2014 Peugeot 308 Hatchback Review

We test the European Car of the Year, Peugeot's 308

Unlike the Oscars, where I personally cannot make a case for 12 Years a Slave taking top honours, I can for the Peugeot 308 and this is from someone who was quite critical of the car when we drove it at launch in France.

Review

Good points: classy cabin, superb ride, economical but punchy diesel engine.

Not so good: rear seats cramped, that touchscreen takes some getting used to, the steering wheel too.

Test car details:

Model tested: Peugeot 308 Allure 1.6-eHDi 115
Pricing: €25,890 as tested (308 range starts at €18,990)
Engine: turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body style: five-door hatchback
Rivals: Ford Focus, Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf
CO2 emissions: 100g/km (Band A2, €180 per annum)
Combined economy: 74.3mpg (3.8 litres/100km)
Top speed: 196km/h
0-100km/h: 11.9 seconds
Power: 115hp at 3,600rpm
Torque: 270Nm at 1,750rpm

Our view:

Did anyone see the Oscars recently, that Hollywood love-in where awards are handed out by a panel of experts in categories such as Best Actor and Best Movie? You may well have missed it actually such was the coverage of Ellen DeGeneres' 'selfie', but at some point after the very clever Samsung product placement there were some awards handed out with 12 Years a Slave walking away with the Oscar for movie of the year.

Having seen the film this was not a verdict I could agree with (would have given it to Wolf of Wall Street personally) and I was not alone, as many on social media declared this film and that film more deserving of the award. A similar backlash occurred when the 58 panel members of the European Car of the Year awards announced the 2014 winner to be the Peugeot 308. Many in the profession asked questions of the jingoistic nature of the outcome with the French delegation awarding the 308 top marks while jurors from the UK and Ireland ranked it quite lowly.

Unlike the Oscars, where I personally cannot make a case for 12 Years a Slave taking top honours, I can for the Peugeot 308 and this is from someone who was quite critical of the car when we drove it at launch in France.

Starting with the styling; we still maintain that the designers spent too much time looking at the Volkswagen Golf, but when you see one on the road the new 308 has undeniable presence with some nice flourishes that only the French (and maybe the Italians) can pull off. The lines along the boot, particularly where the tailgate meets the rear-quarter panel, and the way the front bumper cuts into the headlights to give them a unique look, takes the overall conservative styling and lifts it just enough above.

While not quite as exciting to drive as the Ford Focus and XDS-equipped members of the Volkswagen family, the 308 can still hold its own. A lot of this can be attributed to the EMP2 platform that underpins it - and a lot of the latest cars from the PSA group. Like Volkswagen's MQB platform it is lighter (140kg in this case) and stronger than before, but has also allowed the Peugeot engineers to mount the suspension components lower meaning the 308 has a lower centre of gravity, which you can feel the first time you pitch it into a corner.

While all very clever and worthwhile the work that those engineers did to the rear end likely has just as much effect on the handling. In the grand scheme of things a torsion beam set up is one step above the leaf springs that some of our American cousins seem to persist with and nowhere near as good as a fully independent set up, but through what can only be described as engineering magic (that I shall not attempt to explain without borrowing Shane's PhD) the 308 manages to match such a system. This is especially evident on Irish roads where bump absorption is quite high on our list of priorities. Having hit a pothole you await a bump that never arrives. This is because the rear suspension's travel is slightly curved rather than vertical so the forces are spread longitudinally as well as vertically. Coupled with a softer spring rate than before it all means that the 308 is a supremely comfortable car to drive, which, when the mood takes you, can also provide some driving thrills.

It's nippy too, certainly more so than the lowly 115hp output of the 1.6-litre eHDi engine in our test car would have you believe. Again this is related to the weight saving of the chassis, which meant that Peugeot did not have to fit a high-powered engine under the bonnet. The 0-100km/h dash is completed in 11.9 seconds (that's for cars fitted with 17-inch wheels; stick with 16s and the same sprint takes 10.2 seconds). Noted, this pace is not exactly earth-shattering, but in-gear acceleration from the delightfully free-revving diesel unit impresses with 270Nm of torque available from 1,750rpm. While the larger wheels of the range-topping Allure model do affect the performance they have little effect on economy or emissions, matching a 16-inch wheeled Active model at 3.8 litres/100km combined and chalking up an extra 2g/km on the emissions front - yet still remaining within Band A2.

And then there is the interior - the undoubted star of the 308 show. Since it arrived the interior of the Mk7 Golf has been the benchmark against which all other family hatchbacks are measured. No more, as there is a new king in town. The 308's innards are simply sublime. Yes there are still issues with the air conditioning controls being accessed via the 9.7-inch touchscreen rather than tactile knobs or buttons, but having spent a week with the car this is not as big an issue as we had envisaged and it does give the Peugeot an interior designers would likely call 'minimalist'. Cabin quality is good with the plastics used having a pleasing finish, while metallic highlights are liberally scattered around the place but not overdone.

Yes there is a the small go-kart steering wheel that we have seen in both the 208 and 2008 and while it does look lost in the larger 308 it actually functions better. Drivers no longer have to move themselves around the articulation of the wheel to see the dials behind, instead moving the car wheel and seat to suit their preferences. Plus with the rev counter swinging the 'wrong way' (Aston Martin like) even in its highest position the wheel does not obscure vital information.

The Peugeot 308 is not without its compromises but then few cars (or indeed films - to bring things full circle) are. It is an extremely well finished and polished car, however, and a worthy ECoTY winner.

Real alternatives:

Ford Focus: the dynamic leader of the pack but not at the party when it comes to interior ambiance while the exterior looks are aging. Good thing a facelift was announced in Geneva then.

Mazda3: slick looks and a classy interior combine for a compelling package. Rated fifth out of seven by ECoTY jury.

Volkswagen Golf: still the class leader and the car the 308 has to beat. Does not have one stand out feature but does everything so very well.