FIVE years ago, Peugeotís 308 failed to go beyond the first knock-out stage of COTY.
Overpriced, inconsistent and so obviously flawed in too many areas, the French attempt to portray the 308 as Euro-premium was almost laughable.
It may not have a new name, but Peugeotís second-generation 308 is crucially significant and climbed onto the podium in this yearís competition.
The transformation from also-ran to near class leading competitor represents a huge investment by backs-to-the-wall Peugeot.
The 308 brings a new lightweight modular architecture, a palpable increase in quality, and an outpouring of fresh technology, all intended to confirm Peugeotís position as a credible manufacturer of family hatchbacks. Using as its sole benchmark the VW Golf Ė last yearís Wheels COTY winner Ė the all-new 308 therefore strives to match the best.
The new EMP2 platform, shared with the Citroen C4 Picasso, uses improved assembly and broader use of aluminium, high-strength steels and composite thermoplastic for various panels, for a massive 140kg weight reduction. The base model is a mere 1090kg, making it the lightest car in the class, to the obvious benefit of performance and economy, as well as handling.
Happily, the overhangs (for too long a Peugeot failing) have shrunk Ė redesigning the 308ís engine cooling systems has allowed 63mm to be taken out of the front overhang Ė while the wheelbase has grown 12mm to 2620mm on the hatchback. Wider tracks and a 62mm reduction in height accounts for what Peugeot calls a lower longitudinal roll axis, as well as a lower centre of gravity, which itís claimed allows for softer spring rates for more compliance, to the clear benefit of ride comfort. The EMP2 platformís reduced unsprung weight also helps.
Peugeot being Peugeot, with a history (from the 403 in the 1950s) of stretched wagons, the wheelbase of the 308 Touring (wagon) is 110mm longer than the hatchís, while the rear overhang is 220mm longer.
The reconfigured layout increases the load space, adds wider rear doors and brings a much-needed boost to rear legroom (an obvious fault of the hatchback).
The result is a boot capacity below the parcel shelf of 660 litres (the hatch is 435) and a seats-folded area of 1660 litres, better than all its rivals except the Skoda Octavia. The 60/40 split rear seats are also designed to drop automatically at the tug of a lever and fold virtually flat thanks to automatically lowering seat cushions.
The powertrain and model line-up are extensive, or will be later this year when a 110kW 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol, a 151kW GT version of the same engine, and a 133kW 2.0-litre turbo-diesel join the range. For COTY we were confined to the entry-level three-cylinder turbocharged 1.2-litre (96kW at 5500rpm and 230Nm at 1750rpm, with 95 percent of its torque available from just 1500rpm) and a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel (110kW at 3750rpm and 370Nm at 2000rpm).
It quickly became obvious during COTY testing that the new triple is the definitive 308: itís better mannered, more refined and easier to drive than the 2.0-litre diesel, with a degree of flexibility, combined with ultra-tall gearing, that is truly astonishing, plus real-world economy to rival the diesel.
This remarkable engine also demonstrates how taking weight out of a car can make a real difference to the handling.
The proof that Peugeot is finally serious about Australia comes with the pricing: the six-speed manual Access begins at $21,990 (plus $2000 for the superb six-speed Aisin automatic), which brings six airbags, Bluetooth and audio streaming, and idle-stop. Thatís a staggering $4000 below
PEUGEOT del iberately delay the Austr alian launch of the new 308 to ensur e the Ai sin six-speed automat ic was available. It ís a superb unit, mult i-talente d in its smooth shif ti ng, and intelligent in its upshif ts and kickdown timing in ĎDí. Spor t sharpens shift times a nd happily downshift s at high revs. Itís also responsive and compliant in ma nual mo de. A perfect match for t he lit tle tr iple.
the 308ís entry price in 2008. The range moves through the $27,340 Active (with 9.7-inch touchscreen, hill assist, dual-zone climate control, centre front armrest and leather steering wheel) to the $30,490 Allure. It will peak with the Allure Premium pack that goes on sale later in 2015 and brings active cruise control, blind-spot monitors, a reversing camera and navigation.
