Peugeot's latest small hatchback leaps back multiple generations to find the verve that once characterised the breed
Challenging a certain renowned German small hatchback is no easy feat, but the 2015 Peugeot 308 might just be a big enough leap forward for the French to mount a serious attack.
The new 308 is built on a new platform for the PSA group – comprising Citroen and Peugeot – called EMP2, and that means the new generation goes from being one of the heaviest cars in its class to comfortably the lightest with a kerb weight of just 1090kg.
That’s not only below that of a Golf (1209kg) but the smaller Volkswagen Polo (1121kg) as well.
It gets better for the 308 and worse for our existing class leader, the Golf, because the Peugeot 1.2-litre turbocharged three-cylinder produces an astonishing 96kW of power at 5500rpm and 230Nm of torque at 1750rpm.
This compares favourably with the Volkswagen 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that makes only 90kW and 200Nm in standard form. And where the 308 claims to drink just 4.6 litres of premium unleaded per 100 kilometres, the Golf needs 5.7L/100km (auto to auto: 5.1L/100km v 5.4L/100km).
It gets better, because the new Peugeot 308 measures just 4.25 metres long and packs a class-leading 435-litre boot – versus the Golf’s 4.35-metre length and 380L boot.
All of which sounds excellent on paper, and indeed the new 308 impressed at its international launch on its native soil last month – but has anything been lost in translation on local roads?
We’ve saddled up not with the base model, nor the $23,990 Access automatic or $27,340 Active automatic, but with the $30,490 Allure automatic. All three utilise the same engine as the base model with the manual, and get six gears in auto form.
The only steps further from here (for now) are choosing the 2.0-litre turbo-diesel with 110kW/370Nm and the same auto, available only in Allure specification for $34,790 (hatchback) or $37,490 (the single wagon grade).
Higher grades such as the 308 Allure Premium and 308 GT will follow in March 2015.
For a smidge over $30K, you get a decent amount of equipment in the Peugeot 308 Allure, despite the luxury-look 16-inch alloy wheels and chrome-tinged foglights not being supported by leather trim (bundled with heated seats as a $3100 option).
Cool technology features abound, such as class-exclusive full LED headlights, though disappointingly a reverse-view camera isn’t included, only front and rear parking sensors.
Also standard is a large colour touchscreen with internet access and 6.9Gb internal music storage, in addition to satellite navigation. It works simply and intuitively, though without separate physical buttons for the climate controls, using the touchscreen to change radio stations then fan speed can become a multiple-press affair.
The screen is one of many highlights inside the Peugeot 308, which despite being the class featherweight on the scales is beautifully finished inside and seemingly well made.
The nuggety little leather-wrapped steering wheel sits below the speedometer and tachometer as with all new Peugeot models, but unlike in with the smaller 208 it doesn’t seem to obscure the instrumentation with many drivers in the 308. The tachometer sweeps backwards, which is an odd and obviously French touch, and the digital display in the middle is curiously monochromatic despite being multi-hued in the cheaper 208 hatchback and 2008 small SUV.
Along with the colours of the touchscreen and various silver trim textures, though, you couldn’t accuse this cabin of being bland – unlike its closest rival. There are still some ergonomic sore points, however, such as having only one cupholder located as a flip-down tray in the centre console, and no door bottle holders.
Unlike in the Golf there are no rear-seat air vents on any model, while legroom back there is no better than average. Clearly more emphasis has been placed on providing boot volume.
That said, any occupant will find the Peugeot 308 among the most calm and quiet drives in the class.
The little three-cylinder turbo engine is easily the most hushed engine in its class, superbly refined and with a distant and distinct offbeat growl when pressed. Road noise levels are also remarkably low, even on coarse-chip surfaces, and ride comfort on 55-aspect Goodyear tyres is excellent, though the suspension lacks the ultimate plushness of a Golf.
The suspension clearly feels like it doesn’t have to deal with much weight, because on rough roads the 308 is posessed of excellent control despite the seeming softness.
Thanks also to very easy and quick steering that is also highly accurate and engaging, the 308 feels light on its feet in a way no Peugeot small hatchback has since the lovely 306 departed at the turn of the millenium – and in the new 308’s wide and squat proportions there’s more than a hint of 306, don’t you think?
The 308 may lack the exquisite ride refinement of its Volkswagen rival, but it may eclipse it for driver enjoyment. The Peugeot perhaps isn’t as finessed the way the rear-end shuffles sideways over mid-corner bumps, so technically it may not have the edge. But thank that lightweight three-cylinder up front for the supremely sharp front-end that resists understeer beautifully.
The chassis is so up for being thrown around that it incites a 306-like urge in its driver to press on, although a stability control system that can’t be disabled above 50km/h curbs your enthusiasm. Most small hatchbacks in modest specification won’t be driven with a keen eye on cornering lines, but given the dynamic distinction of the 308’s long-lost 1990s predecessor, it’s pleasing to see some of the verve return.
At any speed anywhere drivers will appreciate how keen the engine feels, again thanks to the light kerb weight but also the decent outputs. The 308 Allure seems as brisk as the claimed 9.6-second 0-100km/h while offering more soothing torque than most in the class, perfect for hills and when closing traffic gaps.
The six-speed automatic is very quick to grab tall gears in regular mode, and the throttle is doughy, but switching to Sport mode brings a more alert throttle and transmission without ruining refinement.
The automatic stop-start feature is one of the least intuitive we’ve used, cutting the engine when you’re crawling in traffic even with a light push of the brake as you approach stopping pace – thankfully it can be switched off. Doing so, and placing the car in Sport, saw our mixed-condition consumption reach 7.5L/100km, however.
Minor niggles, really, in what is a wonderfully complete small car. The bigger issue is price – the 308 Allure may have internet tech and LED headlights, but it is $3250 more expensive than a similarly specified Golf 90TSI Comfortline.
In the bigger picture, we’d also hope Peugeot will follow its Citroen sister brand by upgrading the current three-year or 100,000km warranty to six years, unlimited kilometres (though the current cover is also a VW-match).
With Peugeot having a less extensive dealer network and marketing budget in Australia compared with mainstream brands, perhaps the new 308 won’t threaten the sales of the Golf, let alone the Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla.
Yet that’s to take nothing away from what is the best French car in years. Handsome, well appointed, smooth, quiet, involving and charming, the Peugeot 308 is well up for challenging the status quo.