Updated: May 5, 2014
Once upon a time, there was a Peugeot 308, colored white, which did 88,000 km in two years and five months, eating through one whole set of Michelin tires and a car battery in that time. It drove on highways and in traffic jams, it ferried people and an occasional animal. Here be the story of that car. Well, almost. Actually, there were two cars.
This is a dual review of one Peugeot 308 hatchback, with a 1.6-liter petrol engine and automatic transmission, and one Peugeot 308SW, with a 1.6-liter diesel engine and a manual gearbox. Most of it, though, will revolve around the former. One more thing, I never took the necessary photos while playing with these two cars, so you will be forced to enjoy the professional work of the Peugeot press guys. Anyhow, follow me please. Or as they say in French, avant sur la Dedoimedo.
How do you know the driver is French? He wears a turtleneck.
I had the luck of driving two different versions of Peugeot 308, and I am glad to be able to tell this story from these two different angles. The selected models could not be different. One was the standard five-door hatchback, a classic by-the-book family car in the Golf class, with a decent interior equipment level, and a 1.6-liter naturally asphyxiated i4 engine, coupled to a four-speed automatic gearbox. The engine delivered some 120 HP and 160 Nm of torque. At its time, it was one of the gutsier a-la naturale engines available at the market in the somewhat stock 1.6-liter category. The second was an estate version, fully labeled as Peugeot 308SW Prologue, with five doors and five seats, powered by a 1.6 HDi engine, which means a turbo-charger, 90 HP and 215 Nm of torque, plus a manual, five-speed gearbox. This means you are going to have separate driving experiences outlined further below, and you can start imagining what the outcome will be.
Both cars came well equipped on the inside, soft, springy plastic-rubber covers everywhere, a modern yet reserved styling of the console and the dash with orange lighting, three aircon vents in the center, dual-zone climate control, a reasonable CD/MP3 player and radio with a steering wheel control, all pushed into an exceptionally spacious and comfortable interior in the best of French fashion.
Outside, Peugeot 308 is a reasonable but not exciting family hatchback, with a somewhat fattish look, wheel arches that feel cheaply stenciled, and a massive front grille slash mouth. On one hand, you have those flared headlights, climbing up the engine hood, on the other, a somewhat metrosexual air intake slash bumper slash whatever goes in the front of the vehicle. The standard hatchback is more appealing than the station wagon.
It is not a car that will draw too many glances, and you will have to struggle finding the best angle to appreciate its looks. The side and rear profile are quite decent, and it's the front that has been somewhat disappointing in pretty much all the Peugeot models in the past few years.
Family approved looks; that intake is fugly.
A calm car for calm people.
For those who need extra luggage space.
The first aspect is the actual arrangement of bits and pieces inside the cabin. In this case, you cannot fault the Peugeot people much. They did a very decent job of arranging things about, and better yet, making it as comfy as possible for the passengers, which would be the second aspect. You have a lot of storage space, everywhere, including the door bins, the glove compartment, the body bag area behind the rear row. The back bench can seat as many adults as legally permitted without problems. The windscreen is huge, huge, slanted at a low angle, but pushed forward, so the cabin is well-lit, airy and totally anti-claustrophobic.
Airy, spacious, functional, good; ignore the gear lever.
The seats are one of the strong sides of this car. Absolute joy. Even though they are not buckets, they are still massively huggy and will keep you happy in turns and corners and whatnot. You are comfortable any which way size you are, and for long hours, two, three, five, take your pick. While we will discuss the car's stiffness and suspension in the driving section further down, we can indulge in some road quiet. Peugeot 308 gobbles humps, crinkles, creases, and all other asphalt deformities with ease, and you feel utterly relaxed. You can glide over speed bumps at around 50 km/h without any worry that you might grate the front or rear end against the ground. In fact, it is quite alarming the first few times you or someone else attempts it, because you expect bad things to happen, but then they don't, and you keep cruising like a pro. Compare this to Audi A1, which must overcome the same vertical challenges at about 25-30 km/h.
Back to the interior styling. I liked the overall design, although I did not like the stumped little media system control, just below the wiper stalk. I did not like the fact the headlights are turned on/off by swiveling the top of the turn light stalk, either. I prefer solid torpedo-arming style knobs. Still, when you immerse yourself in the plush seats, everything around you fits well, and you can adjust the steering wheel both by reach and rake. The only downside, so to speak, is that the wheel is a bit thin. Overall, though, the interior is neutral, practical and composed.
Let's talk about the petrol version first. How shall I put it? The automatic gearbox is simply awful. The fact it has only four gears is one part of the problem, because it cannot efficiently deliver all of the engine's rather impressive torque to the wheels. Then, there's the matter of its intelligence.
After a while, you can ignore the fact each of the car's gears feels like something in between two gears on a regular manual car. In other words, the second auto delivers power like the upper half of the second manual and the lower half of the third manual. However, you simply cannot ignore the high latency of the auto chip, or the fact the engine sings low and high as it tries to deliver power. If you've ever driven an auto, you will know what I mean, and it's more annoying than children. Almost.
