Definitions shift over time, none more so in the automotive landscape than with the term ‘people’s car’. What once referred to a German Beetle, French 2CV or an Indian Tata bringing motoring to their respective masses can also be placed in an Australian context.
When it launched locally some 18 months ago, the seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf robbed refinement and technology from the upper classes and handed it to everyday motorists for just $21,990 plus on-road costs.
After a year and a half of being untouched in the small car class, however, the Golf is now beaten on paper in several ways by the brand new Peugeot 308.
Beaten on paper? The new Peugeot 308 starts at exactly the same price as the Volkswagen Golf. Its 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine produces more power and torque than the Volkswagen 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo. Compared with its Continental rival the Peugeot is lighter, claims to be quicker and use less fuel, all in a comparably sized body with a bigger boot.
All of which looks great on paper, but we’re here to find out if that lead can be matched on road to try to conquer probably the toughest rival in any class of car.
But hang on a moment, because running costs are an important aspect for ‘the people’ and it is little coincidence we rarely hear a burble from owners of a small car from a Japanese manufacturer that is purchased more widely than any other currently available in this country.
That car of course is the Mazda 3. In terms of its sheer popularity it is the people’s Commodore and Falcon for our changed, urbanised and globalised country. The third-generation Mazda 3 launched almost a year ago, six months after the Golf, though we’ve previously only compared the base 3 Neo against the base Golf 90TSI.
For this test we have the $27,990 3 Touring ready to play against the $27,740 Golf 90TSI with optional Comfortline package, and $27,340 308 Active, all in automatic specification.
Not only is the Mazda more convincing in higher specification, but upwardly mobile Australians often go beyond base models and overwhelmingly choose autos.
Make no mistake: this is a best-of-the-best small car test.
The 3 Touring keeps its European counterparts honest in terms of the level of equipment they provide, too, being the only contender here with leather trim and satellite navigation as standard.
Not only is cow-hide unavailable on either European at this level, but the addition of a 7.0-inch high-resolution touchscreen also brings with it Mazda’s benchmark MZD Connect infotainment system that is lacking in the 3 Neo.
The Golf 90TSI Comfortline only gets a 5.8-inch colour touchscreen that lacks the high-resolution display of its Japanese rival.
Integrated nav is a $950 option, but not for any price will you get apps connectivity such as the brilliantly integrated Pandora internet music streaming that’s standard on the 3 Touring.
The 308 Active gets what seems to be a huge 9.7-inch colour display, but that size factors in the shortcut buttons that flank either side of the touchscreen itself.
The Peugeot graphics are bright and bold enough to challenge the Mazda and comfortably eclipse the Volkswagen, though you won’t find nav a cheap option and it is the only contender here to lack a reverse-view camera.
The 308 we’re testing here is actually the $30,490 Allure, which is identical to the Active but with some extra equipment.
That’s the hefty premium you’ll need to pay in the Peugeot to get nav standard, yet the rear camera still remains unavailable and leather is a hefty $3100 option.
While the 308 Active comes with rear parking sensors, the Golf 90TSI Comfortline is the only car here to get front sensors as well. Those front sensors come on board in the 308 Allure that otherwise exclusively adds full LED headlights over its $3000-cheaper rivals.
Peugeot also lacks some safety equipment available in its rivals. Mazda offers a $1500 Safety Pack option featuring automatic low-speed city braking, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert system; Volkswagen bundles the city braking technology with adaptive cruise control and automatic reverse-park assistance for $1300.
There clearly seems to be some European surcharging (that no longer exists at Volkswagen) and curious French specification (no nav or leather but LED lights) going on with the new 308, so it begins on the back foot.
Conversely, the Mazda gets a leg-up inside thanks to the equipment it provides. Because you’re buying beyond base, you get some niceties common to all three, such as illuminated vanity mirrors, and automatic headlights and wipers.
Choosing the 3 Touring means dumping the annoying lights-on buzzer you get in 3 Neo and Maxx, and flicking the clacky manual dials you get in those lesser specification levels.
While in isolation the Mazda feels pleasant in 3 Touring guise, stepping into the Peugeot after it is more like leaping two classes ahead.
The new 308 interior is a stunning example of blending characterful design with premium materials. Consistently matched dashboard plastics interplay with specks of silver highlights and textured patterns on the centre console, all with the bright display the star of the show.
There are aspects about the interior that perhaps aren’t a necessity to have but are arguably there for the better simply because they avoid blandness.
The tiny, go-kart-sized steering wheel is a delight to hold, and the tachometer needle sweeps backwards, so as speed and revs build it converges with the rising speedometer needle . The price to pay for the coolness is a steering wheel that sits in your lap if you’re a taller driver.
