New Zealand has stolen a march on most of the world in becoming the first country outside Europe to see Peugeot's 508 diesel-electric hybrid. David Thomson puts the technology-laden machine through its paces.
When Peugeot launched its 3008 HYbrid4 in Europe last year, it extended its long-time leadership in the development of clean-running diesel technology to a new role at the forefront of a looming diesel-electric (rather than petrol-electric) automotive revolution.
Since then, the HYbrid4 system has been introduced in the larger 508 in both regular and flagship RXH guise. Smart negotiation by local importers has seen New Zealand become the first market outside Europe to be allocated a supply of the new 3008 and 508 RXH HYbrid4 vehicles, with sales starting only a couple of months ago.
The HYbrid4 system differs from the more familiar petrol-electric systems offered here by Toyota and Honda in two key respects: the first, quite obviously, is the use of a turbo-diesel engine (in this case a 120kW 2.0-litre unit) in conjunction with a small 27kW electric motor. The second major difference is that rather than using both systems to drive the front wheels, with HYbrid4 the diesel engine drives the front wheels, while the electric motor drives the rear wheels.
As well as simplifying matters mechanically, this approach gives every hybrid in the Peugeot family a four-wheel-drive capability, without the usual need to run a space-consuming transmission tunnel through the middle of the car.
That four-wheel-drive capability is particularly fitting in respect of the 508 RXH which, with its elevated ride height and protective plastic trim edging, is Peugeot's equivalent to the Audi Allroad or Subaru Outback.
Thus endowed, and with its distinctive trio of LED running lights either side of the front grille, the RXH stands apart from the 508 Sportwagon on which it is based. It also stands apart on price, with a $74,990 price tag representing a $6000 premium over the top-spec non-hybrid 508 wagon.
Mind you, it would be hard to accuse Peugeot of being anything but generous with its equipment specification for the RXH.
There's leather trim, heated front seats (with adjustable under-thigh support and a massage function for the driver), a magnificent full-length panorama sunroof, keyless entry and start, a heads-up display, auto-dipping headlight and auto wipers, cruise control, premium sound system, Bluetooth connectivity, front and rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control, and a satellite navigation set-up that includes information on speed limits, altitude and direction of travel.
There has been a determined effort to give the cabin a luxury feel, too, with an abundance of soft-touch surfaces, and a mix of glossy black and brushed aluminium highlights. Copper-coloured stitching on the upholstery is, apparently, a symbolic nod to the car's electric power source.
The absence of a transmission tunnel contributes to a spacious rear cabin. Boot space, however, suffers through the need to accommodate the hybrid system's battery pack, reducing capacity from the standard 508 wagon's 512 litres to 423 litres.
Up front the cabin is roomy (though the central storage cubby is small), but Peugeot has struggled to organise the many buttons and knobs needed to operate the car's gadgets in a coherent way. By way of example, the button that activates the back-massage function for the driver's seat is located on the left-hand side of the console by the front passenger's seat, and a pair of pop-out cupholders are strangely positioned immediately below the centre display screen.
To be fair, while aspects of the cockpit layout and control operation are complicated at first, things became much easier after a few days behind the wheel.
The HYbrid4 system offers four modes of transmission comprising auto and sport modes, a four-wheel-drive mode (in which both the diesel and electric motors will always operate) and a ZEV (zero emission vehicle) mode.
As long as there is sufficient battery charge and the speed remains below 65kmh, ZEV mode will operate the car as a pure electric machine. In the most favourable of conditions, it can cover 4km in this manner. Selecting the sport setting changes the gearshift protocols and recalibrates both the diesel and electric engine to deliver maximum power.
Other than in ZEV mode, the RXH feels much more like a conventional turbo-diesel in its operation than a hybrid in the Toyota Prius mould.
Acceleration is willing enough off the mark and with torque being the RXH's key strength, acceleration is brisk.
Where the system struggles a little is in the ability of the transmission - an automated sequential manual - to shift crisply and smoothly when left to its own devices. This was most apparent on test motoring up Dunedin's Saddle Hill in auto-drive mode with the cruise control set at 100kmh. Momentum was lost firstly through a tardy downshift, and then by an equally lackadaisical upshift further up the hill.
Repeating the same climb in sport mode produced a more acceptable result, but it was only by using the steering-wheel-mounted paddleshift to take control of the transmission that a truly satisfactory result was obtained.
The combination of already economical diesel power with electric hybrid wizardry should produce exceptional frugality, and that's certainly how the 508 RXH looks on paper, with a claimed 4.1l/100km return for the standard cycle run. Drivesouth's return for the core of the test drive was a less stunning 6.8l/100km, which is little, if any, better than I would expect of a conventional turbo-diesel machine.
Part of the issue here is that my drive route involves a relatively high proportion of open-road motoring, where the fact that the RXH is quite a bit heavier than a standard 508 counts against it; as ever (and this is poorly understood) hybrids deliver their main gains in stop-start urban environments. This point is aptly illustrated by the standard cycle test result for the RXH, which - in a complete reverse of the norm for a conventional car - shows it to be more economical in a purely urban driving situation than out on the open road.
In other respects, the RXH is an accomplished machine beyond city limits: ride quality is excellent, the steering well weighted and possessed of decent feel, and highway handling thoroughly decent for a vehicle that stands some 50mm taller than a conventional wagon.
While none of this is likely to propel the 508 RXH to great heights on the sales charts, it is important as a flagbearer for the extension of the hybrid revolution to both diesels and to the European marques.
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