The only reasonable way of driving Peugeot 308 with an auto box is by using the so-called manual mode, where you push the gears up and down by yourself, thus controlling the torque delivery more precisely. Even then, the box can sometimes delay the change by a whole second or two, and when it does, it sort of cogs in the next gear gradually, so you can see the revs changing in a stepped yet unpredictable manner, without making any changes in the way your foot rests on the gas pedal. In fact, you can keep the pedal pressed or not, it makes little difference in the way the box shifts. There are also a couple of buttons there, one for snow driving and one for a more sporty response, and it does make the throttle livelier, but it is still a far, far cry from anything remotely fun compared to what you can achieve with a manual setting.
On the left, don't want; on the right, yes please.
The corollary of the box's primitive behavior and slow response is that you cannot really enjoy overtakes, and your floor-down accelerations can go from smooth to erratic and wobbly, all depending on how the car feels on that particular day. With air-con, you get extra penalty. And if you rev toward the redzone, the box will shift all by itself, without waiting for you to make up your mind. Now, the problem is, it will decide to shift and then do this two seconds later, after you've done it yourself already, so you will end with two gear changes almost one after another, and you will transition from leaving all other cars behind to being severely underpowered.
Flat-out performance is okay, compared to most of the range at that time, but the sensation of manhood is brutally killed by the lack of the third floor pedal. On the other hand, quite surprisingly, the car offers excellent grip. It is heavy and massive, but it is also very relaxed even when you try to be aggressive, and you can slide through tight turns without any worry. On the third hand, while you are busy pretending to be a better driver than you really are, the steering wheel pays its own toll. It is heavy. No matter what you're doing, you feel like you're fighting it, because it does not want to turn the way you want to go. Almost as if you have no servo. After a while, your hands will get seriously tired, and you will feel pain in the tendons near your thumbs.
Peugeot 308 petrol would drink about 8-8.5 liters on average in a mixed highway-town-traffic-bloody-jams regime. With a bit of luck and less aircon, it was possible to decrease this by a hair, but never much than that. Heavy traffic could get you up to about 10 liters per 100 km.
Now, the diesel version. Well, it's not a road racer. It does everything calmly, at a leisure, and it takes its time bringing you up to speed. However, no matter how fast or slow you're going, no matter what gear you're in, press the throttle, and the car has more power for you, trickling it sparingly but consistently. The far side of the galaxy, as far as the engine and delivery go, compared to the petrol-auto combo thingie.
The auto and manual could not be further apart, petrol and diesel aside.
I heard a lot of people complaining that the manual box is sloppy and lifeless, but I did not get that impression. It's not like you want to make sex to your car, but it was adequate for a family car, because let's face it, this is a proper family carrier, and it comes with all the pieces designed to make a family happy, and being fast is not one of them. Lots of room, extra comfort, style and such, but don't choose a two-digit diesel if you need to be faster than the other bloke next to you.
The diesel drives with the same composure and the same weighty steering wheel sensation, the estateful rear end notwithstanding, and the noise from the exhaust is a bit more rattly, but it happens naturally, when you expect it, because you control the engine and not the other way around. If you lower down your expectations from me-fast to me-relaxed, then you will appreciate how the car behaves. It's also really frugal, and would ask for no more than 5 liters of fuel after rigorous driving at 140 km/h and the climate control blowing cool air at the passengers.
I have to admit I did manage to find a number of naughty bits. One of the bigger inconveniences is the slant-side visibility for the driver, due to the thickness of the A pillars and the wiper action. Namely, the pillars are massive and pushed forward, obstructing the view. Then, the wipers work in the scissor fashion rather than swipe, like most cars, somewhat similar to SEAT Leon. However, unlike Leon, they are not located at the sides of the windscreen, they come from beneath the engine hood top lip, and their farthest reach is about 5 cm from the A pillars, which means the exceptional thickness is fortified by an extra doze of insect death and dirt, making the side visibility even tricker, and forcing you to stretch quite a bit when pulling out of intersections.
Another bug [sic] is the way you adjust your seat. The thing is, you do not get a knob that you can ever so gently fiddle. Instead, you have a silly spring lever, and it will respond to your back pressure against the seat. So what happened essentially, you will lean against the soft back rest, press the level and plunge back, move forward, wait for the seat to slap you, rinse and repeat until you get a moderately satisfying angle that fits your driving style.
The car battery died less than a year into its life, and you might say this is the typical French approach to electrics, but other than this one issue, there were no other associated problems with the car's circuits in any way. Lastly, when you drift into a fuel station for a refill, you will have to take your key with you and manually unlock the cap. This is an old fashioned method that belongs in the 80s.
Driving a car for a long time gives you a lot of opportunity to learn its quirks and see how it might deteriorate over time. I am pleased to say that Peugeot 308 remained consistent in the delivery of its experience from day one, for better or worse. It did what it could, and it never really broke down. Everything remain solid, high quality and always comfortable. The only car that was more fun sitting in was an ancient Citroen AX. Beat that.
My impression is mostly based on the long leg with the auto model, whereas the diesel was just a sampling of a few short hundreds of kilometers of good roads. I must say the only remarkable difference is in the power delivery, while the rest remains identical. All in all, Peugeot 308 was a reliable and pleasing car, with a balanced dose of sensory excitation. If you ask me, diesel is so much better, and the petrol engine is probably great fun too, but not when you flavor it with a fun-neutering technology of an automated transmission. To sum it up, the sissy version gets 6/10, the right one 7/10, and if you feel like being a family man, you'll like this or the successor model, which is out there, right now, but please, please choose the engine spec and the gearbox most wisely, because you want the power delivered to the asphalt and not into the frustration ether. That would be all for this time, take care.