Peugeot's new midsize hatchback, the 308 which goes on UK sale in January 2014, does not have a 'sport' button. No variable rate steering, no adaptive damping that varies the ride from spine-impacting to mild teeth-chattering, no myriad engine maps. And there, in microcosm, is the essence of this car: it is set up to get you from A to B simply, comfortably, quietly and fuel efficiently. Like French cars of old in fact, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Prices will start around £14,500 for the 82bhp, 1.2-litre basement model: we tested the pricier, faster 1.6-litre petrol and diesel versions.
That's not a Peugeot, that's a Volkswagen, ja?
Look at the 308's flanks, and it could be a Golf, with its triangular rear pillar, tall glasshouse and understated sheet metal. The rear looks anonymous-Japanese-hatch but with Peugeot's trademark C-shaped lamps grafted on; only the front has any presence with its undulating bonnet, chrome grille and intricate headlamps. This is a neat and tidy conservative design that tries desperately not to offend, but at the same time it sacrifices the presence and flair of the 208.
Is the interior an improvement?
Peugeot is playing it safe, and seeking to attract the rational, middle-class Golf customer. The cockpit is pared back like the exterior, but in a way that feels progressive and stands out. Old-school buttons are banned, aside from a few token essentials like hazard warning and the electronic parking brake. No stereo knobs to twiddle, no air con dials to adjust to that nearest half-degree, pretty much every function is controlled via the intuitive touchscreen (if you're among the 90% of UK customers who go for trim level 2 and above, which includes standard navigation).
The cabin is a clean, rather fabulous environment, with classy feeling, durable materials, meshed together with precision - much like a Golf then. There is one admission to Peugeot quirkiness: the 208's button-sized steering wheel reappears, positioned beneath a high-mounted binnacle, designed to help drivers keep their eyes on the road. There was a consensus among the mis-shapen journalists on the launch that it was possible to achieve a decent, low driving position without having the wheel obscure the dials, unlike with the 208.
What's it like to drive?
This is the Lionel Richie of driving experiences, easy like Sunday morning. The electrically assisted power steering is lighter than Breeze AM, and likes to take its time as it floats from lock to lock. This isn't to discourage vigorous driving - the front end can summon decent grip, if you want to get all aggressive in corners - but the 308 is best-enjoyed at a relaxed pace. Peugeot says it worked hard to quell noise, and the 308 is a supremely refined car. At motorway speeds, tyre roar from the 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sports is smothered, the petrol or diesel engine's low resonance fractionally more audible, along with a smidgen of wind noise. There's only one car that's as genteel - yup, that Golf again. And the 308 rides well, undulating smoothly over bumps and ridges, although the downside is roly-poly cornering.
The 1.6-litre petrol is workmanlike, mustering 155bhp with a characterless drone, and spinning to 6000rpm through six, long gears. It feels reasonably quick: 0-62mph takes 8sec, but you'll muster 49mpg on the combined cycle. Despite taking 10.2sec to reach 62mph, the diesel is more compelling, with 200lb ft of torque providing a decent surge, and more frequent gearchanges boosting involvement. This e-HDI 115 drinks 74.3mpg on the combined cycle, and emits 95g/km of CO2. But this unit will be replaced by a Euro 6 compliant, 120bhp unit from spring 2014, capable of a lofty 91mpg. A turbocharged 1.2 petrol arrives at much the same time, with 110 or 130bhp.
A new six-speed automatic is on the way too, but it's a torque converter rather than a high-tech dual-clutch unit. And the sooner Peugeot pensions off its obstructive manual 'boxes, with a throw so long the cogs are seemingly in different postcodes, the better. The brake pedal initially displays Peugeot's hallmark sogginess before biting too: such a shame these critical contact points undermine the sharpness of the drive. Because in other ways, the 308 is on the money: it packs sufficient cabin space into a footprint smaller than the outgoing car's, has a 470-litre boot that's biggest in class, and weighs 140kg less than its predecessor.
Has Peugeot done enough to flay Ford and vault VW? Keen pricing should make it a contender: expect to pay £17k for a lower powered 1.6 with touchscreen and nav. But the 308 is too much of a mixed bag. For a company renowned for exterior design, the 308's conservatism is a disappointment; conversely, the progressive, largely high quality interior is a winner. If you consider yourself a sporty driver, look away now, but if you enjoy life at a relaxed pace, then Peugeot's new hatchback should be on your shopping list. Just wait for the new engines.