It’s been a long time since French manufacturer Peugeot produced a class-leading new car.

Certainly it has not happened this decade, and arguably it came nowhere particularly close to the summit of any segment in the previous one, either.

Peugeot's recent small family car history gets more interesting the further back you go. The previous 308 was essentially a modernised 307, which itself was a generally overweight, mostly underpowered box of mediocrity.

The 306 that came before it lies closest to the 205 in our retrospective Peugeot affections, but that it was ancestrally spawned from the 309, which was originally destined for a Talbot badge as a successor to the Horizon, beggars belief.

Acknowledging that it must up its game in order to compete in any market beyond a notoriously supportive domestic scene, the manufacturer has brought a number of all-new models out to bat (208, 2008 and so on), but our praise has usually been measured, at best: good for a Peugeot, we’ve opined, but not great all over.

Now, with the new 308, the French car maker is convinced that it has leapfrogged the market’s most popular and most estimable family hatchbacks and delivered the surefire hit that has thus far been so elusive.

The carried-over badge isn’t a spectacular omen – the previous 308 was hardly memorable – but its replacement, bolstered by a new platform, is credited with being lighter, leaner, cleverer (particularly inside) and much more fun to drive.

The European Car of the Year 2014 judges agreed. But it will still need to be all these things and more if class honours are to change hands following this review.

Top 5 Family hatchbacks

  • More than 29 million Golfs have been sold since 1974

    Volkswagen Golf

  • The standout component of the Ford Focus has always been its handling

    Ford Focus

  • Leon
    Seat offers five engines for the Leon, ranging from a 104bhp 1.2 petrol to a 181bhp 2.0 diesel

    Seat Leon

  • Mazda 3
    The SkyActiv platform used in the 3 features more high and ultra-high-strength steel, offering greater strength and less weight

    Mazda 3

  • Peugeot 308
    The 308 marks the first time a carry-over name has been applied to an all-new Peugeot

    Peugeot 308


First drives

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    2 October 2015
    Track Edition GT-R takes key elements from the range-topping GT-R Nismo and offers them at a more affordable price
  • First Drive
    2 October 2015
    We've driven the Golf R Estate abroad and thought it was top drawer, but we need a UK drive to be sure. Here we do just that
  • First Drive
    2 October 2015
    Does Hyundai’s entry-level diesel leave us feeling short-changed? We drive it on UK roads to find out
  • First Drive
    1 October 2015
    'New' turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine is entry-level route into the X-Trail range, but is it worth it in this range-topping trim over a diesel alternative?
  • Car review
    1 October 2015
    Is it seventh time lucky for Vauxhall’s British-built Focus fighter?