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by Daniel DeGasperi

Not everyone wants an SUV and even those who crave one may be better off with a traditional wagon – it is a line we’ve heard before, yet the sales charts scream that the people have spoken otherwise.

Neither the Peugeot 308 Touring or Volkswagen Golf Wagon can provide the high driving position of a sports utility vehicle, and likewise they don’t sit high enough that you could slide a baby into a capsule without bending down into the car.

Wagons can’t really climb high kerbs either, and power goes only to the front wheels of each, so that off-road adventure that would otherwise be an advertising commercial away is even more distant.

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What you do get with these traditional, yet somehow now niche, European wagons is a lighter kerb weight than an SUV, and that translates to better fuel efficiency, increased performance and greater agility. They aren’t really smaller inside despite the fact you’re sitting lower, and indeed their boots are larger than most medium SUV contenders that are similarly priced at $30,000 to $45,000 plus on-road costs.

So is it time to give the wagon you’ve long forgotten about another chance? If so, then the question should be which one do you pick?

When the latest Peugeot 308 hatch gave the Volkswagen Golf hatch the biggest jab in its side in years in a recent comparison test, we knew this wagon contest had to be a head-to-head.

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You can buy a Holden Cruze wagon for less than $30,000 with petrol or diesel power, but it is an old car. The Hyundai i30 Tourer and Renault Megane wagon are decent options that also mostly cost beneath that pricing structure, but both the available engine options fall below the standard of the two cars tested here.

As tested, the 308 Allure Touring costs $35,490 plus on-road costs, the Golf 103TSI Highline Wagon slightly less at $34,340 plus on-road costs.

Each offer more affordable model grades, but what we want to test here are the grades that throw themselves into the thick of SUV competition, against the likes of the Mazda CX-5 (the most popular grade of which is the $32,790 Maxx Sport) and Toyota RAV4 (the equivalent middle GXL auto from $37,700).

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Peugeot has also just upgraded the 308 Allure Touring with a new petrol engine, a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that closely follows the specifications of its 1.4-litre turbo Golf rival, so this test is timely.

Indeed when you look at the lower-specification 308 Active hatchback against the Golf 90TSI Comfortline hatch, as we did in our comparison test, the biggest sore point for the French contender is that its features for the money are lacking compared with the German.

In wagon guise, at Allure and Highline specification, the gap closes dramatically. The Peugeot is $1150 more expensive, but it matches its Volkswagen rival toe-to-toe then exclusively adds full LED headlights and a larger colour centre touchscreen with internet connectivity, voice control and 6.9Gb integrated music storage.

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It only misses a driver’s knee airbag standard in its foe, adding to the dual-front, front-side and full-length curtain protection in both.

In any case, both the 4.585-metre-long 308 Allure Touring and 4.657m-long Golf 103TSI Highline Wagon include 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, front and rear parking sensors with reverse-view camera, automatic headlights and wipers, auto up/down power windows, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, dual-zone climate control air-conditioning, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and satellite navigation.

It is a lengthy equipment list for cars in the mid-thirties pricing bracket, but for those wanting more luxury, both wagons essentially offer the same packages for around the same price.

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For example Peugeot offers its wagon in Allure Premium guise for $39,140 plus on-road costs. It adds 18-inch alloys, active cruise control, keyless auto-entry with push-button start, blind-spot monitor, a semi-automatic parking feature, panoramic glass sunroof and even an electric massage function for the driver’s seat.

The only further option is full leather trim with front seat heating for $2500, making a loaded 308 Touring a still reasonable $41,640 proposition.

In camp Volkswagen you can add several packages to your base 103TSI Highline, including a $4900 Luxury Package incorporating swivelling bi-xenon headlights, full leather trim with front seat heating, and a panoramic glass sunroof; and a $1500 Driver Assistance Package featuring active cruise control, blind-spot monitor, semi-automatic parking and low-speed automatic city braking.

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Add both and you have a total $40,740 – only $900 less than its rival, yet other than low-speed auto braking that is a Golf exclusive each holds a mirror to the other.

So depending on your preferences, here are two middle-grade-to-luxury wagons for between $35,000 and $42,000, with nothing between them for up-front value.

For overall running costs, to three years (the end of the unlimited kilometre warranty period on each) or 45,000km the Golf will cost $1246 where the 308 asks $1405; to five years or 75,000km your Volkswagen dealer will charge $2138 versus $2295 over at Peugeot.

