur Smith is wont to call ‘the vast heat that is Africa’ will undoubtedly tell you that there’s something unique about the Dark Continent’s ability to imbue you with the most improbably vivid, life-long memories.
Indeed, my recollections of a precious clutch of childhood years spent in East Africa remain so startlingly rich that, to this day, I can’t actually remember anything whatsoever of my early life before a bare-metal brilliant Bristol Britannia finally smeared to halt on a roasting Nairobi runway.
Enormous skies; snakes in the kitchen; scorpions in the shoes; thorns the size of darning needles; giant insects clattering clumsily aloft like Chinook helicopters; the faint but unsettling rustle of a million army ants on the move; artillery barrage-intense thunderstorms; a pet bush baby that pinged off the walls and peed on your head; jacaranda trees in bloom; a Siamese cat which delighted in tormenting chameleons by bringing them inside and dropping them on a tartan travel rug… And that was just the back garden.
Even more vivid are memories of an annual pilgrimage down to the coast. Here, I idled away an inordinate amount of time sand bombing shut the front doors of the snow white ghost crabs that blustered to and fro like blown leaves across the talcum powder shore, forcing them to excavate anew with the frantic vim of a high-velocity road drill.
The Indian Ocean extracted its revenge, of course. One day I kicked the irresistible blue dollop that was a stranded Portuguese Man of War jellyfish; electrocution jolts of pain swiftly followed by a foot the shape and size of a rugby ball for a week…
Best of all, however – this still being an era in which it most definitely was better to travel than to arrive – was the journey itself from Nairobi to Mombasa. For any small boy worth his salt, option A was always the overnight train, in those days lugged by a snorting leviathan of a steam locomotive which, for all its monstrous intent, seemed to manage a brisk jog at best along a line of understandably haphazard quality. After all, it had cost the life of one man per day during its construction – all eaten by lions.
The alternative, infinitely less glamorous but essential if you did not wish, on arrival, to resort to the matatu – a teetering, home-made, Transit van-sized box bolted onto the running gear of a Renault 4-sized runabout and easily the world’s most dangerous, and overcrowded, taxi – was the murram dirt mayhem of the main road.
Perhaps a fear of succumbing to big cat canapé status also took the eyes of those building it off the ball, because the un-metalled road surface was horrendous. Billowing red dust rapidly plugged every orifice and simply could not ever be fully washed from clothing, whilst a regular spacing of wheelbarrow-deep potholes dictated that optimum velocity was about 50mph; fast enough to fly clean over the deepest divots yet, hopefully, slow enough not to lose an entire wheel on impact.
And never mind the lions; death by elephant was not uncommon. Entirely daubed in murram and bereft of running lights, the resident pachyderm population proved almost impossible to pick out in the dim glow of ancient headlights… Barrel headlong into a bull elephant and no one walks away.
All of which lobbed some interesting and entirely unique variables into the equation when it came to buying a car. Ultimately, it came down to a choice of two: the Citroen Safari or the Peugeot 504 (and absolutely not the Morris Oxford in which I shuddered about). The Citroen, an estate version of the lovely DS, had the ability, via a handbrake-style lever, to hitch up its petticoats and glide over the roughest terrain.
But it was the 504 that quietly conquered the whole of Africa. Biltong-tough, its unbeatable combination of hilariously long-travel suspension and lounge-lizard seat springing elicited levels of ride comfort entirely at odds with the relentless violence going on below decks, and scarcely a ripple of road surface interference ever made it through to the rump. Indeed, so able was the big Peugeot in this environment that it regularly wrested the East African Safari Rally laurels from all comers.
Back on the tarmac firma of English roads, however, the extraordinary absorption abilities of supersoft French suspension proved less appealing. The 504 suddenly revealed itself to roll with all the alacrity of a toy dog promised a titbit and, a long-time exponent of childhood back seat carsickness, I was finally privileged to throw up in one.
Today, though, the worm has turned so absolutely that – with almost every manufacturer irritatingly obsessed with dynamic abilities which 95% of owners will never come close to fully exploiting other than at the scene of an accident – most family cars are no longer nearly comfortable enough in the cruise. Given its illustrious, floatlike- a-butterfly ancestry, then, perhaps the Peugeot 508 can offer some redress…
Replacing both the 407 and the 607, the 508 is sized to go head to head with Ford’s consistently impressive Mondeo. In the catwalk stakes, this unremarkable yet undeniably handsome saloon is easily the best looking, most mature Peugeot to have surfaced for some time.
On board, the interior quality that has, of late, kept the company head and shoulders above rivals Citroen and Renault remains in evidence, with reservations. Whilst the driver’s instrument binnacle and the superior graphics of its high-definition trip computer are first class, the plethora of grey-on-grey steering wheel-mounted switchgear lacks presence.
Worse, Peugeot appears to have taken a costsaving leaf out of Renault’s book and has produced model-interchangeable, panel-within-apanel stereo and air-conditioning controls (even unto replicating the chrome-lipped grin of the latter’s offering) rather than designing a bespoke centre console in which the buttons actually fill the space provided. The latter always appears more classy and, having got it so right in the 308, it’s a shame to see Peugeot take this backward step.
The ‘Allure’ specification of the £23,100 HDi 140 variant I drove boasts adequate levels of standard equipment, but you’ll have to fork out for the top of the range GT in order to replace the dated-looking Kia-Ora orange centre console screen with a more appealing, full colour sat’ nav’ affair.
Electric seat adjustment, on the other hand, I could actually do without. The mechanism won’t allow the seat to sink far enough south, and this, allied to a fraction too little reach adjustment on the helm and lumbar support you can’t dial far enough into the background, puts the perfect driving position just out of reach.
The French have always given great diesel, and this 2.0 litre, 140 bhp unit is no exception. 0- 62mph comes up in a respectable 9.8 seconds, a 130mph top speed is more than enough, and the engine is both lusty under throttle and quiet in the cruise.
The steering provides feedback and accuracy in adequate measure, the gearchange is faultless, and the 508 takes to twisty roads in a manner which has clearly been designed to emulate the Mondeo. This, to its credit, it makes a decent fist of without ever threatening to dislodge the astonishingly able Ford’s crown. If anything, the perception is of a chassis that could willingly handle more power, and it’s something of a surprise that a V6 isn’t on offer in the range.
No matter, because what we really crave is a murram dirt-monopolising, best-in-class straight line ride… And, as you pull away for the first time, every indication is that the big Peugeot will deliver. The refinement of an entirely creak- and squeak-free environment is further enhanced by pleasingly low engine, wind and road noise levels, and the 508 feels extremely well planted.
The full magic carpet, then? Sadly, no. Because, as speeds build, that elegant waft wavers and nuggety, fidgeting undertones creep into the equation, just taking the edge off what had promised to be the real deal. Such a pity; like a belowpar thoroughbred, you can actually feel the car struggling to deliver the ride it so evidently aspires to…
Ultimately, this is the classiest, most polished Peugeot we’ve seen in years. And perhaps it’s just nostalgia that makes me feel I wouldn’t mind that it stings a little too much like a butterfly, if it only floated a little less like a bee.