Peugeot is leading a French invasion of the UAE in an attempt to break the German monopoly.
Road Test: Peugeot 508 might be France's ticket into the Middle East
For generations, much of the West has looked at our region as one great big, single entity. It has abjectly failed even to bother splitting the diverse geographies, peoples, climates and cultures of the individual countries here, lumping everything between Tripoli in the north and the Yemeni port of Aden as the "Middle East" as if it were all one country.
But aside from socio-politics, one group that has always split the region into two parts is the auto industry. For the past few decades, car makers have come to understand that what floats the boat of buyers in the Levant has not been the same as those in the Gulf. Emiratis and Qataris have a very different view of what makes a good car to those based in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.
In the Gulf, the Germans rule the premium roost, with BMW and Mercedes proving that a good badge goes a very long way in a brand-conscious society.
Move across to the Arabic-speaking Mediterranean countries and the shift is profound. Even among the higher auto echelons, fuel economy, affordability and old alliances run true, so what is premium is much smaller than the Germans and is often from France.
In the Gulf, French brands have suffered from previously poor quality, a lack of brand awareness and, frankly, from not having big dealers behind them or simply from being pushed to the back of the showroom.
Even so, not one of them has ever seriously tried to challenge the market; until now, that is. It seems that the French want a bigger piece of the Gulf pie. As a result, Peugeot has launched the 508, a car seemingly designed to stab deep into Germany's Teutonic ticker.
Replacing the 408, but confusingly not called a 409 because of some clashes with previous model numbers, the 508 aims right at the Passat, A4, C-Class and 3 Series. You could argue the D segment doesn't need any more cars, but Peugeot's jumping in anyway, and so far the news is good.
Design-wise, the car isn't anything new, using lots of design cues from other companies. The back three-quarter panel is from a Jaguar XF and the front borrows heavily from the Audi A5. From the side there's more than a hint of 5 Series. It's not going to win a design award for innovation, but coupled together, the overall design works extremely well. We certainly never expected to drive a Peugeot and have people pointing at it from the kerb, but this happened a fair deal on the roads of southern Spain, where we got to try the car out.
There's also a station wagon option, called the 508 SW, which, altogether unexpectedly, is even better looking than the saloon. But don't expect to see many on the motorways of the UAE anytime soon.
On the road, the 508 has excellent hold, cornering fast, flat and without surprises. It doesn't seem to roll, but soaks up bumps without drama; surely the golden egg of chassis design? The brakes are also strong, yet not too grabby.
Buyers get a choice of petrol or diesel, although the oil burner will probably never hit GCC shores. The 156hp turbocharged 1.6L is willing and revvy and only struggles when you ask a little too much during a probably unwise spot of overtaking.
In fact, the only disappointment is the gearbox. There are two options: a six-speed manual, which feels like stirring old paint, and a rather odd manual/auto hybrid. The second box is basically a manual that changes gears for you. As you accelerate, you feel the car stop accelerating, change gear and then get back on the gas. It's actually quite odd, and takes some getting used to. It does come with paddle shifters if you want to do the work.
Peugeot calls it a "piloted manual" and claims it delivers a major advantage in fuel economy, somewhere in the region of five per cent. That's pretty major in the world of green driving, but we're not sure the traditionally conservative D segment buyer will be too convinced by it all.
The interior, however, is a revelation when compared with other French cars. This is a really nice place to be and it has a very Audi/Volkswagen feel to it. There are lots of smooth surfaces and quality controls to keep you occupied.
You also get some serious kit in the car, with all the electronics you'd expect from something higher up the food chain. The car comes with keyless entry, LED lights, a power boot and a head-up display in a small raised screen on the dash top.
So can Peugeot persuade people to drop their uber-wagons and go Gallic? We think it will be a very tough sell, but it's a good platform from which to launch an assault. The car goes on sale in the Gulf in September, with the SW following in 2012, but Peugeot is sure to start ramping up the sales pitch before then.
Francophiles will break down the showroom doors for an upper-class feel of France, but the rest of the world will take some persuading to swap their German autobahners, especially in a country with so many straight roads. Regardless of whether it's magnifique or c'est la vie, be very aware that this is a pretty good car. And with some creative pricing, the two divisions of the Middle East might just find themselves joining a little closer together. Bonne chance.
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