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Peugeot needs its all-new family hatch to be a hit. Is it up to the job?

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.

The Peugeot 308 bears the same as its predecessor, but it's a brand new car on a brand new platform

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 (Peugeot 208, Peugeot 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.

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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.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Peugeot 308 rear

The 308 is brand new right from the platform upwards and even has a range of new Euro 6-compliant ‘BlueHDi’ engines, the most frugal of which will endow it with 91mpg economy and hybrid-beating CO2 emissions and should make it one of the most fuel-efficient new cars in the real world.

There’s evidence of carefully hewn substance throughout this car. Peugeot admits that it aimed for a visual impression of quality and refinement and doesn’t demur from acknowledging any similarity with the Volkswagen Golf. That’s a bit disappointing, if only because greater distinctiveness is expected from a French car. But that noted, the 308’s is a tidy and generally appealing design.

The Peugeot's unitary underbody is rich in high-strength steels

The car’s EMP2 platform imposes a familiar layout: transverse engine and gearbox up front and front-wheel drive, with strut suspension for the front wheels and a torsion beam mounted on trailing arms at the rear.

The platform itself is 70kg lighter than the old PF2 structure, while the 308’s body-in-white is also 70kg lighter than before. Greater use of high-strength steels, more precise joining techniques and the adoption of aluminium and composite thermoplastic for various panels and closures sees to that.

Redesigning the 308’s engine cooling systems has allowed 63mm to be taken out of the front overhang. The car is 30mm shorter than the previous 308, the remaining 33mm of usable space going into a bigger boot.

The rolling chassis uses wider tracks than its predecessor and it suspends a car with a lower roofline and a corresponding 20mm lower longitudinal roll axis. Peugeot says this allows softer spring rates for a more compliant ride without increasing body roll. Changes have also been made to the torsion beam rear end.

The latest Peugeot 308’s suspension – shared in essence with the Citroën C4 Picasso, which is also based on PSA’s new EMP2 platform – is all new and, with less unsprung mass than that of the outgoing 308, well placed to deliver a more competitive ride and handling package for the car.

One of the key improvements made to the rear suspension – a torsion beam configuration suspended via trailing arms – is a reappraisal of the direction in which the rear wheels travel when they hit a bump and the relocation of the dampers that ultimately absorb that bump.

A redesign of the suspension pick-up points allows the rear wheels a slightly curved range of movement instead of a strictly vertical one. That means that when bigger ‘bump-thump’ forces come into the equation, they are transmitted longitudinally as well as upwards into the bodyshell, making for a smoother and quieter ride.

INTERIOR

Peugeot 308 interior

Given that the 308 shares its architecture with the Citroën C4 Picasso, there are similarities in the cabin between the two models.

It’ll become a regular PSA theme: both cars have ditched cabin switches and clutter to gain a cleaner, classier look inside. And just as we liked the way that worked in the C4, so, too, do we appreciate it in the 308.

I like the small steering wheel itself, but it creates too much compromise when it comes to the instruments and control layouts

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the centre stack panel, where you’d usually find a plethora of heating and radio buttons. Instead, beneath the large central touchscreen that provides all the ancillary controls, you’re presented with a piece of plastic that offers no more distraction than a classy radio volume knob and a strip of chrome.

Perceived material quality is, by and large, a strong feature of the 308’s interior. Plastics are pleasing to the eye, metallic highlights are used liberally and work well, and the resolution and design of the central monitor look to-the-minute modern.

We still don’t rate the adoption of a small-diameter steering wheel as a total success, though. The idea of it is sound enough and the wheel itself turns pleasingly in your hands, but the instrument binnacle is obscured for too many drivers.

Taking a pair of conventional dials, placing them a touch further from each other and raising them a couple of inches isn’t a sufficiently acceptable solution to the problems created by the small wheel.

That aside, accommodation and ergonomics are mostly good in the front, but rear accommodation is less impressive. Young children will be able to get comfortable, but there’s more legroom in key competitors such as the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.

On the equipment front there are five core 308 trims and one bespoke level for the 308 GTi. The entry-level bestows steel wheels, LED day-running-lights, air conditioning, cruise control, DAB radio, and Bluetooth and USB connectivity as standard, while going up to Active adds 16in alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control, automatic lights and wipers, and Peugeot's 9.7in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav.

