The mid-range Peugeot 308 Active is the top-selling variant in the impressive French small-car line-up, but is it a class leader?
We’ve already had some time in the new-generation Peugeot 308 hatchback and deemed it a worthy rival to the Volkswagen Golf in the race for Euro hatch supremacy.
In fact, as we’ve written, it’s hard to think of a single area in which this iteration doesn’t improve over its predecessor, be it dynamics, performance, comfort, value or refinement.
So why are we driving it again? Well, it only seemed right that we spend a full week behind the wheel of the variant that so far accounts for more sales than any other in the line-up.
Because for all the talk of the sharpish $21,990 plus on-roads starting price, it’s the $27,430 308 Active with a six-speed automatic transmission where the real interest lies.
We have to say, right off the bat, that this is a properly loveable little car in the best French tradition. It’s nimble in the corners and refined and compliant on back roads, and has an unusual interior layout that makes it feel pleasingly un-Germanic.
The same can’t quite be said of the derivative styling, which is handsome but rather anonymous. But it’s not our place to dock points for something entirely subjective.
So, first things first: What does the $27,430 that Peugeot charges get you?
Under the bonnet sits a chipper little 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbocharged-petrol engine that belies its diminutive dimensions with highly respectable outputs of 96kW at 5500rpm and a remarkably strong 230Nm of torque at a really low point in the rev band — 1750rpm.
This outpoints the Golf’s 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine (90kW/200Nm), while the Renault Megane’s 1.2-litre four-pot turbocharged engine gets 97kW/205Nm.
It’s a delightful engine, this, with a commendably distant and confined — and never discordant — thrum, a thick slab of torque to get you off the mark briskly and a willingness to send the (oddly anti-clockwise) tacho northwards at a clip. The 0-100km/h sprint takes 9.1 seconds.
Despite an inherent lack of balance, it seldom vibrates or judders like an older three-cylinder engine might, save at speeds of about 5km/h as you pull up to, say, a set of lights. This slight issue is a solitary blight on what is otherwise a very refined package, and is likely transmission-related anyway given the engine speeds we're talking about.
Fuel consumption is also more than merely good. Peugeot claims a combined cycle reading of 5.1 litres per 100km, and our signature urban and highway loop yielded 5.6L/100km, which is commendably close.
Matched up to the powerplant is a six-speed automatic transmission with a torque-converter and sourced from Japanese company Aisin.
To those who aren’t fans of the Golf’s seven-speed DSG, this is an example of more conventional thinking. It’s also a heck of a lot better than some of the plodding four-speeders Peugeot has doled out in recent times.
It’s a little fussy at times, changing between fourth and fifth when the stated engine torque should be sufficient to hold firm, and its changes aren’t as crisp as a Golf or even the Mazda 3’s unit, but it’s smooth and fuss-free off the mark in a way the VW DSG never quite is. The clunky idle-stop system undoes this, but it's switchable.
Naturally, it’s keen to upshift as early as possible to keep revs low and thereby save fuel, but the Sport button on the transmission tunnel programs it to hold onto lower ratios for longer, and it’s this mode that brings the most vitality out of the car — seldom, we add, at the expense of refinement.
It’s not just the drivetrain that impressed us. The ride across a manner of surfaces demonstrated real refinement. Corrugations were soaked up bereft of fuss, while noise suppression was up there with the Golf.
As such, this is a terrific, stable highway-miler with the refinement of a much larger car, given the marked lack of wind noise from the pillars, a surplus of engine sound-deadening and not much in the way of drone from the 205/55 R16 tyres.
The 308 is also a sharp handler, with a real go-kart nimbleness to it reminiscent of a Ford Focus and eminently more playful than the more sensible Golf. It’s endearingly chuckable, and the direct electric-assisted steering loads up nicely even if it lacks a little in the feedback department.
Over a bumpier stretch of sequences, the rear deformable cross-beam rear axle can’t match the road-holding of the independent MacPherson strut front suspension with anti-roll bar, giving the car a noted propensity to skip about at the back.
But even this feels suited to the 308’s character given its rather noteworthy 1150kg kerb weight, which is less even that the much smaller Volkswagen Polo 81TSI with a DSG (1151kg), let alone the like-sized Golf.
Peugeot’s modular EMP2 platform helps here, and due to this architecture along with lighter body construction helps save about 140kg over the old 308, which was admittedly a little porky.
