Once upon a time, '30'-series Peugeots were a visual cut above the mainstream, with automotive historians fondly remembering the sweeping 301 and 302 models of the Thirties or even the Pininfarina-designed 305 that sustained the brand into the Eighties. Since then, it's hard to think of any compact family Peugeot that's made much of a driveway statement - until this one perhaps. It's slightly wider, slightly shorter and slightly lower than its predecessor, with shorter overhangs that push the wheels nearer to the four corners of an all-new modular EMP2 platform so sophisticated that it required no fewer than 116 patents.
The handsome front end features a sculpted bonnet with distinctive swage lines that flow into sharky headlights offering LED lamps on plusher versions. The overall effect is a look that's confident, yet modern and restrained - which is exactly what you need if you're trying to push your company upmarket a bit. In the lower area of the front bumper, a wide air intake is framed by foglamps that incorporate directional indicators and are set into a C-shaped chromed surround.
Moving back past the pebble-shaped door mirrors with their neat built-in LED turn lights, two strong character lines flow into a toned triangular rear three quarter panel that sits above subtly bulging rear haunches. The slim rear screen looks smart too, as do the small but intricately formed rear light clusters that when lit, illuminate a distinctive 'three-lion-claw' visual signature. Overall, there's a pleasingly understated maturity about the styling on offer here. It's not trying too hard. We like that.
Sizewise, Peugeot clearly believes that less is more. In fact, we can't recall the last time we heard a manufacturer crow about the fact that its latest car was the smallest in its class - yet that's exactly what's on offer here. At only 4.25m long, this 308 is fully 12cm shorter than a Focus from this era - and it's shorter than an equivalent Golf too. Yet a larger 2.62 metre wheelbase and those restricted front and rear overhangs combine to ensure that cabin space standards remain class-competitive, pretty much the same as was the case with the MK1 model 308 in fact. You'll prove the point if you pull back one of the wide-opening doors and take a seat in the back.
Here, as usual in this class, there's reasonable space for two adults but three will be cramped and kneeroom all-round could be better. Specify your car with the full-length cielo glass roof I have here and there's the bonus of an airy-feeling atmosphere but the downside is the way the arrangement robs taller passengers of those last few millimetres of headroom. On the plus side though, plusher variants like this one get a centre armrest-mounted ski-hatch that also lets rear seat passengers reach back for items they may have left in the boot.
Moving from people space to package room, let's consider the boot, accessible via a low loading sill and a wider opening and 22% bigger than before. How can the smallest car in its segment offer the largest trunk? Answers on a postcard please. In total, there's 470-litres on offer back here, provided you include the useful 35-litre underfloor section with its useful divided storage compartments in that calculation. Overall, we're talking here of a space 25% bigger than that of a Volkswagen Golf, 35% larger than that of a Vauxhall Astra and a whopping 50% roomier than that of a Ford Focus. If you really need to maximise that trip to IKEA, you can use the optional ski hatch or fold the 60/40-split seats down completely and realise the full 1309-litre maximum loading capacity. No, the seats don't fold fully flat - the backrests simply flop onto the seat bases - but given the amount of space that's delivered, it seems churlish to grumble. If you do need more, then you'll need to talk to your dealer about the 308SW estate model.
Take a place in one of the very comfortable seats up front in what Peugeot rather pretentiously calls the 'i-Cockpit' and four things are immediately apparent: quality, lack of button clutter, the big centre-dash LCD infotainment screen and, most notably, the tiny steering wheel above which (rather than through which) you're supposed to view the instruments with their finely sculpted red needles. Let's start with that, part of an arrangement first seen on the smaller 208 supermini but more effectively delivered here because it's easier to see the high-mounted dial pack above the wheel rim. Yes, it's a bit of a culture shock. Yes, you'll eventually get to like it. Yes, you should ignore whinging journalists who don't.
With that issue out of the way, you can start to look around the cabin and try and appreciate what Peugeot has tried to do with the interior of this 308. With the possible exception of the rather incongruous-looking over-sized gear knob, it's all very nice indeed, with lovely touches like the Aston Martin-style contra-rotating rev counter. Plenty of soft-touch plastics and cool chrome finishes mean that the quality's certainly a cut above what you'd expect from a model priced against rivals from Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota and Renault. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by that. After all, Peugeot owns the company - Faurecia - that produces many of the premium quality interior furnishings you get in posh German cars.
