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Can Peugeot’s 408 lure SUV fans with its sporty take on the crossover craze?

The French carmaker is putting up an impressive fight to keep saloon cars alive as other brands abandon the market

New Peugeot 408

Peugeot’s new 408 continues the French brand’s renaissance with a rather sporty take on the current crossover craze.

While many mainstream brands are abandoning the saloon car market, it’s the French who are putting up the strongest fight for its retention. And they’re doing an impressive job.

Peugeot has reinvented its model line-up with an aggressive styling template across its range that has given the brand a real edge over rivals.

This time, with the new 408, it has adapted to the SUV and crossover sales boom, but retained much of the saloon car DNA.

New Peugeot 408

This is a high-set fastback crossover saloon, if you can imagine such a thing. It’s longer than you might expect, sleeker than you might imagine and boasts a driving position that is more similar to a regular saloon than any SUV.

The first thing to say is that, like its sibling, the Citroen C5X, this new 408 is a strikingly good-looking car, from its waterfall grille to its fastback rear.

The second thing you notice is its size: this is a substantial lump of metal. Measuring in at nearly 4.7m (15.4ft) and more than 2m (6.5ft) wide, its scale really stands out when you park up next to the average mid-sized SUV.

Inside, while the touchscreen dash and Peugeot’s toggle of switches – which can be adjusted to feature your favourite functions – catch the eye, it’s in the back that the added legroom will surprise. This is a spacious car, even if you have to duck your head to get below the sweeping fastback roofline.

Back before the driver, however, is Peugeot’s divisive i-Cockpit set-up, with the smaller steering wheel in front of a digital binnacle that’s frankly too busy to be much use to a driver who should be focused on the road. Peugeot talks up its so-called 3D feature on the binnacle’s display, but it’s clunky technology and won’t impress any of the iPad generation, never mind those who have dipped a toe into the realm of VR headsets.

New Peugeot 408

There are three power options on the new 408: a 1.2-litre petrol putting out 130bhp or a choice of two plug-in hybrid versions, with either 180hp or 225hp from a combination of 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and 81KW electric motor.

The difference in horsepower is simply down to engine output, so the electric-only range remains the same, according to Peugeot, at up to 63km on a full charge, before it reverts to regular hybrid mode and brings the engine in on the action.

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

All versions are front-wheel drive with eight-speed automatic transmissions and suspension set-up that features MacPherson strut at the front and twist-beam rear.

The smaller square steering wheel does make the car’s handling seem more engaging, but this format is better suited to the hatchback 308 than this big car. That transition of parts and driver feel from the 308 to larger 408 is ambitious, but I’m not sure that it works as well as Peugeot might have hoped.

While virtually all starts are done under electric power, the engine is eager to join in the action when you kick down the throttle and tends to hit the high notes. It’s not helped by a transmission that is arguably too tempted to change down when you need power, rather than calling upon the electric motor to lend more support. The result is a less than smooth power delivery and a transmission that doesn’t seem sure about which gear to choose.

A fully electric version of this 408 is due next year, something that will undoubtedly draw a lot more spotlight on the new car.

Peugeot has successfully applied its eye-catching design language to another model. It’s also delivered a spacious, high-end family crossover that bridges the gap between that format and traditional saloons. I still doubt it will lure that many SUV owners back towards saloons, but it’s certainly a worthy effort.

For potential buyers tempted by this format, the big question is whether you might opt for this or its Citroen sibling. As with most cars sharing many of their innards, this French pair are simply different flavours of the same car. The Citroen is a softer cruiser, the Peugeot a supposedly more responsive, stiffer sportier crossover.

For our money right now, its sibling, the Citroen C5X, has the lead, for it delivers on its promise of comfort without sacrificing too much in either performance or handling. It can also match the 408 in terms of appealing looks.

In trying to replicate the sportier driving characteristics that make the smaller 308 so impressive, Peugeot hasn’t pulled this off in the 408, at least not in the plug-in hybrid guise.

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

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