Twenty years ago there came the day that the Ford Escort and the Vauxhall Astra, mainstays of the British family car market, championed by unimaginative car buyers the depth and breadth of the country, were rendered obsolete at a stroke. Not just the Griffon and the Blue Oval, either. Certain, highly respected cars that had enjoyed things all their own way for years began to sit up and take notice, too.
On that day in 1993 the Peugeot 306 was launched, and it took everybody a little by surprise. Of course, a world-class Peugeot was nothing new, the 205 had long had enthusiastic drivers foaming at the mouth, but the 306 was a mature, well-balanced all-rounder that was far better at everything than anybody would have expected. Today, Peugeot are attempting the same trick again, with the best 308 I’ve driven that wasn’t red with the engine in the middle.
The fight to become something other than just another run-of-the-mill, also-ran, faceless car for everyman is a fiercely fought one, and a contest that has far more losers than winners. Quite a few of those losers, if we’re honest, have been French. Recent history teems with the forgotten competitors in the Focus / Golf class; the Citroen Xsara was better than an Escort, of course, but then so would be having your knees removed by a blind surgeon, instructed by somebody reading pages from the internet and operating the surgical tools by remote control using a string and pulley system.
Yeah, the Focus is universally agreed as being the one that drives the best, the one with the better design, the one with all the cleverness, but the Golf is nevertheless the one that everybody wants to be. And that includes the Focus. Golf has long been a cleverly advertised, cleverly promoted car, no, more a lifestyle. People want Golf; they can’t always explain why, but they do. It’s not really fair to everybody else in the industry, but there it is.
The 308 marks the latest attempt by a non-German marque at, if not dethroning the king, then at least making his crown look a bit ill-fitting and chintzy.
It looks terrific in a prosaic-yet-handsome, routine-yet-avant-garde, this-is-premium way that causes me to wear out my hyphen key. The grille treatment, a further refinement of that which we’ve seen on the 208 and 508, looks great, managing to be just about reminiscent enough of certain German brands to lend it a bit of stolen cachet, and is far better than the mindless gurning of previous Pug faces. There’s a technological edge, too, with full LED headlamps and the de-rigueur look at me daytime running lights that make me wish that LED’s could be disinvented. The damn things are at the rear, too.
Peugeot appear to have finally arrived at some kind of satisfactory brand identity which doesn’t cause me internal retching at every glance. The new design trademarks that we’ll all be hearing more of, like the “Lion Teeth” in the headlamps and the “Lion Claws” in the rear lights shine brightly, and there a bunch of features that don’t really need to be there but are nice nonetheless, like the way the metalwork tucks away under the tailgate. Another winning detail is the convex longitudinal feature that runs from halfway along and bisects the rear lamp, which looks especially effective from the rear three-quarters. It’s clean, it’s fresh, and it doesn’t try too hard, nor need further embellishment from plastic addenda when the inevitable GTI arrives. It’s an awful lot tidier than recent efforts from the brand; the previous 308 couldn’t have been less cohesive if it tried with that ridiculous, contrived snout and those annoying highlights around the wheelarches that look like they should echo the radius but end up heading off somewhere else; somewhere wrong. Instead, the new car wears the right suit to fit in at the executive top table.
Things are far more brave on the inside, and this time it’s a good thing. Take a seat on the well shaped drivers seat, upholstered in shades-of-Germany fabric (no shiny velour to be found here) and you find yourself surrounded by state-of-the-art Peugeotness, and it’s immediately rather agreeable. The dials, which are slightly annoyingly shaped with their stolen-from-Audi bezels, are at least clear and rather stylish looking. There are two information zones, the instrument cluster has a full-colour information screen on which helpful messages about how your handbrake is still on and all your tyres are flat appear like pop-up boxes, Windows stylee, which irks me slightly because I hate being reminded of the office when I’m driving. There’s also a big, nine-inch TFT centre screen, and this is where the magic happens. It’s a touchscreen, natch, and I usually moan and grumble when confronted with these things because of fingerprints, interface difficulties when driving down bumpy roads at speed, and the fact that they’re not aligned with my Victorian principles and everything was better in the good old days. But here that big dominant screen is pivotal in keeping the dashboard so beautifully clear of clutter. And there are “APPS”, too, like you get on a portable iTelephone or whatever.
It’s made of nice stuff, too. The plastic (which is pretty all-pervasive) is attractive in that one-texture-fits-all finish that you see on everything that wants to appear Teutonic, and feels weighty and substantial if you tap it inquisitively. On this “Allure” model, what isn’t black plastic is shiny brushed metal, which if not genuine does a very good impression of being so. Also encouraging was that I couldn’t find a single unfinished surface or sharp edge, despite this car being a crusher-bound pre-production machine.
The steering wheel is worthy of specific praise. The tiller on the 508 and 208 are nice, and here it is in the 308, except this time it’s displayed in surroundings that really suit it. It has a number of profiles and sections around the rim, the leather is beautifully stitched and sits well in my palms, despite my oversize, not-as-far-evolved-as-some hands. It’s multifunctional, with reasonably intuitive controls for the in-flight-entertainment and other tech functions. Best of all, it’s little. The small wheel combined with the driving position puts me in mind of a go-kart, which is exactly what Peugeot had in mind.
