Are you sure this is really a new Peugeot?
Yes. Well. Peugeot has this 'feline' design theme going on that buyers lapped up on the 206, a hatchback that sold above its station simply through visual appeal. So last year’s 207 supermini was a development of that style, distinguished by pointier headlights and a massive, ugly grille. The new 308 looks, at first glance, uncomfortably like a 207 that’s had a few strikes of bicycle pump up its exhaust pipe. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair, for there’s no arguing that this is a distinctive design in a world of lower-medium hatchback blandness. It seems quite likely that buyers will lap it up. The 307 before it certainly did well enough, averaging over half a million units a year worldwide and often a top-five player in the UK, despite being as bland as beige wallpaper. The wheelbase of the 308 is identical but a couple of cm extra shoulder and rear legroom have been squeezed out of the interior. There’s still the high-set stance, though it's 12mm lower to the tarmac. It’s wider and longer, too, especially versions higher up the scale that get a longer 'dynamic' snout and pseudo underbody air diffuser at the rear. The cheaper models are more subtle but all have more than their fair share of fussy detail.
So, pretty boy looks on the road, but what's the 308 like inside?
This is one of those few cars where the interior really does live up to the promise. Peugeot has done an impressive job of imbuing the 308 with a sense of quality and individuality. The fascia rolls down from the deep windscreen to give a feeling of spaciousness. It’s soft-touch and elegantly designed, with calculated use of chrome bezels on the vents, instruments and gearlever. It surprised us and feels classy way beyond its class. This thoughtful approach is followed through to the seats, which are well bucketed in all versions with tasteful trimming. There’s plenty of adjustment for the driver’s seat and above average tilt and reach adjustment for the wheel, but it still isn’t easy to get the ideal comfortable driving position. Setting the front seat low is tempting but that compromises room in the rear. Space in the back is average, though the high-set back seats help visibility. So does the optional enormous panoramic glass roof.
Didn’t Peugeot used to make great handling cars?
You remember too? Oh for the days of the 205 and 309, we wistfully muse. Well, Peugeot is proud that the 308 is 10 percent stiffer than the 307 but it surely took more than that for this improvement in driving appeal. The platform is fundamentally the same as before, with struts at the front, torsion bars at the rear and anti-roll bars everywhere. The tuning is different, however, and there’s a hydraulic electro-pump for the steering that varies the assistance according to various parameters. It all comes together very well indeed. The 308 steers with precision and a decent amount of feel, diving into corners with an accuracy that inspires confidence and enthusiasm for more. This hatch really can be hurled around any series of tight or open bends with alacrity, yet the suspension never feels stressed, neither too firm nor too roly-poly. It’s remarkably f-u-n! There are some caveats. Wheel sizes vary from 15 inch to a ludicrous 18 inch, and it's noticeable how the ride degrades from 16s to 17s without any tangible improvement in handling. Michelin has developed some special low-rolling resistance tyres for the economy models, though these are not available on the 1.6 THP.
It handles then. Does it have the engines to exploit the opportunities?
This is family car middle ground, so the 308 inevitably has its fair share of middling power units. Apart from the 1.4, which we didn’t drive but we can’t imagine is going to be up to too much. The diesels are all good and you’ve seen them all before in various Peugeots, Citroens and Fords. The turbocharged 150bhp 1.6-litre THP is, for the time being, the most power petrol engine and already available in the 207 or, tweaked, in the 207 GTi and Mini Cooper S. And despite the current propensity for diesel power, this THP proves to be the engine of choice. It’s refined, powerful enough and has a good slug of turbo torque to pull you through the corners and out the other side. A heady 150bhp is no longer a figure to get remotely excited about, yet this version of the 308 is an extremely well balanced machine.
Clean and green?
The combined figure for this model is 40mpg which is admirable for a car with this weight and performance, though the CO2 figure isn’t so smart at 167g/km. Pick the 1.6 HDi diesel instead and you’ll get 60mpg and 125g/km, or even the magic 120g/km for the 90bhp version, which may help in the Congestion Charge avoidance game. Those clever Michelins come into play here, saving 4g/km where it really counts.
So is the 308 going to become the default choice compact family hatch?
Not at these prices. This 1.6 VHT Sport five-door comes in at £15,995, which does make some sense for a 308 with an edge. But a cooking model like the petrol 120bhp 1.6S is £14k, while switching like-for-like with a 110bhp 1.6 diesel incurs a whopping £1500 increment. Peugeot will argue that the 308 is pitched unswervingly at its rivals and prices are directly in line. Maybe so, but these days when dealers are pumping out pre-registered rivals to the Peugeot with three grand off, it will be difficult until the special offers from the French firm kick in.
The style may not be to your taste but if that’s the case you are probably in a minority. And those that do buy the 308 simply because they like the look of it will be doubly pleased once they step inside. The interior really is that good. As for old-school 205 enthusiasts, they can at last stop holding their breath. The 308 is finally a mid-sized Peugeot hatch to be (reasonably) excited about. We await the first UK drive and group test with interest...