Their essential proposition is to blend large-car carrying capacity
and shopping car fuel consumption with properly sporting performance and handling at a price that undercuts the cheapest, most miserably powered and equipped BMW 316d Touring. It’s a neat trick and one that makes them crossovers of real value, in contrast to those models to which the term is often so thoughtlessly applied.
The most expensive of this trio, partly because it is available only with an automatic gearbox, is the Peugeot 308 SW GT HDi 180. If the firm’s recent product renaissance is a reliable guide, it should fight hard for victory here, even at a premium-sounding £26,845.
Seat takes the alternative approach with its Leon ST FR 2.0 TDI. At £23,815, it undercuts the Peugeot by more than £3000 yet, on paper at least, offers convincingly better performance. Based on the VW Group’s all-conquering MQB platform and, crucially, equipped with the sophisticated multi-link rear suspension denied to cheaper Leons in the range, it fights on a front stiffened by VW-derived engineering integrity at a conspicuously attractive price. More for less, in other words.
Into the disputed territory between the two wades the new Ford Focus ST TDCi. It’s a significant moment because, while it’s not Ford’s first fast diesel, never before has one been accorded an ST badge, nor been marketed as an overtly sporting product. In most popular ST-2 guise, the Focus is priced between its rivals, with claimed performance and fuel consumption also apparently occupying the centre ground.
However, we’ve come to expect more from a Ford ST than the figures suggest, although time alone will tell whether even Ford can sprinkle its usual stardust on underpinnings as apparently prosaic as a diesel estate’s.
The first surprise is that the Peugeot makes the early running. The Leon looks clean and the Focus quite cool in a perhaps rather obvious way, but the 308 alone seems to have a visual class and quality that does more than justify its price. While the inside of the Leon is constructed and arranged with typical VW fluency and order, there’s neither surprise nor delight in here. It’s functional and effective but austere, too.
The Focus suffers for different reasons. The driving environment is now more cohesive than in the past, but the way information is presented is both the least attractive and intuitive of the three. In contrast, the 308’s cabin looks like it could be a concept for a new interior language from Audi. It combines minimalist design with the most expertly chosen materials to visit this kind of car. I do not and will not ever like the valueless idea of locating the dials higher than the steering wheel, but the 308’s cabin is a great place in which to sit and soak up the miles.
These cars represent so much more than mere transport, however – or at least they are meant to. The Seat is statistically fastest, although it doesn’t feel that way. Like its rivals, power comes from a 2.0-litre diesel engine, but while particular care seems to have been taken with the Ford and Peugeot joint-venture engine to distance it from its diesel roots, the VW-designed motor in the Seat seems proud to celebrate it.
That distinct diesel rattle never entirely disappears, even on part-throttle at a gentle cruise. It has the broadest power range of the trio, with torque building strongly from just 1500rpm, but it’ll never convince you that it’s more than a device for doing a job to a respectable standard, even if it does have marginally the more pleasurable gearbox of the two manual cars.
The Ford and Peugeot are different. Their engine notes are far more synthesised, the Peugeot hilariously so in Sport mode, where its noise becomes so artificial as to descend into deep self-parody. However, at least neither is grating to listen to. Indeed, the Ford’s sound is engaging in a way you’d not expect of a four-cylinder diesel, however much its voice was trained in a semi-anechoic chamber.
Of the two, the Ford feels faster, even though it probably isn’t. Its throttle map is sharper than the 308’s even when the latter is in Sport, while the Peugeot’s six-speed automatic gearbox inevitably introduces some slack into the driveline.However, perhaps the bigger point here is that all three do just about enough to stand up to their sporting credentials. None is going to set your world alight, but all operate close to the bounds of expectation.
Try to really enjoy driving them, though, and great chasms are rent between them. The Seat really isn’t any fun to drive at all. It’s quick and capable across country and seems to suffer not at all for its estate body; you could argue that its single biggest error is a slightly over-assisted brake pedal. Even so, there is no joy here, no anticipation of an interesting journey. Few cars have less steering feel – even fewer if you only consider those with sporting pretentions – so you’ll never feel involved beyond the level of mere operator.
