Whatever you feel about the French, there is no denying they go about their business with a certain sense of style.

Whether it is blocking ports with fishing boats, or bringing the nation’s road network to a grinding halt over a small industrial dispute, the nation consistently acts with real flair.

That air of passion is what separates the new Peugeot 508 from its direct competitors, such as the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Insignia and Volkswagen Passat.

Anyone slipping behind the wheel of any of these cars will be seeking — and guaranteed of finding — a well-built, well-equipped and accomplished performer.

What the 508 offers on top of being quiet and smooth, with handling that errs on the side of comfort, is that rare touch of designer elegance. From its piercing headlights and ‘floating’ grille at the end of the long aluminium bonnet, to the red ‘claws’ at the rear that mask three rows of LEDs, the spacious saloon exudes a real sense of solidity and effortless style.

With prices ranging from £18,450 to £29,000, Peugeot has backed up its style assault with some substantial technology.

The test car, in so-called Active trim, was fitted with a 1.6-litre diesel engine using a ‘stop and start’ system.

It took me some time to fully adjust to the system, which cuts the engine at 5mph and fires up instantly when the accelerator pedal is depressed.

Make no mistake, this is a big car, recognised by the fact that the engine in the test car — the smallest fitted in the range — delivers a healthy 112 horsepower.

My initial reaction was that the engine, mated to a six-speed electronic gearbox, was underpowered for such a spacious and solid saloon, and initially I yearned for an engine further up the range to allow the car to really stretch its legs.

But once mastered, the engine can be manipulated to deliver not only a decent turn of acceleration, but truly awesome fuel consumption. Even driven hard, with a full tank of fuel, it should be possible to cover well over 800 miles.

And that economy, and low emissions, might be a deal clincher in the highly competitive executive fleet market, where Peugeot is determined to stake a larger claim. To ensure its appeal as a company car choice, the air-conditioned interior reflects the elegance of the exterior, with a meticulous finish, black lacquered centre console and touches of chrome for a refined and technologically advanced feel.

Automatic headlamps and wipers, automatic dimming rear-view mirror and USB connector as standard give a flavour of what is on offer, with optional equipment ranging from parking sensors to satnav, Bluetooth phone link and leather trim too.

A nice touch of class is a colour head-up display which projects essential driving information from the rear of the instrument panel on to a translucent panel, giving information on speed, cruise control/speed limiter speeds and satellite navigation instructions.

Auto facts Peugeot 508 Active e-HDI 112

  • Price: £21,050
  • Insurance group: 21E (1-50)
  • Fuel consumption (Combined): 67.2mpg
  • Top speed: 122mph
  • Length: 479.2cm/188.6in
  • Width: 185.3cm/72.8in
  • Luggage capacity: 16.6 cu ft
  • Fuel tank capacity: 15.8 gallons/72 litres
  • CO2 emissions: 109g/km
  • Warranty: 3 years/60,000 miles