Despite the Golf yardstick, the 308 retains a (much modified) torsion beam mounted on trailing arms for its rear suspension, rather than the independent, multi-link rear of the Golf (and Mazda 3 and Ford Focus). A new pick-up point design and relocation of the dampers allows the rear wheels to move through a slightly curved range instead of a strictly vertical movement. Peugeot says impact forces are now transmitted longitudinally as well as upwards into the body for a smoother, quieter ride.
From the 1950s through to the mid-90s, Peugeots worked brilliantly on Australian roads. Long-travel suspension and clever damping allowed some well-remembered body roll, but the wonderful ride quality and lack of road noise were more than compensation. Then Peugeot attempted to match the Focus for handling, merely by firming up the suspension. The result was a disaster, in driving terms and sales numbers. The new 308 signifies a return to great-riding Peugeots and brings the dynamic sophistication required to survive comparison with cars such as the Golf.
Before we mention the dynamics, thereís a quirky aspect to the 308ís high-quality interior that directly impacts the carís manners. The 308 persists in Peugeotís attempt to sell customers on a very different driving position that polarised the judges. Some found it annoying but adapted to the very low and small steering wheel, while others found it impossible to accept the compromises demanded and insisted it was an unforgiveable flaw.
The instrument cluster pokes over the steering wheel and, on all models from the Active up, most of the controls and buttons are relocated to an easy-to-use touchscreen, so the dashboard looks minimalist. Raise the wheel, as some judges insisted, and it blocks the instruments.
Nevertheless, with the tiny wheel positioned between the driverís thighs, the 308 is agile and brilliantly manoeuvrable at low speeds. The faster you drive, the more responsive the car behaves. An artificial weighting is introduced to provide stability, but it takes familiarisation to know how much steering effort you need to apply. The 308ís steering wheel is so small that only tiny inputs are required for a complete change of direction, and some judges claimed it becomes almost too responsive.
The base car, on 16-inch rubber, rides the way French cars should; supple and compliant, with low levels of tyre noise.
Models with 18-inch alloys increase road roar and donít absorb bumps anything like as well, while the extra weight of the diesel engine is all too obvious as it introduces understeer and activates the ESC. Drive the 308 diesel hard and youíll also notice thereís more body roll than its German-engineered rivals, while its ESC calibration isnít totally effective in the wet.
There is so much to like about the 308.
Beyond its vaguely conservative, even Germanic styling, which lacks the flair and distinctiveness we expect from the French, in 1.2-litre form especially this is a credible, pliant, fluent-handling car with plenty of Gallic character that deserves to succeed. That it doesnít quite match the Golf is no sin, but it did harm the 308ís chance of stepping to the top of the podium. Believe us, Peugeot is back.
PEUGEOTíS superb 1.2-litre turbo is the highl ight of PSAís PureTech family of petrol triple s, which includes 1.0-litre and 1.2-litre naturally aspirated versions. A ll employ direct injection for power outputs from 50-96kW. More than 250 engineers worked on the project, which generated 121 patent applications. Major achievements include a 30 percent reduct ion in friction (which nor m ally consumes about 20 percent of an eng ineís power) and an 18 percent reduct ion in fuel consumption over the outgoing 1.6-lit re normally aspirated four.
BODY Type 5-door hatch/5-door wagon, 5 seats L/W/H 4253/1804/1457mm (hatch); 4585/1863/1472mm (wagon) Wheelbase 2620/2730mm Tracks 1553-1557mm (f); 1559-1563mm (r) Boot capacity 435-625 litres Weight 1090-1420kg DRIVETRAIN Layout front engine (east-west), FWD Engines 1199cc 3cyl turbo (96kW/230Nm); 1997cc 4cyl turbo-diesel (110kW/370Nm) Transmissions 6-speed manual; 6-speed automatic CHASSIS Brakes ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r) Tyres 195/65R15 Ė 225/40R18 Spare space-saver ADR81 fuel consumption 4.1-6.5L/100km Greenhouse emissions 107-150g/km Front airbags Side airbags Curtain airbags Knee airbags Collision mitigation OPT Crash rating 5-star (Euro NCAP) Prices $21,990 Ė $37,490 3-year retained value 60-63% Service interval 12 months/15,000km