What is it?
You’ve got to admire the fundamental can-do spirit of volume car manufacturers.
Most of us, when contemplating stepping into a competitive arena that contained opponents of the quality and ability of the latest Ford Focus, VW Golf, Vauxhall Astra and Seat Leon, would step straight again.
But Peugeot knows very well that to get UK sales back to their happy level of a decade ago it has to make a success of its latest C-segment entry, the new-shape 308, because its segment accounts for roughly a third of sales in the UK and all across Europe.
Three models back, the Peugeot 306, this car’s ‘grandfather’, as it were, sold out of its skin in this market, not least because it looked a bit like the super-successful 205 supermini, and because it coped with the UK’s uniquely poor roads and surfaces better than the Fords and VWs of the time.
Peugeot knows this perfectly well, and has invested heavily in its latest model, given it completely new styling and a new modular platform, while upping the quality and cutting the weight.
The result is an impressive car in a class of impressive cars — but what we knew from the first would help the 308’s prospects in this country was a distinctive persona and an ability to cope with the UK’s uniquely challenging roads.
The moment has arrived: we’ve just driven our first UK-spec car, an e-HDi 115 Feline, complete with six-speed manual gearbox and packed with luxuries like the full-glass panoramic roof, Alcantara-covered sports seats and 18-inch alloy wheels.
What’s it like?
It’s a lot better looking, for a start.
Peugeot’s designers haven’t exactly been radical with their new styling — the Golf’s enduring success shows buyers don’t want that — but they have come up with a more rounded, more modern shape. The new design ditches the wide-mouth frog grille and integrates pleasantly shaped flanks and handsome-looking lights into a whole that looks much better wrought and advertises the 140kg drop in mass compared to the previous (very heavy) model.
The big news is the much-improved interior design and quality that lifts the car at least a class higher (some say more) than its peers, particularly making all rivals seem either austere or over-designed by comparison.
Most functions are grouped around an impressive-looking 9.7in screen, which works admirably, although a few old-school users still yearn for round knobs to control things like radio and ventilation.
Despite new proportions made possible by a new platform system, the car has a typically Peugeot driving position: sumptuous seats, pedals a mite too flat and too close, small-diameter wheel whose upper rim obscures the (elegant) instruments for some drivers but not all.
With careful tuning, most drivers can cope, but the easy comfort of a Ford or VW driving seat still eludes quite a few drivers. Peugeot will doubtless succeed with its dials-above-the-wheel philosophy, but there’s still work to do.
On the road, however, the small-diameter wheel is often a boon, especially in tight corners where wheel-winding is dramatically reduced. Peugeot seems also to have improved the road feel of the all-electric rack-and-pinion system, compared with a 208 that pioneered that layout; although a Golf or Focus is still better.
Peugeot’s 1.6-litre diesels have been impressive for decades, and for all its comparatively modest 114bhp this latest e-HDi unit feels smooth and refined in normal use to the extent that it sometimes fades completely from audibility. There’s not much reward in thrashing it, though. Better to drive it on the easy low-end torque: 203lb ft at 1750rpm.
Other diesels are a little more responsive, but this one matches the gearbox ideally so it’s easy to make the car flow through the gear, a property many drivers value. The 308’s 0-62mph acceleration is nothing special, but it winds up to a respectable 118mph top speed, and cruises briskly at low revs in sixth, holding its speed well on long motorway gradients. It’s easy to see mid-50s on the fuel computer (the combined claim is 74.3mpg) and CO2 output squeezes under three figures at 98g/km.
Cornering moves from neutral to understeer as cornering effort increases and speeds rise, and there’s a little more body roll than some in the class (notably Focus). That would be okay if the promise of a soft suspension were accompanied by a special ability to plane away the surface irregularities common on our roads, but the 308 is no better than average-good at that.
It has a good primary ride — the car stays flat through dips and over serious humps — but it picks up surface noise more readily than we hoped. The UK is only 22 miles from France, but Peugeot’s engineers still seem not to have noticed.
Should I buy one?
You should, but probably not before discovering whether a Golf, Astra, Focus or Leon suits you better.
These cars all set such high standards, and all have such intriguing and disparate foibles that the only solution for the fastidious buyer is to do what we do: try them all and make a selection. However, we doubt whether you’ll find a car with a better-looking, more comfortable interior in among the rivals, or another 1.6-litre diesel with such impressive mechanical refinement. And that lack of wheel-winding that comes from the small-diameter, quick-geared steering wheel will appeal to many.
Pressed for a ranking before we can do a proper comparison, we doubt the new Peugeot displaces Golf and Focus at the top of the tree. Its UK ride quality, in particular, is somewhat behind the best. But it’s a good car, for sure, and it’ll impress more buyers far more than the outgoing edition.
Peugeot 308 1.6-litre e-HDi 115 Feline
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 114bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 203lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
What is it?