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

    1
  • The standout component of the Ford Focus has always been its handling

    Ford Focus

    2
  • Leon
    Seat offers five engines for the Leon, ranging from a 104bhp 1.2 petrol to a 181bhp 2.0 diesel

    Seat Leon

    3
  • 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

    4
  • Peugeot 308
    The 308 marks the first time a carry-over name has been applied to an all-new Peugeot

    Peugeot 308

    5

First drives

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    24 April 2015
    Space and practicality has never been an issue for the Seat Leon ST, and thanks to a Cupra 280 engine it's now fast, too - but does it gel as a package?
  • First Drive
    24 April 2015
    Ariel's third model is the best yet - in fact, it's one of the best driving experiences we've ever had
  • Car review
    23 April 2015
    Mazda's Skyactiv tech revolution transforms its cheapest model
  • The new Espace is a seven seater and described by the company as a 'crossover'.
    First Drive
    23 April 2015
    Renault replaces its classic flagship MPV with a new take on the seven-seat utility vehicle, but it's not for sale in the UK
  • First Drive
    23 April 2015
    You won't find another premium, all-wheel-drive, seven-seat compact MPV like BMW's xDrive 2 Series Gran Tourer, but is there a reason for that?