What is it?
The Peugeot 308 R Hybrid could be the next watershed moment for plug-in hybrid powertrain technology, which is flooding into the performance car market in the way that all advanced technologies tend to: from the top downwards.
It has transformed the modern hypercar into something we wouldn’t have recognised 20 years ago, and has left a big impression on the sports car scene in the outlandish shape on the BMW i8.
While the decidedly lukewarm Volkswagen Golf GTE has already given it an outing of sorts among hot hatchbacks, that debut is nothing like what rival European car-maker Peugeot is currently planning: a five-hundred horsepower four-wheel-drive mega-hatch capable of accelerative potency and responsiveness unmatched within its class.
Though the R Hybrid draws primary motive power from Peugeot Sport’s 266bhp 1.6-litre turbo four as seen in the 308 GTi and RCZ-R, it also carries 200kg of not-entirely-useless ballast accounted for by a 113bhp, 148lb ft electric motor for each axle and a 3kWh lithium-ion battery where the fuel tank would otherwise be.
Unlike in other performance hybrids, the 308’s front electric motor drives straight into the Torsen limited-slip front differential, bypassing Peugeot’s six-speed automated manual gearbox entirely. Both front and rear electric motors transfer their power via single-speed reduction gearing.
Meanwhile, the 308 GTi’s suspension has had the kind of fettling you’d expect in order to cope with all that grunt. So the R Hybrid’s axle tracks are 80mm wider than the GTi’s; its front suspension has been entirely redesigned, with new struts, mounting points and wheel angles employed; its springs, dampers and anti-roll bars have all been beefed up; and it runs on wider, 19in forged alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres.
Interestingly, Peugeot’s torsion beam rear suspension survives the transition, with Peugeot Sport’s engineers claiming that it has the rigidity and sophistication to cope with the longitudinal as well as the lateral forces in its new job description.
What’s it like?
Much as it’s an abject professional failure for an road tester, I have to admit that I can’t tell you what 500-horsepower feels like in a car the size of a fairly ordinary family hatchback.
That’s because the 308 R Hybrid actually only develops that much urge in launch control mode, and launch control was off the menu during our regrettably brief test drive of this prototype offering.
In the car’s other driving modes – ‘ZEV’ electric-only running, ‘Hybrid’ and Hybrid Sports’ – it delivers a peak of around 400bhp and just over 400lb ft: outputs that the high-voltage electrical system can sustain for flat-out bursts of about five laps on circuit, or more unconditionally during less demanding road driving.
Ask for more than 400bhp from the car for much more than the length of a couple of typical straights, the engineers say, and you soon have a very hot, very depleted lithium-ion battery to nurse back into condition.
But even with a piffling 400bhp to struggle along with, it feels like an indecently rapid thing. Flat-out, just about fast enough to outsprint its rivals from Quattro GmbH and Mercedes-AMG up to about 100mph – after which point those electric motors really do become ballast, the ECU ramping down their output levels in order to give the battery an easier life.
But as usual with electrified cars, it’s not the outright power or performance that takes your breath away, but its flexibility and immediacy. You can leave the car in a high gear at a prevailing 50mph or so, flatten the accelerator, and instantly – with no more than 2000rpm showing on the tacho – be shunted forwards on a titanic wave of AC-synchronous torque.
Peugeot’s claim is that the car will go from 50-80mph in top gear in just 3.1sec; an Audi RS3 takes about three times as long according to our road test figures. Sounds ludicrous, but it’s entirely believable from behind the wheel, and could make this one of the most muscular performance cars of its kind.
It’s equally clear when driving the 308 R Hybrid that its powertrain has its limitations, though. The first and main one we’ve already touched upon, but added to the car’s fleeting delivery of its full 493bhp, there’s the gearbox.
Peugeot Sport chose PSA’s automated manual transmission technology for the car’s primary transmission on the grounds, I suspect, that it’s cheap and relatively light: ostensibly the same gearbox that the 308 GTi uses, but with electronic actuators rather than a normal clutch and gearlever. To be frank, the technology wasn’t good enough for PSA’s current lineup of ‘Hybrid4’ hybrids; it certainly isn’t up to this application.
It shifts gears slowly and in a slurred and often clumsy fashion. Peugeot’s excuse is that the car’s electric motors can cover for the failing, filtering instant torque into the power delivery and filling up the empty spaces that the transmission leaves: a rationale that will wash up to a point, since straight-line acceleration is ultimately smooth enough as well as very fierce. But you’re still aware of the crudity of the gearbox in the time it can take to deliver the next gear.
You have to be on your toes when cornering enthusiastically, too, because the combustive half of the propulsion system suddenly and unexpectedly engages through the Torsen slippy diff while you’re accelerating, and can cause an entirely unprompted change in the car’s line.
Otherwise, the R Hybrid’s handling is very good. Those firmer springs, wider tracks and sticky tyres make for a huge grip level, and finally bring weight and feel to the 308’s power steering – which has always felt over-assisted in other applications.
Body control’s good. Handling balance is likewise, and may probably end up being even better by the time Peugeot Sport gets around to tweaking the car’s electric motor controllers to feed greater torque to the rear axle when positive steering angle is in the mix.
Should I buy one?
Let’s wait to see if they’ve got the commitment to make it first. All told, the 308 R Hybrid has huge promise as a super-rarified addition to the hot hatchback ranks. Whether it will make production, and at what price, are decisions still be to made by Peugeot’s senior management – but it seems to me that, having taken the car this far and demonstrated its enormous and intriguing potential, the firm has a duty to see the project through.
It also strikes me that there would be customers for this car, even at the £50,000 potential price that the firm is looking at – allowing for a few provisos. First, the gearbox must go. If it’s to stand a chance, the 308 R Hybrid has to feel like the most technologically advanced five-door the world has ever known, and in every way.
Second, that full 493bhp has to be made a more accessible part of the driving experience – if only for a few seconds at a time, as part of a ‘boost’ or ‘push to pass’ function that can regenerate every few minutes. Because 493bhp is, in no small part, what people will be paying for.
Third, that the car is developed from here on as a performance road car – with a handling and ride compromise to suit that role. The car’s hybrid powertrain would be much better suited to the give-and-take demands of fast road driving than flat-out track work – and if customers understand what the car’s good at before getting their money out, they’re likely to be much happier campers in the end.
Peugeot 308 R Hybrid
Location Circuit du Val, France; On sale tbc; Price tbc; Engine 4cyls, 1598cc, turbocharged petrol, plus 2 x 85kW AC Synchronous electric motors; Power 493bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 538lb ft at 1900-5500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd automated manual; Kerbweight: 1550kg; Top speed 155mph (limited); 0-62mph 4.0sec; Economy 94.1mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 70g/km / 9%
What is it?