If you race to the 308 on a hot day you will also need to wait for the infotainment system to boot up before you can blast the air-conditioning that is singularly accessed on the touchscreen. But that design gives you the lovely visual simplicity of a single audio volume dial on a lower dashboard that looks as though it came from a Bang and Olufsen brochure.
Move to the Golf and everything seems more normal, for better and worse. No longer does it have a stranglehold on premium materials in this class, though equally you couldn’t say it feels cheaper inside than a 308.
There is none of the confronting ergonomics you get in the Peugeot, and even beyond that subjectivity there are valid reasons why the Volkswagen is more convincing.
The 308 only gets a single cupholder inside the centre console box, where the Golf gets two near the transmission lever, bottle holders in the front doors and a large console box. Accessing the climate control and trip computer is as simple as it is in the Mazda.
Further back, the Volkswagen has the most rear legroom and head space, and it is the only one to give back-seat riders air vents. That said, the Peugeot is competitive for fabric quality and seat comfort, eclipsing its German rival up front and being only slightly behind rearward.
Coming full circle into the Mazda, and the shiny dashboard plastics, scratchy lower plastics, and seemingly out of place elements such as matte carbonfibre-looking trim leave it feeling downmarket. Even the leather is slippery, the driver’s seat is too tilted forward and the rear bench too short and low, forcing a knees-up seating position teamed with the least headroom here.
Above: Mazda 3 (top) and Peugeot 308 (bottom).
The Mazda hatchback also has the smallest boot, its 308-litre capacity eclipsing the Renault Clio in the class below it by only 8L. That said, unlike the Volkswagen and Peugeot you can choose a sedan that fully adds 100L to its capacity.
The 3 clearly loses a lot of its space because of a very high boot floor, while it is the only car here to lack a ski-port in addition to 60:40 split-backrest practicality common to all three.
The 380L Golf and 435L 308 seem no wider, but their cavities are deeper, with the latter being almost wagon-like in terms of its length between tailgate and rear backrest.
Above: Volkswagen Golf.
When you look at this trio from the outside, you wouldn’t guess there could be so much difference inside. They all look about the same size, in the same hatchbacked shape, and all give a nod to the fact you’re spending a bit more than base by giving you 16-inch alloy wheels with chubby tyres.
All three are front-wheel drive that offer similar performance. How they deliver their go differs markedly, however, with each having standout attributes.
The Mazda is the most perky from a set of traffic lights. It has the largest engine here (2.0-litre) and no turbocharger means no waiting for the little snail inside it to recirculate exhaust gases to boost performance.
The six-speed automatic in the 3 feels like it is friction-less inside, slipping instantly between gears and working with a throttle pedal so immediate that you can plug any traffic gap instantly.
The Peugeot uses the same number of gears and regular automatic to mate with its tiny 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine that is then heavily boosted by a turbocharger.
There is a doughiness through the throttle that doesn’t exist in the Mazda, though you can press an ‘S’ button on the console that sharpens its response to almost the same level.
The Volkswagen needs no such button to feel immediate, probably because its 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo isn’t quite as highly strung.
There’s the slightest of hesitations off the line from the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, but this is otherwise one of the best examples of the DSG breed, being both silken and intuitive.
Linear and consistent power delivery is a Golf hallmark, backed by 200Nm of torque spread between 1400rpm and 4000rpm, just before 90kW comes online soon after (between 5000-6000rpm).
Peugeot, however, claims 9.1-second 0-100km/h performance compared with 9.7sec for the Volkswagen (there is no claim from Mazda) and the 308 once up and running certainly feels sprightlier.
Its 96kW doesn’t come in until 500rpm after the Golf’s, but it’s the 230Nm from just 1750rpm and kerb weight of just 1150kg that really makes the Frenchie feel alive. That’s an amazing 83kg less weight the engine needs to lug around compared with the German.
There is also a delightful soundtrack in the Peugeot – more gravelly and growly, and louder overall than the Volkswagen, but arguably tastier.
Not only is the Mazda the heaviest car here at 1271kg, but without a turbo it needs 4000rpm showing on the tachometer before it makes the same torque as the Volkswagen. Its 114kW is the most here, but again the engine needs to scream at 6000rpm to deliver it.
The 3 Touring can’t match the effortless driveability of the European contenders, occasionally feeling sluggish when pressed around town and panting for breath on the open road. It is a noisy engine, too, and the sound it makes is industrial and characterless.
You can of course solve this problem by choosing the larger 2.5-litre engine in the similarly priced, but less well-equipped 3 SP25. However it adds 18-inch alloy wheels that affect the ride quality compared with the 2.0-litre Neo, Maxx and Touring that roll on 16s.