So then I drive it. Turn the key and all the dials and display light up in best mission control tradition, you hit the footbrake and the electronic e-brake automatically disengages (or does once you’ve learnt how this works) and off we go. And without delaying things unnecessarily, the 308 delivers the best Peugeot driving experience I’ve encountered since the ’90s.
Just ambling along you can tell that the premium German offerings have been benchmarked to within an inch of their lives. The ride, at low speeds, is affirmative yet isolating- bumps are seldom concealed but are very well smoothed off. And this continues right through the speed range. At motorway velocities there’s enough movement transmitted to the cabin that you always know what kind of surface you’re barrelling down, but never does it get spine-jarring like certain Sport and S-Line models I could mention. This car works well on fast roads, in fact the needles on the speedo and tach, which reads anti-clockwise, point directly at each other when travelling really fast. Which you CAN do, even in this 1.6 diesel model with its modest 115hp.
But the big test for the 308, to see whether it can truly tick that enthusiast book in the same way that the 205 and 306 did with quite the biggest tick ever ticked, you could see it from orbit; is to come off the motorway and head for a familiar country route. My favourite demo route was on hand, lightly greased by the daily autumnal shower and daubed with mud from recent field maintenance, and thus representing a decent challenge for the new car. I eagerly took the helm and pointed the car in the direction of the Essex wilderness.
Firstly, that 1.6 diesel engine is an eager little beastie. It’s small size means that it isn’t the torque-monster that some are, and the turbocharging is pretty instantaneous; I was never really struck by any signs of spool-up lag, so it actually fells quite like a gas engine. Better still, it sounds a bit like one, too. It sounds really nice, with little of the tappy, knocky sound so familiar, just an enthusiastic thrummy warble. There’s been some clever sound-deadening and exhaust tuning work here, no doubt.
It’s deployed, in this car, through a six-speed manual gearbox, which feels like one of the better Ford units of old. The action into third is a particular delight, being flick-of-the-wrist quick. It’s notchy enough that you have to put effort into it, which is nice, and the changes themselves are positive; you believe you can feel the gears meshing. It’s not over-polished; it feels like you’re controlling machinery.
All this good mechanical work would be undone immediately if the car went down the road in the same wobbly, baggy, ill-composed manner that we have become familiar with when driving non-extreme French hatchbacks, and I’m delighted to announce that Peugeot have completed the job admirably, but with one caveat: If you want absolute razor-sharp reflexes and instantaneous response from the controls, look elsewhere; perhaps at a used Lotus Elise, or just calm down and try to grow up a bit.
The handling of the 308 is very good, with steering that manages to convince you that the information being conveyed through the wheel is accurate, despite the fact that it obviously passes through so many filters before reaching your palms that it’s descended into Chinese whispers. It therefore inspires confidence and it’s pleasingly weighted, revelling in taking man-size inputs. And what you instruct, the car obeys with nary a hesitation.
In truth, the handling, which is very good indeed, is eclipsed by the roadholding, which is even better. Of course it’s dictated by the tyres, which at 225/45/17 would seem to be pretty optimal, if the blend of grip and ride quality I’m experiencing here is anything to go by. On my test route I wasn’t able to find any surface that significantly upset the car, I only found the nose running wide on one occasion when turning onto the peri-track of a disused airfield way too hot, and that was corrected with additional lock and slight lift-off. Furthermore, though lift-off oversteer was attempted a few times the car never once let go. This is bad for look-at-me, girls histrionics, but very good for fuss-free cross-country ground-covering missions.
I’m going to say, now, that the 308 isn’t as fun as the 306, but that’s like saying that flying first-class is less fun than wing-walking. The 308, remember, is saddled with the inevitable burdens of twenty-first century life by which a car is more life-support module than mere conveyance. Ideally you’d buy both, anyway. Get a 308 for daily use and a good 306 to savour. If this isn’t possible (and I’d like to hear your excuse) then you won’t be disappointed by the 308 on its own.
To be honest, I wouldn’t want the 308 to be any sharper. It’s just right. It has more character than a Golf, by miles, and feels classier than a Focus. The Ford is very possibly just slightly more sporting in core appeal, but to me just doesn’t feel to have such depth of competence as the 308 on this initial sampling, and that’s something that Peugeot can be really proud of.
As a final word, this is the first Peugeot that I can remember which I wouldn’t be too concerned about putting my money into. The majority of these will be sold on leasing plans of some kind and Peugeot are talking about very high residuals come the three year OMG My Car’s Old sudden-rejection changeover moment, and it’s certain that the basic product deserves these bold claims. It will all come down to reliability, reputation and image in the end. Image-wise, Peugeot are doing everything right. The other two categories; well, I wish them luck and hope they succeed. It’ll be nice to have them back.
(Disclaimer:- Peugeot flew me to The North Pole in a beautiful balloon. We dined heartily on quail and perigine falcon and enjoyed the hospitality of the Eskimo. Actually, none of these things happened but that’s what I assume happens on a typical road testers junket. What say you, Jeff? Legend has it Peugeot are Coming To America…)