Jump into this model after familiarisation with an Astra or a Focus and you'll wonder where all the buttons have gone. There's a small central cluster of them in front of the gearstick for locking, heated rear window and hazard lights - and that's about it. Otherwise, everything's been relocated to the 9.7-inch colour LCD touchscreen that's standard on all but baseline models and dominates the centre of the dash. Whether you think that this is a good thing will depend of your point of view. The functions aren't as immediately intuitive as the usual knobs and dials of course and personally, I'd have separated the ventilation controls back out onto the dash. It's a bit annoying after all, to have to switch screens and jab away at a touchscreen every time you want to tweak the fan or alter the cabin temperature.
Having said that, the set-up works well once you're used to it, featuring sat nav as standard, along with access to vehicle settings, Bluetooth 'phone functions, a stereo system which can include a 6.9GB Jukebox as well as a photo viewer and various optional driving aids, plus a selection of downloadable Peugeot Connect Apps. To activate and select from these, you'll need to pay an annual subscription which gets you a so-called 'Plug&Play 3G' key that slots into the USB port you'll find the glovebox. You'll then be able to get yourself apps telling you everything from the nearest parking space to traffic information, weather and tourist tips. The Coyote app's worth downloading too, a crowd-sourced warning system that briefs you on highway hold-ups, danger points and speed traps already encountered by over 2 million other road users.
That only leaves cabin practicalities: the decently-sized 12-litre air conditioned glovebox. Door bins that can take a large 1.5-litre water bottle. A centre console with a sliding cover revealing a cupholder which can be swivelled out of the way so you can stash away wallets and 'phones. Plus there's a useful shelf directly under the central touchscreen that's ideal for iPods and MP3 players. Finally, I should mention the fact that you have to have an electric parking brake, not normally a feature I'm in favour of. This one though, is automatic and disengages without requiring a push - which is a big plus in its favour.
What To Look For
We came across quite a few reliability and quality issues in our RCZ ownership survey, so you'll need to shop carefully on the used market. We came across reports of squeaky brakes, rattly exhausts, internal rattles, a grinding sound on brake application and a knocking sound on the front suspension. On one car, the hill start brake kept sticking on and the overheating warning light kept illuminating. On another, the owner experienced oil leaks, water leaks, had to fit two new clutches and experienced faults with the sat nav and the stereo. One car had its thermostat sensor fail, had an oil leak from the gearbox and had to have sections of its exterior chromework replaced. On another, the cylinder head had to be replaced, along with the coms module, the boot release, the sat nav screen and the temperature sensor.
(approx based on a 2015 TCZ 1.6 THP 200 excl. VAT) A pair of brake pads are between £27-£43 for cheap brands and up to around £55 if you want an expensive make. A pair of brake discs start in the £33 to £38 bracket, but you can pay up to £58 or even up to around £90 for pricier brands. A drive belt is around £7-£12 but you can pay up to £72 for pricier brands. Air filters sit in the £9-£14 bracket. Oil filters cost between £3 and £6 depending on brand. A fuel filter is around £5-£7. A wiper blade is around £17. A headlamp is around £100 but you can pay up to £166 for pricier brands.
Peugeots of this size used to be defined by the way they drove: the promise is that this one can be once more. We'll see. There are certainly plenty of car enthusiasts dying for that to happen, people who'll be encouraged by the lithe agility promised by the huge 140kg weight reduction this design enjoys over its predecessor. People too, whose first impressions will be positive as they settle in behind the small low-set steering wheel that's now an established brand trademark and peer above it at a slick-looking dial pack. It all works much better than it did when the brand first tried this kind of layout in the smaller 208 supermini, more of the instruments now being visible. Those who remember the old 307 won't be left with that feeling of being perched on a bar stool, while folk trading up from the original 308 will appreciate better visibility and comfier seats. In other words the first signs are largely promising.
Further pleasant surprises come when you start to press on a bit. Although the electrically-assisted steering and supple suspension at first lull you into thinking the 308 is a bit of a confection from the sweet trolley, drive the car a bit harder and it really ups its game. That ability to mirror your mood is a rare quality in mainstream family hatches which can often be a little two-dimensional. The Golf has it and so does the Focus. You could also argue a case for the Mazda3 and the SEAT Leon, but that's about it. In other words, when it comes to contenders in this segment that really could be classed as being enjoyable to drive, this 308 joins an exclusive club. Yes, the curious driving position with its wheel positioned down towards your lap seems strange at first, but you quickly adjust as pesky roundabouts become wrist-flick chicanes.