Indeed where this trio joins together is in delivering fine ride quality, particularly in an urban environment.
The Peugeot feels wonderfully light on its feet, and skims over small irregularities that the Mazda picks up. Conversely, the 3 soaks up bigger hits that rustle particularly the rear-end of the 308, occasionally causing it to hop and shuffle sideways.
The Volkswagen combines the best of both worlds, feeling deeply sophisticated the way it ignores road joins, settles quickly over speed humps and is barely bothered by country roads. During one particularly choppy corner that the 308 clunked and thumped through, the Golf transmitted nothing into the cabin.
When you are trying to have fun in bends, it’s the Mazda suspension that is as controlled as the Volkswagen while stepping up to be the most involving car here – so long as you’re on the flats or going downhill.
It used to be easy to say the Mazda 3 was made for dynamics while the Volkswagen Golf focused on comfort, but that’s simply not the case anymore.
Some may find that where the Japanese hatchback moves around its driver, it’s actually less agile and rolls more than the German hatchback that stays tight and planted.
It can easily be argued that the car with the least finesse can also be the most fun, however. Not only does the 308 have a gun little wheel, it’s connected to the best steering here. Even around town the light and immediately pointy steering provides an eagerness missing from the more progressive and mid-weighted steering in its rivals.
The fleet-footed Peugeot loves being thrown around enough that you soon forget the way it dislikes mid-corner bumps and can occasionally call on its stability control earlier than ideal.
Point is, while the 308 doesn’t feel as though it has the dynamic depth of its rivals when the going gets tough, the combination of quick steering, dainty chassis and boosty three-cylinder engine combine to make it the most fun anytime, anywhere.
Perhaps even more impressive is that despite its low kerb weight, the 308 is a very quiet car on all surfaces. On coarse-chip country bitumen, it is even more hushed than the Golf. It is staggering just how much more refined both cars are – in terms of engine, road and wind racket – compared with the still-raucous Mazda.
To be fair, the 3 (in SP25 trim) proved no louder than a Ford Focus, Hyundai i30, Holden Cruze and Nissan Pulsar in a recent comparison test, but the Golf and 308 are in another league. Likewise the 3 has previously garnered higher scores for performance, economy, ride and handling in cheaper, less lofty grades relative to more affordable opposition. This test is its toughest challenge.
On a mixed test loop the Mazda consumed 8.4 litres of regular unleaded per 100 kilometres, identical to the Volkswagen that needs premium unleaded and all the more impressive considering how hard it was working. The Peugeot also needs premium, but used 8.2L/100km.
All three have three-year warranties, and to service over that time period (or to 45,000km) the 308 and Golf cost $1219 and $1246 respectively.
The 3 also needs annual checks, but not if 10,000km comes up first, so to three years it costs $909; or if 40,000km ticks over before that time period you’ll need a fourth trip to your dealer at $1230 overall cost.
There is clearly nothing between these rivals for running costs, despite lingering myths that European cars are more expensive to own than Japanese ones.
Less clear is long-term reliability and the actual service you get from dealerships.
It’s something impossible to determine from testing a new car, but Mazda for two years running topped the local JD Power survey that measures after sales and servicing satisfaction from 4000 owners; while Volkswagen has ranked last for the past three years.
While the Golf has suffered some image damage due to DSG problems with the previous-generation model, it’s also impossible to say the new car would suffer the same fate; and we know at least five previous-generation Golf owners of whom none have had a single issue.
Only you can make the call whether the proven nature of the Mazda 3 gets it over the line for you, because it is otherwise technically the least impressive small hatchback here (though it is also worth remembering the top three small cars are duelling it out here).
The 3 Touring feels both cheaper and smaller inside than its rivals, and is less refined to drive. Equally, however, its excellent ergonomics and connectivity, high level of standard equipment, and peppy city performance, also join with its reputation for quality to make it a valid pick here.
Likewise with the Peugeot 308, which dips on some areas of ergonomics and value, but is brimming with both character and broad ability. In fact our lifestyle editor Tegan Lawson who was on this test said that despite being more expensive and not quite as well-equipped as the Golf, she would have to go with the 308 for its sense of style both inside and out, sharp steering and 'fun' factor.
You can almost put me in the same camp – it’s just a shame you have to pay more for a car that is less finessed than our winner.
Despite the Volkswagen’s formal styling, it is anything but the stereotypical boring option. There is simply no denying the win here to a car that is better equipped and offers more technology than the Peugeot, while riding more smoothly, handling with greater finesse and pampering its rear occupants to a greater degree.
The Volkswagen Golf remains the modern definition of a people’s car that delivers a level of richness well beyond its class.
Click the above ‘Photos’ tab for more images by Tom Fraser.