Lightness is a virtue in a small car, and more makers would do well to remember it. The 308’s nimble and playful nature, and the veracity with which it eats up twisty roads while remaining light on its proverbial feet, attests to this. As does that off-the-line punch and excellent fuel consumption.
So, as a driving experience, the 308 certainly won us over. It’s up there with the very best in the business. But that’s only one part — and to some, just a small part — of the overall buying equation. How does its cabin presentation, value and ownership stack up?
One thing grabs you first. Following in the wheel tracks of the 208 and 2008, the steering wheel is more coaster than dinner plate, its dimensions are so diminutive. Perched above the rim at the dial meaning you stare over the wheel at your gauges rather than through it.
The tiny wheel is rather delightful, and abets the feeling of sportiness. It’s a little like an arcade game. It also makes it fun to twirl about in car parks, which is thanks to the electrically assisted steering.
Overall the quality and execution inside is up there, with soft-touch contact points (something I value despite the protestations of some), some nice silver accents to liven things up along with some less common geometric shaping around the vents and other areas.
The layout is minimalist, with the central fascia dominated by a class-leading 9.7-inch touchscreen responsible for almost all functionality, including ventilation. Below this is a rather large slab of nothing, broken up by a volume dial and five buttons controlling ventilation, door locks and hazard lighting.
Like the exterior styling, the overall look is very classy. That said, we’d welcome some buttons for temperature controls and fan speeds, given they would both liven up the look and make the system more intuitive.
Digging through menus to adjust the air temperature on a hot day is a chore, though the air conditioning itself is actually as strong as an ox and drops as low as 14 degrees.
The large screen is otherwise fairly simple to use, with eight menu buttons to flank it acting as shortcuts. It may be colour, but the scheme is a rather dour grey/white/blue. It’s generally quite responsive to use and fast-acting, however.
The Bluetooth pairs and re-pairs like lightning, though there’s some sound delay. The system also did an abrupt re-boot on us at one point — no harm done, but you wouldn’t want to be on an important call… It only happened once, and has never happened on any of our other 308s over the past months, but it's one to monitor.
One area where the Peugeot falls short is in standard equipment. Neither a reversing camera or sat-nav is standard. You do get reversing sensors with a diagram, but it’s not as effective. Like all 308's, the Active gets the maximum five-star ANCAP rating.
Consider that the $27,740 Golf 90 TSI Comfortline DSG offers the camera, while the $26,990 Megane GT-Line offers nav, and above all the excellent (138kW/250Nm) Mazda 3 SP25 has both for its $27,890 price.
Given this fact, you might also think twice buying the Active over the $23,990 Access variant (also too expensive) with the same engine and automatic gearbox. But then again, the extra $3350 outlay seems justified, if not for the likely better resale alone.
You also get extras such as a tyre pressure monitor, hill-start assist, rear sensors, electro-chromatic rear-view mirror, the 9.7-inch touchscreen (almost worth it by itself), steering wheel audio controls, dual-zone climate control, map pockets on the back of the seats, rear centre armrest with drink holders, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 16-inch alloys rather than 15-inch steelies and auto wipers/headlights.
Cabin storage is also a little lacking, given the solitary and tiny front cupholder, the small centre console and the lack of a proper bottle holder in the door recesses. The adjustable centre arm rest also snaps into place at an alarming clip, enough to bruise a finger or ruin a manicure (not mine I swear!).
In the back there’s better-than-average headroom and foot space under the seat, while legroom and shoulder room are about par. The seat bases both front and rear are a little flat and short, while backseat drivers miss out on vents and map lights.
Boot volume is well above average at 435L, or 1274L with the rear seats folded 60/40. There’s a space-saver wheel under the flat, deep and wide loading floor.
In terms of ownership, Peugeot offers five years of capped priced servicing at increments of 12 months or 15,000km. That’s quite good. The pricing at each visit will vary from $335 after one year to $605 after four years.
The three-year/100,000km warranty falls short of stablemate Citroen, which offers six-years/unlimited kilometres of cover. Come on Peugeot…
But none of that is to take away from the fact that the new 308, tested here in Active trim, is a deeply impressive car and one that matches or even betters the Golf in some key areas. It's more fun to drive and has more cargo space, and is all but on par for overall refinement.
It's also not a Golf, for those who want to steer clear of the obvious choice.
In fact, if it were better value — say, if Peugeot offered a reversing camera and sat-nav, or at least one of this pair — it would be in the running for class leadership. As it stands, it's still a fantastic machine that warrants a look from anyone in the market for a classy little city car.
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