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There isn’t much between them for space, either; let’s start at the rear because wagons are all about their booty.

You’ll find a lower loading lip in these wagons than any rival SUV, and that means less stress picking up then lifting a pram into the boot. Many buyers prefer an SUV having a rear seat perched higher than these wagons so you don’t have to bend down to place in your baby, but it’s up to you which you think would be easier on your back to put in the car.

Splitting hairs (or rather millimetres), the Peugeot 308 Touring has nominally the lower loading lip of the pair, in addition to around five centimetres extra loading width.

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That probably contributes to its slightly larger boot volume capacity of 625 litres versus the 584L area claimed by the Volkswagen Golf Wagon that also lacks its rival’s tie-down hooks (which slide on rails mounted either side of the cargo bay). In case you were wondering, the CX-5 claims 403L, the RAV4 577L.

To look at and load up, there is less in it than the figures suggest, and the German contender hits back by having more underfloor storage, where a tiny space saver resides in a carpeted bay, and also extra rear-seat practicality.

Where both wagons have 60:40 split-fold backrest capability, and one-touch flat-fold levers mounted conveniently in the boot, the 308 Touring only has a tiny ski port that would barely fit one of your snow-carvers through where the Golf’s centre section properly folds down.

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Above: Peugeot 308 Touring. 

The rear seat of the Volkswagen is more plush, feeling as though you’re sitting in the seat rather than on it, and it exclusively gets rear-seat air vents. The Peugeot has the nicer door trims, finished in the same soft-touch material used up front, but in addition to a puffier cloth bench there is also less toe room beneath the front seats.

Up front the Golf feels typically high quality and ergonomically excellent. If you option leather it is super smooth, and at night the soft mood lighting is classy. Big, carpeted door pockets with bottle holders also complement the twin cupholders in the centre console with its large storage bin; the 308 only gets a single flip-down cupholder inside its smaller storage box.

The general design of the 308 feels less generic, more classy and bespoke, and that is matched by lovely trim materials and (along with the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso) the highest standard of fit and finish we have seen from a French brand in recent years.

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Above: Volkswagen Golf Wagon.

The tiny steering wheel is lovely to behold, and the driving position (forcing you to sit it low and peer over the tiller to see the high-set instruments) is less compromised for most people than it is in the smaller 208 hatchback and 2008 mini-wagon.

Ergonomically, having the climate controls accessed through the same touchscreen used for the audio, phone and nav systems can be frustrating, which means you have to flick through a menu rather than simply adjusting a dial as you would in its rival. But we found with time it became easier to use, and we love the simplicity of having only an audio volume button on the main fascia as though it was inspired by a high-end audio system.

The touchscreen itself is high resolution, a cut above the smaller screen and grainy graphics of the 103TSI. While both have nav systems that are among the easiest and most intuitive of any new car we’ve tested, you need to buy a VW-specific iPod cable for the Golf’s USB connector, where the 308 will plug and play with a standard Apple cable.

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So the Peugeot gets ahead for boot space, design and connectivity, where the Volkswagen moves forward for seat comfort, rear room and ergonomics.

In terms of efficiency, there is just three kilograms between them for kerb weight, the Peugeot tipping the scales at 1315kg versus 1312kg for its rival.

Critically, this is around 250kg less than the equivalently priced all-wheel-drive CX-5 that is actually one of the lightest SUV models on the market – so just think, would you like to be burdened by weight every time you go to the shops, iron discs hanging from your neck? No? Well nor would an engine that is just trying to do its job efficiently, without hauling more kilograms to the shopping centre carpark than you need.

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The Volkswagen has a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 103kW of power (produced consistently between 4500rpm and 6000rpm on the tachometer) and 250Nm of torque (made across a 1500rpm and 3500rpm band).

The Peugeot utilises a 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder that makes more power (110kW) but only at a set 6000rpm, and slightly less torque (240Nm) delivered at a low 1400rpm.

Claimed 0-100km/h acceleration times are as inseparable as the figures: 8.8 seconds for the 308, and 8.9sec for the Golf.

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A larger difference appears with claimed combined cycle fuel consumption, which is listed at 5.2 litres per 100 kilometres in the 103TSI Highline Wagon and 6.5L/100km for the Allure Touring (which lacks the stop-start system standard in the Pug three-cylinder and diesel, and its rival here).

