Have you noticed that the cars that used to be common are now becoming the individualist's choice? The industry has moved to crossovers, which have already served an early death knell to the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart, led Toyota to regularly throw thousands of rebate dollars on the hoods of Camrys to keep them at the top of the shrinking sedan heap, and put Chevrolet's Impala and Ford's Fusion on the kill list.
Sedans are down, but not out. They still account for 1.5 million sales in Europe, and the Chinese - China is now a larger market - still buy them in droves.
Peugeot is fighting back against the trend to crossovers and the idea that only premium badges can command premium prices.
The latest example of Gallic cool is the new 508. Launched last year, it was recently elected the prettiest car of 2018 by a group of design experts, led by an architect. It's the latest recognition of Peugeot design head Gilles Vidal's attempts to turn the brand around.
Fifteen years ago, Mercedes-Benz brought a coupe-like roof to the sedan segment with the CLS. Volkswagen was among the first to respond, with a rakish version of the Passat dubbed the "CC." VW recently did it again, with the Arteon, an up-level Passat with more aggressive lines.
Now, Peugeot has its own variation on the theme.
It looks like a sedan, but it's a "two-and-a-half-box" fastback - which is how Peugeot squeezes in 17 cubic feet of cargo space, despite a sloping roof which can make entry and egress tricky for those over six feet. In addition to an (optional) electric tailgate, there's a 12V outlet in the cargo area, and two USB charging ports for the rear passengers. Folding the rear seats is a little tricky, and they don't lie completely flat, but there's reasonable rear legroom.
Most impressively, the designers made a choice and stuck with it. You get the feeling that they were led by the engineer's ideal: if it looks good, it probably is.
Previewed by the Instinct concept of 2017, the 508 is a stunning effort. It even features frameless windows, never cheap to do properly.
There's a low lip for easy loading, but the 508 is rather smaller than a Ford Mondeo or Škoda Superb. If you need more practicality, Peugeot will sell you a 508 wagon, which commendably has more space than a BMW 3 series Touring or Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate.
It's more likely, however, that you'll want a 3008 or 5008 crossover. They share platforms with the 308 and 508, respectively, and are where Peugeot make their money. Indeed, Peugeot CEO Jean-Philippe Imparato told Britain's Autocar magazine that he doesn't particularly care whether people buy the 508. It "will not affect my profit and loss," he said.
"60% of profit is SUVs (and another 30% is in commercial vehicles)."
It's worth noting that the 3008 was European Car of the Year 2017.
What Imperato means is that Peugeot will not discount the 508 to get people to buy it. That explains why it looks as arresting as it does.
No 508 costs less than the equivalent of $32,750 in Britain. With the ultimate two-liter diesel engine, the top-end 508 GT is $41,000, rising to $48,500 with all the options. For the GT, that's a base price just $1,450 below the BMW 320i M Sport and $4,450 below the Audi A4 S-Line. As Autocar put it, "Peugeot isn't necessarily being subtle about which manufacturers it intends to take on."
The 508 offers three engines - 1.5 and two-liter diesels, and a 1.6-liter gasoline unit - in five states of tune, from 130 to 225 horsepower. They'll get between 41 and 63 miles per gallon, combined. A hybrid version is due later this year.
Peugeots used to offer better ride quality than cars well above their class, including Mercedes-Benz. Since the retirement of legendary suspension engineer Jean Baudin at the turn of the Millennium, however, things have gone pear-shaped. Peugeot design, too, has suffered since 2000's 307, which launched a slew of lardy and visually heavy Peugeots.
After a difficult decade, things began to change both dynamically and visually in 2011, with the launch of the last-generation 508 on a new platform. In its highest trim, it incorporated double wishbones at the front. The 208 (2012) and 2nd-gen 308 (European Car of the Year 2014) followed, both of them lighter than their predecessors, yet with finer interior materials and a more hushed ambience. Sharper to look at and to drive, they featured a truly new "i-Cockpit" theme, which design head Gilles Vidal mandated as a way of shrinking the steering wheel to give the cars a more go-kart-like feel. Not everyone liked it, but those who did found it enjoyable and unique.
The new 508 has already been praised for its refinement and its unique, cocooning cabin, with generous use of soft-touch materials, piano-key controls, and touch-sensitive dome lights.
Enthusiasts who like to shift gears themselves will be disappointed, for most 508 models are available exclusively with an eight-speed automatic gearbox. A manual gearbox is only fitted with the lowest-powered diesel engine. The shift and pedals are of the long-travel variety, which does tend to discourage performance driving. It's a pity, because the six-speed manual in the 308 GTi, rather slicker in its action, could certainly have been used here, and in tandem with the more powerful engines. Meanwhile, some reports have suggested that the Aisin auto 'box can hunt a bit in fast driving. As a result, the 508 is a rather less aggressive drive than it appears, and is unlikely to unseat the Mazda6 on enthusiast shortlists.
However, it's quick enough, the higher-powered version of the two-liter diesels hitting 62 miles per hour from rest in 7.9 seconds. Preliminary road tests report that it is enjoyable if not exciting to hustle along, with tight vertical body control, cushioned and progressive compression, and a sharp turn-in helped along by that small steering wheel and a 70-kilogram diet, vis à vis its predecessor. Roll is "deftly controlled," says Autocar, with more driver involvement than an Opel/ Vauxhall Insignia or VW Passat, if not quite up to the standards of the rear-drive BMW 3 series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Steering is quick (2.5 turns lock-to-lock) and responsive - more so in the "Sport" mode in versions with adaptive dampers - if ultimately short on feedback. Impressively, Peugeot has resisted destroying the ride in "Sport" mode. It pays to remember what you're known for and good at.
In addition to the usual Full LED headlights, wireless smartphone charging, Adaptive Cruise Control, Blind-Spot Monitoring, and Speed-Limit Recognition, there are massage seats (complete with a "cat paw" function - Peugeot's logo is, after all, a lion) and a new Night Vision system which uses an infrared camera in the front of the car, à la Cadillac (which premiered the system in cars fifteen years ago). It's all controlled by a ten-inch digital display (eight inches on lower models), taking pride of place in the center console. The screen interfaces with a 360-degree camera to aid parking. It's not standard across the range, but is a mandatory option given the relative lack of visibility, what with the huge windshield pillars and small rear window. It's not perfect; the screen is slow to respond at times, and the 360-degree camera lacks side sensors.
Digital instruments, nestled in a configurable 12.3-inch main screen, are standard across the range. High-end audio is courtesy Focal, a 35-year-old French audio manufacturer which here specifies aluminum tweeters, an eight-inch subwoofer, and a 12-way 515-watt amplifier.
Most importantly, it feels special. Those looking for something a little different over in Europe - something more interesting than a Ford Mondeo or Škoda Superb but not one of the usual suspects - have a real choice.
The cachet of owning a BMW, Mercedes or Audi is not what it was. They are now volume products and nowhere near as well-engineered as they used to be. Peugeot is, however, not going to have firmer residuals than those German brands. It remains to be seen whether the eye-catching design of the 508 is enough to put this car on the shortlists of BMW 3 series, Audi A4, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class buyers.
As Britain's Autocar put it, "Some will find the idea of an attractive French sedan a very appealing one indeed, while others might prefer theirs to have a distinctly more German flavor."
In the meantime, the new Peugeot 508 has the flair to give the Ford Mondeo, Mazda6, Opel/ Vauxhall Insignia, Renault Talisman, Škoda Superb, Volkswagen Passat and Arteon, and even lower-end versions of the rear-drive Alfa Romeo Giulia and Jaguar XE a run for their money.