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Car reviews - Peugeot - 308 - XTE HDi 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Diesel performance and economy, cabin presentation and comfort, equipment levels, dynamic capabilities
Room for improvement
Firm ride, LHD wiper set-up, restricted rear vision, small glovebox

2 May 2008

PEUGEOT dominated small car buyers’ hearts in the 1980s and '90s, first with the seminal 205 and then the 306.

Light, sharp, and rewarding to drive, both firmly established the century-old car-maker as a builder of enthusiasts’ devices. That they also felt flimsy and rather hopeless in automatic guise did little to dampen their appeal.

So what happened with the 307?

Born in 2001, the not-so-petite Peugeot abandoned the dynamic prowess of its predecessors, for a large, solid, mini-MPV-like box of a car that – admittedly – still looks great but was quite leaden to drive.

It also fell well short of the goal posts that were resolutely blown apart by the original Ford Focus’ sensational driving prowess as well as the Volkswagen Golf IV’s elevated quality interior.

So while Peugeot didn’t exactly go right back to the drawing board with the visually similar (but far more fussily styled) 308, it did completely rethink the suspension and steering state of tune.

But creating a palpably higher quality car – no doubt to match the class-leading Golf – was clearly uppermost in Peugeot’s collective corporate mind.

Speaking of quality, believe it or not, the 308’s interior is perhaps Peugeot’s best ever – certainly better than any cabin the company has produced in recent times.

Step up to the door and the large aperture makes entry and egress easy. Older and less mobile folk will surely appreciate this one feature above everything else.

The front seats may not look especially much, but they hold and support you for hours on end, and adjust in a wide manner of different ways in order to ensure your comfort.

Take the time to take in the fascia – it’s a real piece of work with its silver rimmed instrument dials, flanked by a line of chromed rounded vent outlets, which provide more than enough ventilation.

The instruments themselves are in a beautiful aircraft-like Art Deco style that does a lot to raise the ambience of the dashboard. This ain’t no Toyota Corolla inside.

There’s now a solid, quality feel to the dashboard, backed up by more chromification of the door trim and console surrounds, to add a welcome touch of class.

Indeed, the ambience puts the Pug in German-car territory, saving it from the sea of plastic of previous models to a convincingly prestigious interior that is without the idiosyncrasies that French cars are (in)famous for.

In fact, the more time you spend in the quiet, hushed and solid feeling cabin, the more you come to realise that it may even be the best small car interior this side of an Audi.

Backing this up are up-to-the-minute features you might expect to find on a BMW, such as auto-headlights, rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth connectivity, particularly effective front-seat heaters, under-seat drawers for odds and ends, a very comprehensive trip computer display, parking radar and the love that is a lane-change indicator function.

And because of the commandingly elevated front seats and vast windscreen, the 308 driver feels like he or she is king of the highway.

The simple auto climate-control, slightly more complicated audio set-up that is supported by a logical and intuitive remote control stalk, and a cruise control system with an extremely handy speed-limiter function further advance the Peugeot’s premium aspirations.

Door pockets are large, as is the centre console bin, which makes up for the small and next-to-useless glovebox, and the level of front-seat space adequate for even the tallest passenger.

The rear-seat occupants also get a good deal in the 308 as long as the front-seat occupants aren’t too greedy with their legroom requirements. It is well finished in there too, while the outboard seating positions are as comfortable as you’d expect in a modern small car.

A generous boot area with a large hatch aperture and a low loading lip help with cargo carrying duties, as do the split-fold seats with integrated head restraints that don’t need to be removed and a seat cushion that flips forward for a usefully low floor.

This is a car that feels like it was engineered from the inside out (Peugeot says the exterior styling came after the cabin was completed), so there is little to really criticise.

We don’t like the left-hand-drive-centric clap-hand wipers, which means the driver’s side is second to set-off and seems slow. The thick rear pillars hinder vision and an over-eager seat-belt pretensioner constantly restrained us like a captured fugitive on “Inspector Rex”.

That said, the brakes were often utilised because the 308 is an indecently quick family car. And this is despite the use of a money and space-saving Torsion beam rear axle instead of the fancy multi-link arrangement pioneered by the Focus and used to such great effect by the Volkswagen Golf.

Under that unmistakable snout is a version of the fabulous 2.0-litre common-rail turbo-diesel engine found in models as disparate as the Focus TDCi, Citroen C4 Picasso HDi and Peugeot 407.

What a beauty! We averaged between 7.0 and 8.0L/100km in a mix of urban and country road driving, which is outstanding when you consider how eager and elastic the HDi’s power delivery is.

Mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, the economy and flexibility of this utterly modern and refined powerplant has to be experienced to be believed. This simply does not sound, feel or smell like a diesel from behind the wheel.

That’s because of the almost sporty set-up of the drivetrain. This is a very un-307 experience, and connects the Peugeot small-car with its lamented 306 predecessor.

Put your foot down, and the 308 jack-rabbits into motion, building up speed strongly as it powers through a surprisingly wide (for a diesel) rev range.

Like a good old-fashioned diesel should, there is a strong wad of mid-range torque to blast your way through overtaking situations with effortless ease. And the auto gearbox is right on the money as far as reaction times and smoothness are concerned.

All this, and fantastic fuel economy... as we said: what a beauty!

But there's more. The 308’s handling is a welcome return to form for Peugeot.

Eager and well-weighted steering – instead of the 307’s vague set-up – coupled with good turn-in and plenty of grip show that while Peugeot has engineered a car that is on the safe side of competent, the 308 is still a more involving drive.

But a Ford Focus or VW Golf will still show it a clean pair of heels as far as dynamic suppleness, involvement and connectivity are concerned and the big turning circle didn’t win any friends.

The ride on the standard 17-inch wheels and tyres is on the firm side. We’ve heard that the optional 18-inch wheel and tyre package is almost unacceptably hard.

Even on 17s, our issue is that – while the amount of cushioning is fine for most situations – the Peugeot simply lacks the final degrees of suppleness and control over more extreme road surfaces.

This is one area where the 308 has gone a step too far in emulating Bavarian neighbours. For a French car, this is quite disgraceful.

But – gee – the latest small Peugeot is one big improvement.

At a tad under $40,000, the 308 XTE 2.0 HDI automatic feels like a powerful, grown-up executive car that’s been moulded to look like a hatchback.

We are fans of the BMW 120d, and we do think that the German car runs rings around the French one for dynamic capability, but most people won’t care/notice the difference anyway, so 1 Series buyers – along with those of the Golf TDI, Audi A3 TDI, Mercedes B180 CDI and Volvo V50 D5 – should really put the Peugeot on their shortlist of cars to test drive.

Peugeot is back in the small-car game.

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