Total immersion, says my father, is the best way to learn anything. Remove any connection to your comfort zone and throw yourself into the deep end – you’ll be a natural in no time.
I was questioning the validity and practicality of this mindset as I pulled out of Peugeot head office in Paris and onto the Avenue de la Grande Armeé, with the driver’s seat on the left side of a manual Peugeot 308 SW, with a vague map and no navigation.
Driving in Paris is a fluid experience. There is an order to the traffic flow where rules are obeyed and consideration given – providing you move when and where you should with all the confidence of a local. Given my first real intersection was the giant roundabout encircling the Arc de Triomphe, the lesson of ‘total immersion’ resonated in my head. Just go with it – allez en Francais!
The all-new Peugeot 308 wagon was to be my mobile home for the next two weeks. I had more than 5000km to travel and five countries to pass through. To put the goal in context, that’s about a third of the distance most Australians drive in a year in just 14 days.
More importantly, today I had a wedding to get to. Becoming familiar with the Pug would have to be done on the move, as my family was already with the wedding party in south-western France. I was told it was a five- to six-hour drive and I had just less than four hours to make it.
Driving like a local was working, and before long I had navigated the outskirts of Paris and joined the A10 autoroute heading south. The 1.6-litre diesel 308 sat effortlessly at 100km/h, but still Renault Twingos and Citroen Berlingos were passing me like I was driving in reverse. “Total immersion” said a voice in my head and I merged left behind a Porsche 918 Spyder (hello Europe) and set the cruise control at a leisurely 145km/h. The Peugeot 308 felt perfectly stable and happy, motoring along at a very respectable 5.0L/100km.
The centre of Peugeot’s i-Cockpit design is a tiny steering wheel that initially feels like you are driving with your hands wrapped around the edges of a side plate. It doesn’t take long to get used to and in fact most of the functions become quickly familiar – even the odd counter-rotating tachometer that mirrors the direction of the speedo.
I made great time. Just over three hours (and about 40-euro in freeway tolls) later I rolled up the driveway of the wedding-venue chateau. I wasn’t tired or feeling tight, the Peugeot ate up the miles almost too well.
Friends at the wedding poured over the little Pug – it has a very different look to the current-generation 308 we only know in Australia. That sense of French quality and style was back.
Despite being only six months old, the new 308 is already a winner of the European Car of the Year award. The wagon was launched five months after the hatch, but was designed alongside so looks natural in its 110mm-longer wheelbase guise. The wrap-around lamps, front and rear, create an integrated and modern design, while still definitely being a Peugeot.
The boot is a class leader in size, providing almost 600 litres of volume below the parcel tray. We put this to the test, managing to squeeze in a large and medium suitcase, two small suitcases, two backpacks of camera gear, miscellaneous stuffed toys and shoes, and Miss Five’s scooter into the back – while still managing to close the blind for added security.
Our car was the upper-entry ‘Active’ spec with the 1.6L 85kW BlueHDi turbo diesel engine and five-speed manual transmission. Yes, there were cloth seats and no navigation, but the car featured Bluetooth audio streaming and a stylish 9.7-inch touchscreen in the centre console to manage all aspects of the car from heating and cooling, to audio and trip data.
Higher specification cars even feature Peugeot Apps that allow the owner to extend the functionality of their car to include such things as TripAdvisor locations and ratings, fuel and parking locations and live traffic reports. A great step towards connected and personalised motoring that we see a lot of manufacturers include in their international products … but not yet in Australia.
The touchscreen can only display one function at a time, though, so I found myself switching regularly between audio, air-con and trip data when dealing with demands of my passengers. It’s a simple, soft touch with a nice audible ‘bloop’ as feedback though, so hardly a chore – but having a split or customisable interface would be a great addition.
Wedding over, it was au revoir France and buongiorno Italy as we headed west from the Loire Valley, via Grenoble to Tuscany. Plenty of highway miles at over 130km/h and the 308 didn’t skip a beat. What’s more we were getting close to 1000km on a tank with average economy below 5L/100km.
Miss Five was comfy in the back (aided in part by a pillow and iPad) but there was also plenty of room to accommodate Elsa, Anna and a menagerie of stuffed animals as well. Road noise was not intrusive and the long distances not at all tiring.
The cruise control stalk on the steering wheel took a bit of getting used to, as it is out of sight for normal driving, but once my fingers knew where the buttons were it was a very ergonomic way to adjust and maintain speed. There is even a great memory function that displays a range of preset speeds on the touchscreen, allowing you to easily set a new limit for the conditions.
The Peugeot was feeling like a member of the family – very predictable and confident even for a smaller car.
One slight issue that seems typical of many European cars, is there is nowhere in the front to put anything. Big door pockets are great, but there is always a requirement to put a phone or wallet within easy reach. There is a center console (with a neat ratchet height adjustment) and twin cup holders, but nowhere really else to put ‘stuff’. Fair to note too that the Active spec didn’t have a rear center armrest or cup holders so the rear passenger drinks were stored up front.
Arriving into Rome on a Sunday meant avoiding the closed city center restrictions and allowed for a more pleasant experience – less of a need to dodge scooters and Fiat Puntos than during the working week. Having French plates was a handy ‘get out of jail free’ card for last second direction changes too…
Over cobbled streets and battling through mid-summer temperatures, the Peugeot continued to impress. The A/C was cold, the ride comfy and the cloth seats never too hot to touch. The big boot remained a handy way to hide things away from prying eyes, even when leaving the car parked up for days at a time.
At the regular roadside rest stops that come hand-in-hand with travelling with a five-year-old, it is clear by glancing at the carpark that wagons still carry heavy favour in Europe. There is basically an estate version of everything, and although the 308 is still too new to have made its mark, we feel right at home. In fact for the whole Griswaldesque tour, I didn’t see another 308 SW until returning to Paris where I spied a lone vehicle in taxi guise.
The final 1500km run from Venice, through the Alps and back to Paris was filled with stunning scenery – and plenty of road tolls – and the 308 took it all in its stride. The greatest drive of my life … not quite, but the 308 was perfectly suited to everything we threw at it. Highway and city, heat and hail, baguettes and biscuits (on the latter, we seriously need to find an importer for these delicious orange and chocolate French ‘Pimms’ biscuits – so good!). The total trip was 5500km and I was sad to hand it back.
Everything the Peugeot did, it did well. It wasn’t the most powerful car, it wasn’t the most exciting car, but it was a tremendous all rounder. By the end, everything felt second nature and natural. Total immersion had worked.
But unfortunately with a date for the local launch of the new 308 still to be set, and the wagon not yet confirmed for the Australian line-up – you may have to wait a while to experience it for yourself.
My enthusiasm for the car even filtered back to my father, as I explained I had adopted his mantra and, for better or worse, had taken the French head on. He’s a Peugeot guy at heart, and based on my feedback would love to pick one up to replace his Volvo here – so Peugeot, if you are listening, there is at least one sale you can count on!