It’s rare for a company to rediscover its lost mojo. Once a reputation has been tarnished by a run of lacklustre products, clawing yourself back to a position of glory is all but impossible. You’re only as good as your last car, and if your last ten years’ worth of output has been substantially lacking in visual flair, then chances are there’s no coming back.

Peugeot is a rare and welcome exception. We’ve noted before about how much emphasis the historic French marque is placing on design, with exhibitions at Salone, conceptual products, radical car concepts and – finally – a suite of cars that share a classically elegant design language, from the 208 through to 3008 and 5008. We’ve also waxed lyrical about the Peugeots of the past, back when Pininfarina handled the design and France’s finest engineers finessed the mechanicals, creating cars that were as satisfying to drive as they were to look at and in some cases outright brilliant at both.

Peugeot 508 dashboard

The 508 is the latest success story from the company, but it might not be a winner in economic terms, as we’ll soon see. The 508 is a saloon car, the type favoured by those who have to drive for a living. It’s a market sector that has been around for over half a century and it is slowly but inevitably dying. Granted, the big German three still make the bulk of their profits from autobahn-pounders like the 3- and 5-Series BMW, the Audi A4 and A6 and the Mercedes C and E Classes, but the general industry trend is towards smaller cars for cities and bigger cars for families, with EVs increasingly taking the top spot as the ultimate aspirational vehicle. The 508 seems caught between a rock and a hard place – a non-premium brand trying to make it big in a sector that has eyes only for the most upmarket names.

There’s a pleasing Gallic bloody-mindedness at play, for Peugeot has ploughed on regardless, ensuring that nearly every element of the new 508 is as desirable and finely designed as its competitors. It is a very handsome car indeed, with detailing that is either sleek or sober and proportions that please the eye from every angle, from simple headlights to the faceted dashboard. The design flair is finely contained and never unwelcome and the firm’s design team never allows a surface to become too floridly ornate or parametrically twisted. In comparison to the clever-clever complexity of its rivals, it’s a genuine breath of fresh air.

Peugeot 508 interior trim

There are caveats. This is now an expensive car and it’s not a particularly powerful one for all that. The 1.6 litre petrol engine is necessarily small to keep emissions low, but it has to work pretty hard and the gearbox doesn’t always seem to be where you want it. The dash arrangement – with dials viewed over the top of the wheel – is a carry over from other contemporary Peugeots. It won’t please everyone and requires a high driving position that’s at odds with the sporty image the company is trying to project. Otherwise the tech is pretty exemplary. The 508 has one of the best self-parking systems we’ve tried, with touch-screen graphics that are unfussy and crisp and a set of ‘piano key’ style buttons in the cabin that are on the right side of quirky.

Outside of France, the 508 probably won’t make much of a splash. This is thoroughly undeserved, for doing things differently and having a strong identity is something the car industry desperately needs. An estate car will follow, adding a dash more practicality to the mix, but the 508 will always convey a sense of occasion far above its station. Elegance might still be underrated, but those who care about such things will be rewarded by the character of this impressive alternative. §