To use a food analogy, Peugeot has all the right ingredients for making a great 308, but fell down on presentation. The engines are good, the chassis too and the interior - despite some French idiosyncrasies - is sublime, but the conservative, dare we say it, German styling where we would expect a French flourish holds it back.
In the Metal:
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and with the new 308 Peugeot is certainly flattering Volkswagen. The new model has been benchmarked against the class leading Mk7 Golf but we suspect the designers at Peugeot's plant in Sochaux spent a little too long looking at the Volkswagen, as there are unmistakable Golf qualities to the car, particularly in profile where the window line and thick C-pillar are almost carbon copies. In aiming for the class styling of the car from Wolfsburg the Peugeot designers also ended up with a conservative design, which be no bad thing when its predecessor's styling was so divisive, but it does not have the flair or presence of the new Peugeot 208.
It is inside that the classy look has been pulled off the best, but even this is not without its downsides. The cabin of our range topping Allure car was swathed in sumptuous leather and Alcantara with a full length panoramic roof and tactile materials everywhere you touch. The cabin has been designed around the 'i-cockpit' concept, which is marketing speak for driver-focused. As with both the 208 and 2008 the dials have been raised for ease of view. This does mean that the 308 is fitted with the controversial go-kart sized steering wheel, but there are no issues with it blocking the dials anymore such are their height. Instead it is the wheel's size that is at odds; in the smaller 208 it does not look that much out of proportion - in the larger 308 it looks lost.
The 'i-cockpit' layout also leads to a 9.7-inch touchscreen display that replaces all of the functions ordinarily found on the centre console, all in the name of an uncluttered, minimalist design. The screen itself is simple to operate with seven hot-keys around the perimeter to control the main functions and changeable controls for others. Most of these secondary controls (change radio station, fast forward CD etc.) are mirrored on the multi-function steering wheel, but in the pursuit of minimalism the air conditioning controls have also been integrated into the screen. This does lead to a high quality looking console but possesses problems when you want to drop the air conditioning temperature by a degree or two or slow down the recirculation fans. A touch screen does not have the tactility of a knob that we are all used to and leads to your eyes being taken off the road. Considering that the raised dials and small steering wheel are to combat just this issue it seems like an oversight.
In building the 308, Peugeot engineers have been able to shave 140kg from its kerb weight in comparison to its predecessor; a saving that is noticeable from the moment you set off. With less weight to haul around the 115hp HDi diesel engine of our test car has less work to do, making for nippy acceleration around town. The weight, or more so the lack of it, also means the engine is cleaner than before with just 95g/km emitted by our car. There will be a Euro 6 compliant, 120hp 1.6-litre unit arriving next year that emits just 82g/km while returning 3.1 litres/100km on the combined run. To help achieve these figures the six-speed manual transmission has been reworked with longer gear ratios. This does mean the engine has to be worked to get up to speed, especially on the motorway, but even when pushed it remains quiet, settling into a gentle hum at cruising speed.
In addition to work on weight saving the Peugeot engineers also completely redesigned the suspension components, which has led to a drop in ride height and a lower centre of gravity. This does not mean the 308 enjoys being driven with vigour (that will be left for the inevitable GTi model), but while cornering it remains flat, composed and with good grip levels from the specially developed Michelin rubber. The steering itself is direct - the one advantage of the small tiller - and also offers decent levels of feedback, or at least as much as an electrically assisted system can. Think of the 308 as a car to get you from A to B comfortably and efficiently and you will not be too wide of the mark.
What you get for your Money:
It's unclear as yet how much value will be in the 308, as Irish prices and final specifications will not be announced until the car arrives in December. As with the 208 we suspect the entry level model to do without the XL-sized touchscreen, having to make do with a standard radio instead. On the engine front Peugeot will offer three petrol options at launch - a 82hp 1.2-litre and 125- and 155hp versions of the 1.6-litre, while the diesel offering will be the 1.6-litre HDi unit driven here, available in both 92- and 115hp outputs.
From Spring 2014 the new generation of Euro 6 engines will be rolled out including a 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol unit offering either 110- or 130hp (the latter available with manual or automatic transmissions) and a pair of diesels with the 120hp 1.6-litre unit likely to be the top seller due to its class leading (at the moment) 82g/km.
You may have noticed that the new car carries the same nameplate as its predecessor rather than a sequentially higher number, as was the norm. This is the first Peugeot to do so and in future all Peugeots will retain their -08 designation. While not explicitly stated this is due to 8 being considered a lucky number in China, a market that Peugeot is enjoying big growth in, meaning it has become central to plans.
Peugeot's new 308 is a fine car with an interior design that is up there with the best, but in aiming for Golf buyers the designers lost sight of part of what it is that makes Peugeot great - its exterior design. The 'design by numbers' styling of the 308 does not stand out enough and certainly does not scream Peugeot in the same way the 208's does. At the plant in Sochaux we drooled over one of the heritage fleet 306s, and its lines have stood the test of time in comparison to a contemporary Golf. In twenty years' time I imagine we will gravitate towards the car from Wolfsburg.