What is it?
The Peugeot 308 is tremendously important. It may not have a new name, but it represents a colossal investment on Peugeot’s part, and is intended to put the company back on the podium in the C-segment – the market which still claims a third of all sales in Europe. Much of what follows – the new modular platform, a tangible elevation in quality, a barrage of fresh tech – is intended to reassert the manufacturer’s position after a decade in the family hatch doldrums. In the ’90s, Peugeot made hay with the deftly turned 306, which sold almost 450,000 examples in the UK. The previous 308, launched in 2007, barely managed to limp over the 120,000 mark. PSA’s internal restructuring specifically remakes the brand as a Volkswagen competitor, and such numbers will simply not do. Consequently, the Volkswagen Golf has been appraised, gauged and digested, and the all-new 308 formulated to overhaul its head start. The EMP2 platform ought to be key. It’s what the flawed 208 didn’t get, and its improved assembly and wider use of aluminium and composites is the main reason why Peugeot can claim a 140kg reduction in kerb weight over the previous model. It is also the reason why the wheels of the new 308 can be pushed further into the corners of the car’s real estate. The overhangs have shrunk, and a 2.62m wheelbase is now squeezed into a 4.25m-long body, making it one of the most compact cars in the class. It’s also slightly lower and wider than it’s predecessor – with a commensurately lower centre of gravity – and, thanks again to the underfloor platform design, is now far better optimised for aerodynamically. Inside Peugeot has introduced what it calls (preload cringe) i-Cockpit. There are different aspects to this, but, as the name would suggest, the centrepiece is a 9.7-inch touchscreen which significantly reduces the amount of knobs and dials required on the dashboard. In response to specific criticism about the previous 308, storage has been increased, with 435 litres on offer before you lift the boot floor to access 35 litres more. You’d understandably expect funky new powerplants to feature under the bonnet, but for now the 308 makes do with the previous-gen Euro5 compliant engines, with the 1.2-litre VTi and 1.6-litre THP covering the petrol side, and two variants of the 1.6-litre HDi making up the diesels (the more powerful 115bhp version, still capable of 74.3mpg and 98g/km of CO2, is tested here). But early next year the turbocharged version of the e-THP three-pot, as well as the new 1.6 and 2.0-litre BlueHDi (offering a cutting-edge 82g/km and 91mpg) will make their debuts.
What’s it like?
Underwhelming outside, but undeniably impressive once in. The 308 is not unpleasant to look at – at least not to these eyes, and certainly not awkwardly misjudged like the 208 – but it seems like a blob of conformity where a svelte slab of distinction might have been more appropriate. Think Mercedes-Benz A-Class, but with fewer clever angles, and a touch too much glasswork in the body-to-window ratio. Perhaps the designer responsible for the interior ought to be enlisted to help with the facelift because, silly name aside, the dashboard is a humdinger. Yes, the instrument cluster still pokes over the steering wheel, but a different driving position ensures that there’s now a much smaller margin for conflict than there was in the 208. From there, the minimalist arrangement practically sprawls into cleverness. As promised, most of the 308‘s buttons have been swept onto the touchscreen. Those that are left are neatly and nattily delineated and even the redundant CD slot is splendidly framed. The integrated aesthetic alone is sufficient to land Ford and VW a telling blow, but it is enhanced further by a logical touchscreen that divides sub functions into seven understandable buttons, and doesn’t overly clutter the subsequent screens.
Sure, there are niggles. Some of the trim material turns brittle where it shouldn’t, the display’s processor could do with another core, and the volume knob rotates like a cheap microwave timer when it should expensively pirouette. However, by the time you acknowledge this, you’ll likely already be on side. The same probably won’t be said for rear passengers, who pay the price for the 308’s compactness. There was room for yours truly, but, unlike Ford and VW, Peugeot will come unstuck when there’s more than 5ft 8in to accommodate. Nevertheless, an general bump in perceived quality is initially carried on to the road. The 308 is well mannered and manageable out of the blocks, a 10.4m turning circle makes it highly manoeuvrable, and the diesel lump’s clatter is well disguised by a new soundproofing element. The low-speed ride, on our test model’s smaller 16-inch alloys, is congenial, too. it takes imperfections in a leggy, lazy stride that speaks to a uniquely French attitude to comfort and, aside from some wind noise, it relaxes into an easy motorway cruise. Keep your ambitions within the narrow range of the 1.6-litre HDi’s potential and the 308 ambles rather affably. Turn it up a notch, though, as one would unthinkingly and organically do in a Focus or Golf, and it tends to bridle at the extra effort. The fact that the oil burner’s 199lb ft is immediately overwhelmed ought to be rectified by the improved output of its forthcoming 2.0-litre replacement, but its dynamic foibles could be more troublesome. At their heart is the steering. Metered out by the tiny wheel, the change of direction is intended to be light-footed, but because there’s no real hint of bite, substance or progressive weight to the rack’s resistance, there are too few clues as to the tyres’ whereabouts. This uncertainty unfairly inhibits the 308’s cornering ability because, on its rather doughy suspension, the body tends towards an early onset of roll. It will find a decent, adhesive balance thereafter (even on low-resistance rubber), but driver confidence is liable to have already ebbed away. Were this to occur exclusively at silly speeds, it would hardly be an issue worth mentioning, but there is too much of it present at the brisk, competent clip where its rivals often excel. And for us, that inevitably dilutes the appeal of what is otherwise a fresh and interesting package.
Should I buy one?
Well, Peugeot is going to push hard to make you think about it. Pricing is yet to be announced, as is the final spec of the RHD cars headed to the UK. But you can expect the range to feature the familiar trim lines, and early estimates suggest the entry point to the line-up will start at around £14,600.Overall, it must be said, you would be buying a far superior car. Respectable to look at, great to sit in, cheap to run and adequate to drive would successfully tick-off many buyers’ hatchback most-wanted list, and, with our UK verdict obviously still pending, we’d duly expect the 308 to enhance the firm’s mainstream reputation. However, a top-three finish in a crucial, trendsetting class is currently beyond the car – especially in the likely highly popular version we sampled. There is just too little space in the back, too much oomph missing from the engine and an all-too obvious shortfall in pizzazz on the handling front for it to seriously shine.
A marked improvement, then, but not the game-changing one Peugeot was counting on.
Peugeot 308 1.6-litre e-HDi
Price From £14,600; 0-62mph 10.2 sec; Top speed 119mph; Economy 74.3mpg; CO2 98g/km; Kerb weight 1160kg; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1560cc, turbodiesel; Power 115bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 199lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
What is it?