Our real-world testing emulated what a family wagon may well be doing: driving through the suburbs, heading out to the countryside for a day trip before turning east towards the beach for a late afternoon photo shoot, and then setting cruise control for a two-hour freeway drive home.

Over that 400km round trip, the Volkswagen used 8.0L/100km versus 9.0L/100km for the Peugeot, giving the German a clear efficiency tick.

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The Golf has an extra gear to play with inside its automatic dual-clutch transmission, which helps efficiency versus the traditional six-speed torque converter transmission utilised by the French.

Right down at the lowest of parking speeds there is still some hesitation in the Volkswagen DSG, but this is one of the better examples of the breed and the trait is only slightly noticeable. It also gets a hill holder, so it won’t roll back on steep inclines like some dual-clutchers do.

Everywhere else the DSG is pretty much ideal; quick to upshift in normal mode, adept at holding lower gears in Sport and immediate if you want to use the tipshifter.

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Surprisingly, the Peugeot six-speed stumbles a bit, at least more so than when it’s connected with the three-cylinder turbo engine previously tested. Around town the automatic can clunk when cold, it can hesitate between gears, and most noticeably it is far too reactive to grab lower gears on light throttle.

Going back gears too early forces the engine to rev harder, and the 1.6-litre is noticeably louder and less charismatic than both the 1.2-litre three-cylinder in lower grades and the Volkswagen 1.4-litre. The Golf ends up being more silken and more effortless, even if both are about as quick as each other when the throttle is flattened.

Our tested Allure came with optional ($700) 18-inch wheels that are standard on Allure Premium, shod in the same sticky 40-aspect Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres. Even on the low-profile rubber the Peugeot is quite comfortable around town, only starting to feel unsettled and jittery on the same country roads that saw the previously-tested 308 hatch on 16s stay calm.

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When the road gets twisty, however, the 308 Touring verges on being a sports-wagon the way it grips on and on, and tips into corners with the sort of light and immediate steering response you’d expect from such a nuggety, small steering wheel.

The downside to bigger wheels is quite a lot of coarse-chip road roar, because otherwise the French wagon is superbly quiet, especially for wind noise.

In fact you’ll get a bit more wind rush at speed in the German hauler. Despite wearing smaller 17-inch wheels with slightly chubbier 45-aspect Bridgestone Turanza tyres, the Golf also throws up a similar amount of coarse-chip racket. Thankfully the engine remains quieter and more charming than its rival.

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Swapping out of Peugeot and into Volkswagen, you would barely need to be a kilometre down the road to notice the latter’s extra sophistication. Around town the ride is borderline plush yet there’s extra control when going over speed humps, for example. On a lumpy country road the 103TSI Highline similarly feels so much more supple and settled.

After spying the curvier styling and 18s of the 308, you might also think it’s the sportier drive in bends, but it isn’t. The Volkswagen actually rolls less in corners, and it changes direction with greater alacrity. It basically puts less pressure on its less-grippy tyres to do the hard work in corners.

The larger steering wheel connects with a system that isn’t quite as quick, but is brilliantly progressive and mid-weighted.

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You end up jumping out of the Golf and exclaiming ‘what does it bloody do wrong?’. The answer is a bit of low-speed gearbox hesitation, some graininess on the colour screen and a whack of coarse-chip road noise – that’s it.

The Volkswagen, erm, wagon is roomy and comfortable, hugely efficient and responsive, supple yet sporting, and even if you do throw in stacks of options it comes out as packed with technology and luxury all for $40K. Despite its formal styling, it is also anything but boring, and in fact it is full of character in the way it steers and goes.

Knowing the Peugeot 308 range well by now, the 1.6-litre turbo Touring we had on test proved that it isn’t the sweet spot of the range.

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Where with a Golf you can basically throw any number of options at it and come away with the same result, the 308 is sensitive to specification choice. The new four-cylinder is a bit loud and characterless versus the three-cylinder or even the optional diesel, and in fact fellow colleague Tim Beissmann has tested the diesel (read the review here) and we both reckon it better suits the car, albeit costing an extra $2500. Likewise we wouldn’t go for the bigger 18s.

You could justify the Peugeot 308 as the more emotional purchase, though, and in wagon form that collides with family sensibilities to be quite an alluring (pun not intended) package in, say, a diesel/small wheel specification.

As ever, the Volkswagen Golf does too many things too well to lose, but both prove you should give a compact, light, perky, efficient wagon a second look over that default-choice SUV.

Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.



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