The hybrid estate-off: Peugeot 508 PSE vs BMW 330e Touring | Top Gear
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Thursday 28th September

The hybrid estate-off: Peugeot 508 PSE vs BMW 330e Touring

Peugeot's new performance brand debuts on a plug-in rep wagon. Time to meet class best

Published: 14 May 2021

Peugeot versus BMW isn’t a contest you’ll have seen often. That it’s taken the French maker’s most powerful and expensive car to draw the two companies together ought to illustrate the usual gap in allure between their cars. And yet of the pair, passers-by only have eyes for the 508 Peugeot Sport Engineered. Never mind drawing level with BMW in the desirability stakes, Peugeot’s leapfrogged it.

While I don’t comment on the styling of cars too often – you’ve got your own eyes to work out what you think – I’ll just advise not looking at the 508 too closely. It’s a gorgeous device from a few paces away, but some of the finer detail – the clumsily decaled winglets that sprout up along its skirts, in particular – is overwrought. And is it just me who sees the Monster logo in its ‘kryptonite claws’?

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Viewed as a whole, though, it looks the absolute nuts. And at £56k in SW estate form (and around £950 per month on a personal lease), so it should. Peugeot keenly acknowledges that outside of the fleet car world, this will be a niche-interest halo car, the one that pulls you into a Peugeot showroom before you whirr out in an electric 208. But with its 13 per cent BIK rate, this petrol-electric 508 PSE could represent an affordable slice of exotica if work’s covering some of the bill.

The BMW 330e is probably peak company car, though. The safe-as-houses 3 Series design and dynamics, with a hybrid powertrain down on the 508’s output but accompanied by a £15k lower RRP and £475 monthly lease costs – literally half the price if you’re doing this privately – or 11 per cent BIK. Mind, spec it up to something approaching the PSE’s equipment levels and you’ll get perilously close on overall price.

The 330e’s setup is the much easier to digest, a 181bhp 4cyl petrol engine familiar from countless BMWs and Minis pairing with one 111bhp electric motor to drive the rear axle only (xDrive is a £1500 option, latched to the same powertrain). Its peak power is just a few bhp shy of simply adding engine and e-motor together.

Dig beneath the Peugeot’s skin and things are a little more complex, with a 197bhp 4cyl familiar from the 208 GTI and RCZ coupe working with an electric motor on each axle for a combined 355bhp. While those twin e-motors make it four-wheel drive, only as much as 113bhp ever makes it to the rear axle. The car defaults to electric-only on start-up – and RWD – but as soon as the engine chimes in the power spread is front-biased.

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Which is just fine, actually. That’s Peugeot’s expertise, and this chunky estate car ends up feeling like a quicker, more tied-down hot hatch when you hustle it. The dinky wheel continues to split opinion but it lends the 508 a boisterousness it’s hard not get drawn in by. It drives like no other 4WD estate I know and is all the more exciting for it.

Above Electric, you have four modes: Comfort, Hybrid, Sport and 4WD. Given the car is fundamentally both hybrid and 4WD, that feels like too much choice. And yet there’s actually not enough: you can’t pair the softest suspension with the sportiest powertrain map. Full power only comes in Sport (other modes limited to 325bhp), but so does a knobbly ride on beaten-up roads. The PSE’s suspension sits 4mm lower than a standard 508 while being 50 per cent stiffer and allied to three-mode adjustable damping. The car just never truly settles in anything but the comfiest setting – and neither does its slightly indecisive gearbox. If Peugeot allowed some mix’n’match – and if it remapped the eight-speed auto at the same time – its dynamics might be brilliant enough to overshadow other flaws.

Some interior details are as overwrought as the exterior’s, and the option of six different dial layouts and five different massage functions seeming like a distracting cherry atop a disorderly cake. Its button layout feels unfathomable on first acquaintance, but like an Indonesian jazz-fusion album – that takes a dozen listens to really get into – maybe the lack of convention is what some of the 508’s wantonly ‘different’ buyers actually dig.

You feel fully enveloped by its dark cabin, narrow glass and a wraparound dashboard giving it a genuine performance car feel. The flipside of which is that rear passengers ought not be over six foot and while the frameless windows bring glamour with surprisingly little impact on refinement, the fact the rear doors have a crudely fixed quarterlight of glass somewhat ruins the effect.

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Where the Peugeot takes learning and fathoming out, you just get in the BMW and instinctively know what to do. There’s no bedding-in process. For all its hybrid tech (again, with a multitude of modes) it’s as effortless to operate as BMWs ever were – it retains the familiar 3 Series schtick of being wholly conventional to operate yet special to drive. It’s a skill few cars truly nail (late Nineties Fords were particularly good at it, too) and it’s rarer than ever as touchscreens and autonomy take over.

It all contrives to make the 508 appear severely try-hard. While crisply proportioned in isolation, the 330e looks as top heavy as an SUV beside the slender wedge of grey from France. But the basics are all nailed without fuss. Unlike the Peugeot, you don’t have to engage a different gearbox mode to ask for brake regen. You can click it all across into manual if you want. And for all the PSE’s smart, massaging bucket seats, this is the one that slams your bum down closest to the road.

It also perhaps illustrates why BMW’s design discombobulation (and social media self-sabotage) has irked so much – such overthought styling is a complete direction change to how joyously graceful its core model is. While you can still choose myriad petrol and diesel options, and Peugeot reckons the 508 is actually targeted at the higher performance M340i, this 330e is so deft to drive it’s hard to see how anyone cost-conscious would look elsewhere.

Sure, it’s a faintly astonishing 300 kilos heavier than a 330i, but I think you’d need to experience the two together to truly care. Hopping into the RWD Touring shows how keeping things traditional often gives us the best driver’s cars. Even beside the Peugeot it hardly rides like a limo, but it asks less of its driver while offering them more. And with so much torque waiting to be slung at the rear axle, it’s not only quick, but really quite playful given the chance. Settle down and it does everything else so much simpler too, the interior a sea of logic and its boot smaller but a more useful shape than the SW’s.

Compare these cars on any remotely objective or financial level and the 3 Series stands embarrassingly proud of the 508. It’s also the one to have if you love driving in its purest form (well, as pure as an automatically shifted hybrid can be). It simply has to win. But if you love cars and their wanton diversity, their advancement, the sheer intrigue and lustre of something new and quirky that brings you to this website rather than another, then the 508 has a heck of a lot of draw. Particularly if it won’t technically be yours.

Put it this way: the classifieds will be rightly littered with ex-business 330es in years to come. It’s such an affordable and difficult to criticise package. But I suspect the comparatively titchy handful of 508 PSE ads will be the ones you WhatsApp (or whatever communication we’re using by then) to your mates, the ones that stand out and you dare each other to take a punt on. I also bet they’ll have been more carefully looked after by more attentive, discerning owners. Wouldn’t you like to say you were someone who took a punt?

BMW 330e Touring – 8/10
£41,530 otr/£52,165 as tested, c£475 a month
2.0 4cyl turbo plus e-motor, 288bhp, 310lb ft
0-62mph in 6.1secs, 137mph top speed
176mpg, 39g/km, 34 miles electric range
1905kg kerb weight, 410 litres boot space (seats up)/1420 litres (seats down)
RWD, 8spd auto

Peugeot 508 PSE SW – 7/10
£55,795/£55,795, c£950 a month
1.6 4cyl turbo plus two e-motors, 355bhp, 384lb ft
0-62mph in 5.2secs, 155mph top speed
139mpg, 46g/km, 26 miles electric range
1875kg, 530 litres/1780 litres
4WD, 8spd auto

Photography: Jonny Fleetwood

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