Upgrading to the Allure trim adds parking sensors at the front, LED headlights, electrically folding mirrors and an electronic parking brake, while the GT Line models adds niceties such as scrolling indicators, 18in alloy wheels, LED front foglights, privacy glass and a reversing camera.

The range-topping GT-trimmed 308 comes with a sculpted bodykit, lowered suspension, keyless entry and go plus numerous autonomous safety technology. Those pining for more power can opt for the 268bhp 308 GTi, which also gets a beefy bodykit including sporty side skirts, front bumpers and rear diffuser, alongside 19in alloy wheels, lower and wider track, a Torsten limited slip differential and large twin exhaust system. Inside there is dual-zone climate control, numerous interior GTi decals, lumbar adjustment, and half-leather/half-Alcantara sports seats with massage function.

PSA’s big central screen works well in the 308. It takes a few minutes of familiarisation, but then you’re away. Less pleasing is that you have to delve into the menu to find the heater controls. It’s a faff not to find it on the dashboard, noble though the effort of cleaning up the cabin otherwise is.

That aside, everything is laid out for the most part logically and with fine, high-resolution graphics. From a communications perspective, all of our testers found their phone paired easily with the Bluetooth connection and that functionality was good.

A clear set-up for the navigation is offered. It's simple enough to set where you want to go, and lo, it takes you there. Happy days. Traffic info isn’t as clever as, say, BMW’s or Audi's, but not many systems are.

Peugeot's radio and music player controls are also well laid out. As well as the solo dashboard button, there’s an additional column stalk for the most commonly used audio controls. Music players connect well, which is just as well as Peugeot asks £80 in return for providing a CD player.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Peugeot 308 side profile

As with the majority of modern hatchbacks, Peugeot's engine range comprises a selection of efficiency-orientated petrol and diesel engines.

Petrol engines range from an 81bhp, 1.2-litre three-cylinder to the usual 1.6-litre turbo with 203bhp, with interesting 108 and 128bhp 1.2-litre turbo triples making up the rest of the petrol range. Diesels include 1.6-litre units of 99 and 118bhp outputs, while the range is completed with a pair of 2.0-litre HDis - producing 148bhp and 178bhp respectively.

The Peugeot's engine is transversely mounted and it drives the front wheels via a five or six-speed manual, or an optional six-speed automatic

Slowest is the 99bhp diesel. It's willing enough if you’re not in a particular hurry and don’t mind the considerable turbo lag when pulling out of tight bends. As it's cheaper, it may actually be preferable to the 118bhp version above it, which isn’t much of an improvement despite receiving the slicker six rather than five-speed gearbox.

Topping the 308 range is the GTi - which is powered by the same turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine found in the GT model and the 208 GTi, but with the wick essentially turned up so it produces a healthy 268bhp.

Gearboxes are five or six-speed manuals with a six-speed automatic coming later. It's a torque converter unit from Japan's Aisin, but the shift speed, quality and efficiency are boldly promised to mimic that of the best dual-clutchers.

With an even more advanced diesel engine on the horizon, it augurs well that the 308’s 1.6 e-HDi unit – the one many buyers may look to – is so competitive. Relative to that in an equivalent Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus, you’ll find the Peugeot is refined, responsive, flexible and economical. Punchy, even, compared with how some sub-100g/km fleet-targeted diesels can perform.

The engine reacts smartly when you ask for power at low revs and summons plenty of mid-range torque and a fair amount of top-end power for overtaking. Peugeot’s six-speed gearbox saves it from pulling longer intermediate ratios and drawing out in-gear progress, and the engine – which is well isolated and quiet at idle – remains well mannered and free of harshness as it spins under load.

The car’s sprint to 60mph was dispatched in 10.1sec, while 30-70mph in fourth – our usual flexibility benchmark – took 15.1sec. An equivalent Focus is more than half a second slower in the former respect, and a like-for-like Skoda Octavia is over four seconds slower in the latter.

Peugeot’s Dynamic Cruise Control is, however, worth mentioning. It's standard on Active models and we like the way it lets you save and select quick-reference speeds via the central touchscreen. But that’s about all we like.

The radar transceiver quickly falters in bad conditions, and without being able to actuate the brakes, the system simply drops out too often on an averagely busy motorway, even when set to maintain the longest possible gap to the car ahead.

RIDE & HANDLING

Peugeot 308 cornering

That this 308 has the dynamic sophistication to withstand direct comparison with the best-handling hatchbacks in Europe represents a sizeable victory for Peugeot.