Is a Focus that bit more responsive? Probably. After all, this Peugeot lacks the kind of Torque Vectoring system that helps the Ford gets its power down through the corners. But thanks in part to the stiffness of its new EMP2 platform and tenacious front end grip, this 308 runs the class leader surprising close, both in terms of handling and, perhaps more surprisingly, when it comes to ride quality. The Focus, after all, once again has a better technical CV with fancy multi-link rear suspension that over bumpier surfaces ought to set it streets ahead of this Peugeot's simpler twist-beam rear axle set-up. In the event, the 308 more than holds its own with a supple ride quality that's upset only by the largest potholes. Yes, there's a slight softness to the ride but it's not that sloppy, portliness that affects many bigger French cars. I'd go as far as to say that this Gallic contender actually betters its Ford rival around town where it helps that the turning circle (10.4m) has been reduced by a useful 30cms. The steering response feels good at those kinds of speeds - which is some compensation for the slight lack of feel you get when you're cornering a little more quickly.
Less impressive than the ride and handling balance is the gearshift quality. Feebler engines get five speed manual 'boxes while the more modern units get six ratios: either way, the whole cog-swapping process could be more precise. For those preferring not to attempt it, there's the option further up the range of a redeveloped 6-speed auto that's supposed to make up in smoothness what it lacks in fancy twin-clutch technology. I've got a six-speed manual here, fitted as standard to the variant that'll probably be the UK's strongest seller, the 115bhp 1.6 e-HDi diesel. It's only a few hundred pounds more than the base 92bhp 1.6-litre HDi diesel starter model but offers a useful extra turn of speed (0-62mph in 10.2s en route to 121mph) without any real running cost penalty thanks to the 6th gear ratio and 'Stop & Start' system you get as part of the 'e-HDi' package.
The future of diesel motoring though, lies beyond these engines with Peugeot's pricier Euro 6-compatible'BlueHDi' technology, which is at its most efficient in 120bhp 1.6-litre form. As you might expect, the performance is very similar to that of the 1.6-litre e-HDi variant I'm trying here but the efficiency returns are in a different league that no eco-minded diesel rival can match. You can also go 'BlueHDi' 308 motoring in 2.0-litre 150bhp form but the on-paper performance advantages are tiny and the running costs are much higher, so unless you really need the extra torque for towing or something, I'd save your money.
On to petrol power. To be frank, it's refreshing to find a car in this class that can still offer a truly credible and realistically-priced petrol-engined option these days - but you'll find one here. Not, it must be said, at either the top or the bottom of the range. The baseline 82bhp 1.2 VTi unit is really better suited to the smaller 208 model, its three cylinders reluctantly dragging 1.4-tonnes of 308 to 62mph in 13.3s on the way to a strained maximum of 107mph. Go to the other extreme - the 1.6-litre THP petrol turbo borrowed from the old MINI Cooper - and you'll not want for performance, but you'll pay for it at the pumps when you compare against the best of the comparable competition. The 125bhp version makes 62mph in 10.4s en route to 126mph, while the 156bhp variant improves those figures to 8.4s and 132mph. You can go even faster too, a 266bhp version of this engine powering the top 308R hot hatch to the 62mph benchmark in around 6 seconds.
Back in the real world though, I'd council you to ignore all of these green pump options and instead focus on one of the best petrol powerplants you can buy - not only in this car but, I'd suggest, in this entire segment of the market. The 1.2 e-THP unit may only offer three cylinders but it punches well above its weight, whether you choose it in 5-speed 110bhp or 6-speed 130bhp guise. The far more affordable and slightly more economic lower-powered version's the one to choose, offering a 10s 0-62mph sprint time just a second slower than its pokier stablemate and a 120mph top speed that's exactly the same.
Peugeot isn't just building a car with this 308. It's building a reputation. For too long, this much-loved brand lost sight of what made people want its products. Now, it's setting out to build desirable machines once more, models that aren't simply playing catch up or trying to copy the big sellers. Sure enough, this is vehicle with a definite feel of its own. It's not going to appeal to everybody but it is now a car that the company can rightly feel proud of - a contender good enough to worry the best in the business.
After all, it gets so many things so right. French family hatchbacks in this class haven't always been able to justify themselves, either in terms of quality or in the harder discipline of pounds and pence running costs, but this one excels in both these areas. Then there's the driving experience. Gallic models have traditionally pleased either the petrolhead or the passenger: rarely both. This car manages that balance too. And, despite compact dimensions, it also has the largest boot in the class.
Drawbacks? There aren't too many at all. Rear seat accommodation could be better. Not everyone will like the infotainment touchscreen - or the fact that you can't have it in entry-level trim. And years of premium product development will be needed before residuals can fully match those of a rival Volkswagen Golf - but then you can allow for that with more affordable up-front pricing. Overall though, what's on offer here is a car that looks set to restore Peugeot's reputation for building elegant, comfortable and understated vehicles. A car that finally makes good on the brand's upmarket aspirations. It's been a long time coming.