– Stunning design
– Strong turbo engine
– Supercar handling
– Awkward auto gearbox
– Somewhat firm ride
– No proper cup-holders
Anything launched by Peugeot is worth waiting for, but not because it is necessarily a great car. It’s because Peugeot has a knack for incorporating extraordinary design ideas into mainstream cars. The ubiquitous French brand that has been quietly making its mark on the GCC market, acting as a quirky European alternative to the usual Japanese choices. And the new-for-2008 Peugeot 308 thankfully continues to be quirky, even more so than the 307 it replaces.
This compact hatchback is way more flamboyant than a commuter car should be, and that is part of its appeal. The huge windshield, pointy face and stepped butt all add up to a futuristic shape that hides its height well. However, the interior is more generic, with no stand-out design features other than an overkill of window glass.
The interior is pretty spacious up front, although rear legroom is only average for the class. The grippy cloth seats have soft bolsters, and the front ones are manually adjustable, while the rear bench offers good headroom. The good-sized luggage area is shorter than that of a sedan, but the available height makes up for it. There are small storage spaces around the cabin, but a glaring omission is the lack of real cup-holders up front.
Cabin materials include a nice rubbery dashboard which is soft to the touch. The upper door sills are also covered in thin rubber, but they simply cover hard plastic underneath. At least all armrests are padded to keep things comfortable. Chrome and metal-coloured plastic trim round off the styling. The build quality is solid, although a few panels do not line up.
Our mid-range “Premium” tester got standard features such as a fair-sounding CD stereo, trip computer, front and side airbags, keyless entry, power windows and electric mirrors, as well as a manual a/c. The a/c had to be constantly run at full blast in the summer heat, and all that glass area wasn’t helping matters. Higher models get a panoramic sunroof and cruise control, which our tester did not have.
Our tester also had a surprisingly spirited engine for a car in this class. When we first played with the 308, we were caught off-guard by its torquey response. It then hit us that these new models have a 140 hp 1.6-litre 4-cylinder with a turbocharger tacked on. Good luck to the salesmen explaining the definition of a turbocharger to yuppie buyers. The turbo makes itself heard with slight whooshing sounds. We clocked off a 0-to-100 kph time of 9.4 seconds with traction control off, which is better than any similar car we can think of, although we still expected better. However, the turbo engine has some serious low-rev kick that “sporty” Honda owners would be envious of, obviously due to the 240 Nm of torque available from only 1400 rpm. The mild downside is a fuel economy figure of 11.2 litres per 100 km, which is almost touching midsize-sedan levels, although it could just be due to the maxed-out a/c.
We weren’t fans of the outdated 4-speed automatic gearbox. It is smooth, but a bit lazy compared to the solid engine. There is a manual-shift mode, but its reactions are delayed, and it still automatically shifts by itself sometimes. The manual version is probably a better drive, and gets an extra 10 hp too, but it is not available in the GCC.
It is easy to cruise around town in the 308 though, with good all-round visibility and rear sensors to help parking, but the steering is overly firm. Quietness on the highway is about average for its class, matching the likes of Civics and Corollas, but not the well-padded Focus. The ride quality is more on the firm side, and more so than any of its competitors. It is bearable and never gets too harsh on paved roads.
The reason for the relatively hard suspension is the uncannily razor-sharp handling. The 308 is in fact the most amazing handler we’ve ever encountered in the affordable compact class, edging out the well-balanced Focus and obliterating the Civic, let alone other lesser cars. There is almost no body roll even in the sharpest of turns, while grip levels are so high that the 205/55 tyres on 16-inch wheels feel like much wider rubber. The firm steering has very good feedback from the road, and the ABS-assisted disc brakes have good pedal feel and are strong enough for this small car. We were surprised by the lack of understeer. Yanking the steering wheel sharply and flooring the accelerator pedal barely lets the tyres break out squealing, unlike what we’d expect from other front-driven compacts. All in all, the front-wheel-drive 308 can almost give the overpriced Mini a run for its money as a family-friendly go-kart alternative. However, the point to remember is that the Focus handles almost as well, but also rides a fair bit more comfortably.
It is remarkable that Peugeot chose to equip their commuter car with evocative styling, a nut-crunching turbo and supercar suspension, which leaves us scratching our heads. A typical compact-car buyer will be happy with dullard styling, a simple fuel-efficient engine and comfortable suspension. The 308 feels more like a budget racer, and comes standard with add-ons that younger drivers of Japanese econo-boxes usually spend heavily on upgrading. Strange, but oddly appealing.