(Pocket-lint) - Peugeot is on a roll. After a decade or two of largely mediocre cars, the company has now given us the sassy 208, the Audi-TT-baiting RCZ, and the surprisingly practical 2008. Can the new Peugeot 308 continue the rejuvenation of The Lion?
It might not sell in as large a volume as the 208, but in many ways the 308 is the car that will define whether Peugeot is truly back or not. It competes head-on with what are arguably two of the best cars in the business: the VW Golf and the Ford Focus. We know there are people who can't stand either of those. We also know that - objectively - they're both brilliant.
With that in mind the Peugeot 308 needs to be seriously impressive to measure up. Does 'The Lion' roar once more?
For a long time, Peugeot held a carefully crafted position in the market, which - similar to Volkswagen - meant that Peugeots were never seen as a truly premium product. They're not in the same league as BMW or Merc but, nonetheless, Peugeot sat above the mainstream ranks of Ford and Renault. However, as the car market has changed over the past twenty years, Peugeot - in the eyes of most, anyway - simply became one of the mainstream.
But the recent new cars and this new 308 Allure show a change for the better. Today, what defines how premium customers think a car is comes mostly down to brand. But beyond that it's a car's design that does most to communicate premium pretentions. And the 308 shows a sort of sophisticated elegance.
The 308 is much less like an MPV than earlier designs, so the bonnet looks longer and the proportions more cab-backward. Just like a Golf really. You get some neat little detail touches like on the 208 but it's more refined overall and there's a notable use of chrome finishes, which bumps up its premium qualities too.
READ: VW Golf GTD review
Critics might say it's bland; we say the 308 is smart and elegant.
Stepping up the interior game
But it's inside where things have massively gone up a notch. Peugeot's relocated just about every key function into the centre touchscreen (more on that later) which means the cabin is surprisingly free of buttons and switchgear.
Your money will instead have been lavished on an architectural form all rendered in high quality plastic and to which has been added big, brushed-aluminium details. Honestly, the perceived quality in here is now better than a BMW 1-Series.
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There's also Peugeot's i-Cockpit layout, which shunts the dials up under the screen and means you to look at them over a super-small diameter steering wheel; it's pretty much the same as the one from the 208.
We think this layout works well. For our average frame we can get very comfortable, are happy to have the steering wheel in our laps and positioned so, can see the dials just fine.
Some, however, really don't get on with it. So it's one of those genuine try before you buy scenarios. We will say that the slightly bigger proportions of the 308 do seem to give you more wiggle-room to get comfy than in the smaller 208, so from that perspective it might be better for more people, more of the time.
You'll note those dials have that extra bit of design flair, too. They look smart, but the style-over-substance possibly goes a bit far with the anti-clockwise swinging arc of the rev-counter. It took our brain some time to get a grip of this.
Nonetheless, everything you do touch - wheel, door handles, vents, gearshift - feels like a high-quality item that's clearly had design time lavished on it.
Touchscreen blues strike again
The pay-off you make for all of this stark, high-design simplicity is that most of the core car and entertainment functions are now accessed via the touchscreen. The button count runs to just hazard lights, front demister, rear demister, air-recirculate and a door-locking button. Even the main climate controls are now accessed through the screen.
The screen is a slightly different affair to the one we find in the 208 - it's bigger at 9.7-inches for a start - and there are a series of shortcut icons down each side of the screen for accessing main menus such as climate, phone and navigation. They're not the clearest, most intuitive icons, but you quickly get the idea.
The problem is that the screen's still on the slow-to-respond side, and what comes up on it isn't always easy to read or hit while on the move. We felt we were spending far too long looking at the touchscreen while driving, just to perform simple operation like changing the climate temperature. We won't labour the point, but sometimes it felt easier to stop the car to perform complex tasks - which perhaps you should anyway.
Luckily, there are still numerous shortcuts you can make via the steering wheel and you can get a secondary stream of data - turn-by-turn, speed, average consumption, radio station - in the small centre display between the dials.
Peugeot plays the value for money card
One thing we keep hearing from people is just how surprised they are at how expensive modern cars have become. And we're not surprised people baulk at the idea of spending over twenty grand on the average family hatch.
Still, once you've got come to accept that or made it feel less painful through the PCP deals which 90 percent of people go for, the Peugeot 308 seems to offer good value for money given how well equipped it is.
The company has struck a sensible middle ground between the attention-grabbing low prices companies like Kia still manage to throw out, or the loftier heights of Volkswagen's asking prices.
The Allure trim level test car is the third trim level up out of four but it's hard to think of much else you'd need. It comes with full LED headlamps, satnav, that touchscreen, all-round reverse sensors with a back-up camera and 17-inch alloys as standard. In fact we'd be half tempted to drop back to the next level down Active trim, as you still get the screen and satnav as standard.
It probably goes without saying you also get a USB port, Bluetooth and DAB radio - but let's not forget this is still stuff most premium brands are making you pay extra for. And at £19,745 on the road, it makes our 308 look good value compared to pretty much any German car.
Of the options fitted to our test car, we liked the panoramic glass roof (£370) as it floods the cabin with light. But while the Driver Assistance Pack seems good value at £450 for adaptive cruise control, collision alert and braking system, we didn't find the key bit of this - namely adaptive cruise - worked particularly well in average UK traffic conditions. And it doesn't offer the full total stop/auto go functionality that the systems from VW, Volvo and BMW do. Which in our view largely defeats its point.
With apologies for getting all misty-eyed on you, we remember the days when Peugeots were easily the best to drive in their class - combining an unbeatable handling sharpness with a ride fluency that came from making your own bespoke dampers. The 308 is - objectively - not back to the top of the class yet, but we reckon for most people it does a really nice job of going down the road.
The steering is the worst part though - it's well weighted but ultimately lacks feeling like many electric steering racks. And the 308's not really a car to go roundabout drifting in. Yet it is sharp, accurate and a decent amount of fun to drive down the average B-road.
What we really like is that the ride is really fluent and well dampened. Surely that's more important on our pot-holed roads than a few final degrees of handling prowess? Certainly, it's far better and, in our view, just generally nicer to drive than the new Mercedes A-Class. It's also extremely refined and quiet.
The one piece front seats - while looking suspiciously like Darth Vadar when rendered in black - are comfortable for the long haul and the whole car has a really fluent, sophisticated feel to it. Bravo Peugeot.
Having driven this 1.6L turbo engine in both the Mini and Citroen DS3, it felt a bit strangled here. That's not surprising given it's lugging around a good chunk more car than with those two, but it didn't seem particularly keen to rev. Which is a shame because otherwise it's a good engine choice: swift enough, nicely refined and it scored the magic 40mpg average, which for a petrol car driven by us isn't bad at all.
There's not one amazingly standout element about the new Peugeot 308, but spend time with it and you begin to appreciate just what a fine all round job Peugeot has done. It has very few week points, especially if you get on with its driving position and the touchscreen interface.
Ultimately we didn't expect to like the 308 as much as we did. Is it as good as a VW Golf? No. Is it arguably better value and a more distinctive choice that gets very close to the VW in nearly all areas? Yes. Unequivocally so.
Perhaps Peugeot's greatest triumph with the 308 is to make it feel a good deal more premium than some decidedly premium-badged German machinery. It even manages to make them look decidedly poor value.
If you can get over any badge snobbery you might have, do take a look. The Lion might not quite be roaring like a wild animal just yet, but it's certainly finding its voice and producing cars that are more than worthy of your attention.