Charging Pugs

Peugeot’s 308 R HYbrid concept takes a hot hatch foundation and raises the temperature to scorching point

WORDS JOHN CAREY PHOTOS NICOLAS LICARI

LL THAT glitters is not go. Many show cars sparkling under carefully aimed lights at major auto expos can’t be driven hard.

Some are engineless. Some can move under their own power, but are so fearsomely fragile they’re restricted to snail’s pace.

Not so Peugeot’s 308 R HYbrid. It may be French, but this is no escargot.

The hoarse, raspy exhaust pops as the tach needle kisses redline and I tap the right-hand paddle-shifter for fourth.

The electrically augmented surge of acceleration continues barely abated, and the speedometer is nearing 180km/h when the time arrives to hit the brakes.

This is the same car unveiled at the 2015 Shanghai show last April and exhibited again in September at Frankfurt. The fact that it can be driven – really driven – underlines exactly how serious Peugeot is about hyper-hybrid tech.

The plug-in petrol-electric drivetrain developed by Peugeot Sport, the French brand’s high-performance road and competition car subsidiary, is engineered more for excitement than efficiency.

Wheels was the only Australian media invited to an exclusive taste of the 308 R HYbrid at the Circuit du Var, a small 2.4km racetrack near the town of Le Luc in the south of France.

Peugeot’s claims for the 308 R HYbrid grab attention. This European C-segment hatch has up to 370kW and 730Nm, enough to whip the car from standstill to 100km/h in less than four seconds.

Providing the thrust is a 200kW 1.6-litre turbocharged four – the same Peugeot Sport-developed engine as in the highpower version of the new 308 GTi – plus two 85kW Bosch electric motors. One of these drives the rear wheels directly, making the 308 R HYbrid all-wheel drive.

The second electric motor drives the front wheels via the car’s six-speed transmission.

Both motors also function as generators during regenerative braking, replenishing a 3kWh lithium-ion battery pack from French company Saft beneath the rear seats.

A limited electrical storage capacity explains the way Peugeot Sport has configured the drivetrain’s operation.

Delivering the full 370kW with maximum electric boost sucks the battery dry very quickly. For this reason, maximum power and torque is accessible only from a standing start and once the driver has selected Launch Control mode. The small battery also limits the driving range in pure-electric ZEV mode, in which the rear motor propels the 308 R HYbrid to a limited 100km/h, for around 15km.

This hyper-hybrid is engineered more for excitement than efficiency

Production future

PEUGEOT Sport’s time and money investment in the 308 R HYbrid is substantial. The project was launched in April 2014 and by January the small team had a running development car. It has now covered more than 12,000km, including a tweeted July test drive by PSA Peugeot Citroen chief executive Carlos Tavares. Such sustained effort is usually a sign of things to come… The man in charge of Peugeot Sport’s road car programs, Pierre Budar, says it’s the drivetrain rather than the car that’s important: “We think seriously to produce a small series of this hybrid, not necessarily exactly as it is today…” It could go into “a new version of a Peugeot car”, presumably one built, like the 308, on the company’s new EMP2 platform. Budar isn’t saying.

Whatever is produced could have the same 370kW combined maximum power output as the 308 R HYbrid. “We could achieve it,” Budar confirms, “but we have to consider what is the best balance. Is it to have the highest power as we can? Or is it to have maybe less power, but better range?”

He’s not talking pure battery-powered range, but the distance over which it can deliver its maximum performance potential. “If the full power is a bit less, we may have a longer range when this power will be available.”

“We have the development car here to show you what is the current status,” Budar says. The objective is “to get the car in a good position to have a decision from the top management of Peugeot.”

1Robotised manual gearboxes are normally clunky, slow-shifting stinkers. But the one used The front electric motor bolted single-plate clutch is disengaged changes. Peugeot Sport hasn’t auto-shifting software for using paddle shifters is mandatory. xes in the 308 R HYbrid isn’t all that bad. olted to it provides torque while the ngaged for smoother and quicker sn’t had time to develop the six-speeder, so andatory.

2 Optimum temperature for the lithium-ion battery beneath rear seat is between 30° 50°C, say Peugeot engineers.

The strong heating effect of maximum discharge is countered by cool air sucked from the cabin and blown through the pack. r ath the and ers. d 3Despite the rear wheels being electric-powered, the 308 R HYbrid uses torsion-beam suspension.

This unusual combination compact, so cargo space is same as in a normal 308. n is the

In Hybrid mode the front electric motor is used to fill in the turbo’s torque curve at low revs, and to cover the pauses in delivery that occur as the robotised six-speeder shifts gears. The motor can also switch to its generator role to recharge the battery, using surplus power from the engine but only when the driver is holding the throttle steady and partly open.

Engaged by pressing a red button on the right-hand spoke of the steering wheel, Hybrid Sport mode makes 295kW available. There’s full power from the rear motor, while the front motor is restricted to adding a maximum of 10kW. This is to curb the rate of battery drain, thus providing a very high level of performance for a reasonable time – around 10 laps of the Circuit du Var, estimates 308 R HYbrid chief engineer Jean-Philippe Delaire.

At Delaire’s insistence, I swap the blue and black show car for the only other one in existence, a camouflaged car that has been running since January 2015. It has the latest ‘maximum potential’ version of the hybrid drivetrain. It also has the same 80mm-wider front and rear tracks as the show car, the same massive 235/35R19 Michelins, and Alcon brakes. Best of all, shorn of show-car bling, it’s 150kg lighter at around 1500kg, Delaire says.

It’s instantly obvious the black and white development car is more evolved. You can literally feel the extra engineering hours.

Gone, for example, is the weird tugging feedback through the steering at 60km/h that afflicted the show car.

The development car is quicker, too. The straight-line thrust in Hybrid Sport mode is both fierce and weird. What you hear is hot hatch, but what you feel is close to supercar quick. For one lap I select ZEV mode instead and discover that the 308 R HYbrid’s pure-electric mode isn’t what you’d call relaxed, especially out of slower corners.

There’s great potential in the chassis, too. Aided by regenerative braking, the stopping power of the friction brakes is great. Grip is at the elite level; those widened axles, and the excellent tyres they wear, spell flat, fast cornering. Close to neutral handling points to a sound chassis set-up. Only the steering feels like a work in progress. It’s darty just off centre and inconsistently weighted.

It may not be perfect, but the 308 R HYbrid is proof that Peugeot knows exactly how to create a new kind of super-heated hatch. The only problem, it seems, is figuring out how to produce it for much less than the sky-high cost of a sparkling show car.

Grip is at the elite level; those widened axles and excellent tyres spell flat, fast cornering