12 September 2013
If you drive a Ferrari in Italy, you can expect passersby to stop, stare, and ask questions about the car. It's only natural, of course. You have a Ferrari in its homeland. Well, it turns out that the same is true of Peugeots in France. I was testing the new 308, and I don't think I've ever received so many interested stares before (sadly I think it was down to the car, not yours truly...). Not only that, when I was stopped, a French couple came up and asked whether this was the new 308 I was driving. I said 'oui', and let them sit in it. The verdict? After much poking around, "tres bien".
In fact, 'tres bien' is actually a very apt way to describe the new 308. It's a great car. But this is meant to be a reasonably thorough review, so I suppose I'll have to elaborate on that point a bit. I'll start, though, by filling you in on some background.
The 308 is a very important car for Peugeot. It's a VW Golf and Ford Focus rival, which immediately presents it with a bit of a challenge. After all, those are both brilliant cars, and are both extremely popular. However, the previous 308 wasn't in the same league as those cars, and Peugeot needs it to be. The market is one of the biggest in the whole industry, after all (representing a third of all sales in Europe). So Peugeot has gone back to the drawing board and come up with this, the all-new 308.
And on first impressions, the differences over its predecessor are marked. Gone is the slightly frumpy styling of old, to be replaced with clean, modern lines, and tasteful LED lighting. Instantly, it looks like a much more premium car than the old 308, and that is a very good thing indeed.
However, whilst the design is now superb, in this competitive 'C-segment' class, that's not enough. The whole car has to be high quality to stand a chance, so does the rest of the 308 live up to this?
I arrived at Basel airport (the French side) to be greeted by a fleet of new 308s, lined up and glistening in the 30C sunshine. I was handed the keys to a 115bhp 1.6 litre e-HDI diesel model, and set off.
The roads around the airport were motorways, so this wasn't the opportunity to assess handling. However, it was a good chance to find out how the car copes with a high-speed (well, 130kph) commute. And the short answer is, very well. I must admit to being quite surprised at the quality of the ride. The suspension soaked up the imperfections in the road surface, and very little wind or road noise entered the cabin. I don't know what Peugeot's done to achieve such refinement, but it worked, whatever it was.
And on the French equivalent of A roads and B roads, the ride stayed comfortable and refined, with nary a ruffled feather. Yet that wasn't at the expense of handling ability. The route Peugeot had programmed into the sat nav took me on some fantastic hairpin roads, and on these roads, the 308 shone. Of course, it's no GTi, and I wasn't expecting such, but nevertheless, it drove very well. Turn in was crisp, and traction around corners was good. Everything was smooth and impressive.
The 308 is available with a range of petrol engines, but really, you're probably not going to bother with them. Most people, after all, are going to go for the diesels in the UK, which is a good choice. The diesels are more torquey, and much more efficient. That being said, if you only do short journeys, and therefore want a small petrol-powered car, it may be worth waiting until spring 2014. The 308 will be the first car that receives Peugeot's new 1.2 litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines, which can be had with up to 130bhp.
As for the diesels, a 1.6 litre unit is available from launch, in two states of tune. There's a 92bhp version, and a 115bhp version. The probable-bestseller 115bhp e-HDI can do a very impressive 76mpg (95g/km of CO2), which is quite remarkable (especially considering how refined and fun the car feels). Partly, this economy is achieved by a remarkable 140kg weight loss, compared to the previous generation 308. There's also aerodynamic trickery in play, which includes controlled air intakes and a flat underside to help improve efficiency even further.
However, next year, there'll be a range of new BlueHDI diesel engines (Euro 6 compliant) which use a special urea mixture to remove 90% of NOx emissions, and 99.9% of particulates from the exhaust. They will apparently be up to 4% more efficient than the current Euro 5 diesel engines, and will be available with up to 150bhp. But until the new diesels come along, the current 1.6 litre engine is great option. It feels powerful enough, and is a sensible option for the majority of buyers. (Even if, personally, I'd rather wait for the 270bhp petrol 308 R to come along...)
Unless there's something particularly distracting outside the car (a zombie apocalypse, perhaps, or an asteroid about to crash into Earth and turn you into fine space dust), the first thing you'll notice when you sit in the 308 is the large central touchscreen. Peugeot calls it their 'i-Cockpit'. Questionable marketing name aside, it's actually a great piece of kit. The touchscreen - along with some capacitative buttons - remove the need for lots of physical buttons on the dash.
The result is a very clean centre console, complemented by an electronic handbrake (so no unsightly lever). When combined with the vast glass roof, the result is a very airy and modern cabin, and one in which you'd be happy to spend hours at a time. The seats are good, too, as is the comfortable small steering wheel.
On the technology side of things, one of the headline features Peugeot are touting are the full-LED headlamps. The 308, apparently, is the first car to get them as standard (on just the top-spec models, admittedly), and by all accounts LED headlights emit a much brighter and cleaner light than standard headlights. Though, unfortunately, I didn't get to drive the 308 in the dark to find out.
Also available on the 308 is adaptive cruise control (which, by the way, is brilliant - if you try it, you'll never want to go back to regular cruise control again), and a new automatic braking system. I tried this out on a closed course, and it's really quite strange. I drove behind a padded sign attached to a van, and accelerated directly towards the sign, foot well away from the brake. It felt very wrong, especially when the car emitted a piercing beep warning me that I was about to crash, but then the car braked for me, sharply. It's a relief to know the system works, but obviously, it's not something I want to actually rely upon. It's nice to know it's there, though.
The new 308 feels like a much more premium car than the old model. It's stylish and practical (the boot is the largest in the class, at 470 litres... so there's enough space to carry 470 cartons of delicious orange juice, maybe), and it strikes me as a very convincing alternative to the usual choices. Prices haven't been revealed yet, but expect them to start at below £15,000 for the most basic models.
In short, there's no reason not to consider a 308. It's a brilliant car.