The 308 flatters to deceive, and that’s if you forgive the frankly silly steering wheel with its tiny diameter and needlessly thick rim. At gentle efforts there’s a meatiness to the steering you’ll not find in the Seat. It even seems superficially agile, at least until you give it some proper work to do, at which point its composure simply crumbles. Peugeot is one of the very few manufacturers to persist with a torsion beam rear axle in a car of this class and cost, and the short-sightedness of such a cost-cutting philosophy becomes apparent on any decent road tackled with even modest enthusiasm.
What it lacks most is body control, manifested in a degree of float and wallow that’s always undesirable, if not ever quite disconcerting. There’s an absence, too, of that sophistication required to dispatch with ease combination challenges such as being asked to turn across the crest of a hill. It is hard to imagine an owner electing to drive his 308 SW GT purely for fun.
Not so, the Focus. Indeed, and in one regard at least, it’s a better-handling car than the revered petrol Focus ST, because some of that car’s extreme on-limit exuberance has been engineered out. In its place comes a poise the Peugeot would simply not recognise and a willingness to change direction that’s at least equally anathema to the Seat. Here is a fast diesel estate that’s delighted to tune its attitude through a corner according to the way your right foot doles out the power.
Partly, however, this has been achieved by choosing far firmer suspension settings than those used on the Seat and Peugeot. You notice them not only in its firmer ride quality but also its traction in the wet, or lack thereof. The Focus is not an uncomfortable car and its primary body control is clearly the best, but a little more secondary absorption would be welcome, too.
The Seat is the best-riding car here, by some margin. It has enough suppleness in its springs to breathe over the road surface, yet sufficient discipline to be a stranger to unwanted body movements. As already noted, not only does the 308 struggle to maintain its ride height, but it also picks up everyday imperfections that would have been sponged into oblivion by the Seat. It’s easy to look at that pound shop rear suspension as the culprit, but we see no more plausible explanation.
So which should you and your family travel in? Unless load capacity is key, in which case the uncommonly commodious Peugeot is the only option, the choice is between the Ford and the Seat. We’d opt for the latter, even though its engine noise is a mild impediment to long-distance refinement. The rear compartment of the 308 is disappointing, offering neither the leg nor head room of either rival and the most poorly shaped back seats. The Ford’s thick Recaro seats mean the Leon has a fraction more rear leg room, but if you are after the car that will best support those in the front in all conditions, it is the Focus to which you should turn.
Should that earn the Focus the win here? Not on its own, but when coupled with its excellent engine and brilliant chassis, the combination is enough to earn the Ford a comfortable victory. The point is that it’s good enough at all the humdrum stuff to absolutely punch its weight in the showroom, yet it is also the one car here you might find yourself taking for an early-morning drive.
Possibly the more interesting question, though, is which car should come second. It’s an interesting one, because some readers might by now assume that any car based on an MQB platform, fitted with the correct
rear suspension, would be either
the one to beat or, at the very least,
the safe runner-up.
In fact, the Peugeot runs the
Ford close, not just because it has a bigger load bay and a better engine
but also because its interior quality smacks of real boundary-breaking progress. In this respect, the Seat remains as happy as ever to take whatever recipe is handed down by VW, unmodified by little more than a stir of the corporate soup. It’s lucky for Seat, then, that its raw material
is so inherently capable and luckier still that the Peugeot is so let down by its chassis both in terms of its ride and handling.
So, I’ll give second spot to the Leon, with the 308 a flawed but honourable third. In truth, neither was ever going to trouble the Focus ST. That car is the first truly enjoyable and affordable diesel-powered estate and, although it will never be given the credit for it, perhaps the most capable crossover of them all.
Read Autocar's previous comparison - Porsche 911 GT3 versus 911 GTS and Cayman GTS
Ford Focus ST-2 TDCi Estate
Price £24,795; Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, turbodiesel; Power 182bhp at 3500rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1488kg; Top speed 135mph; 0-62mph 8.3sec; CO2 rating and tax band 110g/km, 18%
Seat Leon FR 2.0 TDI Estate
Price £23,815; Engine 4 cyls, 1968cc, turbodiesel; Power 181bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 280lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1415kg; Top speed 142mph; 0-62mph 7.8sec; CO2 rating and tax band 112g/km, 18%
Peugeot 308 SW GT BlueHDi 180
Price £26,845; Engine 4 cyls, 1997cc, turbodiesel; Power 177bhp at 3750rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1425kg; Top speed 135mph; 0-62mph 8.6sec; CO2 rating and tax band 107g/km, 17%
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