The 307 never could, and the previous 308 fell even further away from the prevailing class standard.

The Peugeot's steering needs to be more intuitive and predictable

But things have changed. The new 308 feels like it belongs in the vanguard of the volume-selling compact family car class. It’s a car with a few flaws, but it’s particularly comfortable, more engaging than the hatchback norm and handles keenly and precisely – up to a point.

Peugeot’s ‘i-Cockpit’ downsized steering wheel is at once the car’s primary asset and the cause of its chief weakness. At typical urban speeds and while manoeuvring, it does make the car wieldy and manageable.

At higher speeds, however, that sense of agility is eroded slightly as the assistance ramps down and cloying control weight is introduced. This is done to deliver high-speed stability and to allow feedback through to the driver, but only a limited amount of it actually arrives at the rim.

The fundamental problem is that, while it does deliver quick responses, a small steering wheel makes a poor lever. The 308’s power steering seems to work hard at times to compensate for that lack of mechanical advantage – but at other times, not hard enough.

And so, even after a long phase of familiarisation, you’re still unsure exactly how much effort you’ll need to put in for any given change of direction.

At low speeds, the lack of weight and feedback never ceases to surprise you; at high speeds, an abundance of weight and sporadic feedback are your enemies, making it hard to guide the car precisely.

Aside from all that, the 308 rides with plenty of compliance, but its advancement here is likewise subject to caveat. Models with 18in alloys suffer from noticeable road roar and don’t glide over bumps quite as smoothly as smaller-wheeled 308s we’ve tested.

Given that larger rims will also exacerbate the steering weight issue we’ve described, we strongly recommend avoiding them. Do that and wider test experience suggests you’ll have one of the most refined cars of its ilk.

Drive the 308 hard and you’ll be acutely aware that Peugeot has tried to pull this car in opposing directions on the dynamic scale. A quick steering rack may add directness at low speeds, but agility and composure at the limit depend on much more – and that’s something the 308’s softened suspension springs can’t quite deliver.

The car doesn’t roll to particularly lurid angles, but its rate of roll could be better controlled. Committing to an apex means pushing through a small but annoying initial portion of sloppiness in the handling, before the same directness you experience at low speeds begins to materialise.

That thin layer of understeer remains to an extent even after lateral load has built into the chassis. As a result, the 308 never really serves the agility when leaned on that it promises when unhurried.

Underneath the smoke and mirrors, it lacks sharpness of response and a perfect balance of grip. And while the ESP works cleverly most of the time, it’s not always with the utmost effectiveness in the wet.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Peugeot 308

Peugeot, like a lot of major car makers, says it will provide fewer cars to daily fleets in order to aid residuals. We’ll see how that goes.

A below-average residual value forecast from market experts so far suggests that the used market is unconvinced by the 308. Predictably, the Volkswagen Golf rules the roost here.

It's a good car but the Peugeot – and many of its rivals – cannot match the all-round appeal and quality of the Volkswagen Golf

Opt for the 1.6-litre e-HDi and you'll average around 50mpg, which should please most buyers. In fact, most of the Peugeot's engines should prove frugal both in terms of consumption and road tax.

Reliability should prove good too, as the vast majority of components used are tried and tested, and the general standard of build quality feels of a high standard.

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VERDICT

Peugeot 308 rear quarter

There is much to like in the 308, such as an interior whose appearance and material finish is the equal of all in the class, and vastly improved dynamics over its predecessor, to the point that in one or two areas the Peugeot is vying for the class lead.

If refinement and a quality cabin are your priorities, the 308 puts forward as strong a case as any car in the sector.

The Peugeot 308 is an admirable, likeable effort. It's worthy of mention among the class best.

The gap to its rivals has been reduced neatly by the advances made in build quality, comfort, refinement and all-round appearance.

However, it isn’t all sweetness and light. Some familiar Peugeot niggles remain (there are some ergonomic foibles and filling the glovebox with fuses is unhelpful), which are coupled to less than generous rear legroom and inconsistent steering that hampers otherwise tidy dynamics.

Those things are significant enough to prevent the Peugeot 308 from challenging for the outright lead, but it joins its class appealingly close to the sharp end, but short of the Ford Focus, Seat Leon and the venerable Volkswagen Golf.

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Peugeot 308 2014-2021 First drives