Golf, as Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, so astutely observed, is a good walk spoiled. The Volkswagen Golf has been doing a good job over the past few years of putting a stagger in the walk of most of its competitors. The Golf has come to define the compact hatchback class, has been showered with awards, and, every time we drive one, the overwhelming feeling we come away with is, "why doesn't everyone just buy one of these?"
Clearly, the motoring world would be far less interesting or diverse if that were to actually happen, but just as you cannot blame Sebastian Vettel for dominating Formula One, so you can't blame VW for doing a better job than most – it's up to the competition to step up to the mark.
That stepping sound you can hear in the background, then, is the arrival on the scene of Peugeot's new 308 – the first time in history that a Peugeot badge has been retained rather than rising sequentially. The previous 308 was a decent car, but average dynamics and pretty dreadful exterior styling held it well back from the level of the Golf. In fact, it was behind most of the rest of the class, too.
This new 308 seeks to reverse that opinion, and does so with a combination of style (it certainly looks slick and modern), quality and impressively low emissions. Those emissions have been trimmed because the 308 rides on Peugeot’s new EMP2 platform, a chassis and a set of components which has seen the car shed 140kg in mass compared to its predecessor. That SlimFast plan means that none of the core diesel models emit above 100g/km of CO2, and even the petrol versions (including the forthcoming new turbocharged petrols) are well within Band A for motor tax.
There is a price for all that weight-saving, though, and it's in the cabin. Because Peugeot was so keen to keep the overall size of the car down, it has deliberately compromised space within the cabin, meaning that rear seat space is, frankly, a bit tight. In terms of comparison to the rest of the class, it's worse for rear-seat room than the Golf and Seat Leon, much worse than the Skoda Octavia or Toyota Auris, and about the same as a Ford Focus. Oddly, though, boot space is class-leading. Select the option box to do away with either a full-size or space-saver spare wheel and you can pack in 470 litres worth of luggage. That's so far ahead of the class average that surely it would have made more sense to sacrifice a little luggage room in favour of rear-seat passengers?
Steadily improving quality
At least the rest of the cabin is a triumph. Peugeot's quality levels have been steadily improving over the recent past and this new 308 is the apogee of that effort. It's every bit the match for its VW nemesis in terms of quality, and the combination of the large touch-screen (standard on all but the most basic model) and that small-wheel-high-instruments layout means that it's truly distinctive too. Only a lack of under-thigh support from the front seats leaves you feeling flat, but you can compensate for that with the knowledge that even the cheapest 308 comes with Bluetooth phone, air-conditioning and cruise control as standard. The best-selling Active spec gets the touchscreen as well as dual-zone climate control, foglights, hill assist control, auto wipers and lights and rear parking sensors. Rear legroom may be at a premium but equipment certainly isn't.
Peugeot has gone to great lengths to reclaim its old handling crown, and while the 308 doesn’t quite manage to extend that very much, it does at least cement those efforts. While the low-set, small steering wheel won’t be to all tastes, I personally like it, and it means that the steering feels particularly good – a hefty sensation of weight and decent feedback too. Driven home late in driving rain and January winds, it proved excellently sure-footed, too, and it also demonstrated the 308’s true trump-card: refinement.
The 1.6-litre diesel engine has 115bhp and 270Nm of torque, but its installation in the 308 appears to have been done with pillows and throw-cushions, so well damped is its noise. The diesel clatter rarely ever rises above a distant growl and only on very coarse surfaces do the tyres send up more than a low swish. Performance is fine too. Taking 11.9 seconds to go from 0-100kmh doesn’t sound all that quick, but on the road and through the six slick-shifting gears it feels much brisker, and a solid 60mpg should be yours for the taking in daily driving.
Has Peugeot inverted Mark Twain’s maxim and taken a good walk towards spoiling the Golf’s game? Yes, it has. It hasn’t managed to out-swing the German giant, but I’d say it puts itself a decent second to the VW. Slick handling and looks combine with terrific refinement and excellent value for money, and the whole package is really only undermined by that lack of cabin space.