Always the bridesmaid, never the bride is an idiom that just about sums up the life of the Peugeot 308 in South Africa. Until now. Tired of always playing second-fiddle to the likes of the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot knew they had to up their game when introducing the new generation 308 hatchback to have any chance of taking on the more established players in the C-segment.
And to a large extent they nailed in this week. With the 2014 European Car of the Year trophy sitting safely in the cabinet at their headquarters in Paris, it’s now time for the French manufacturer to take on markets outside Europe. For that has often been the challenge for the French brand — to sell their products in countries such as South Africa that have often viewed not only Peugeot, but also other French manufacturers — with a degree of scepticism. Public opinion in South Africa — if latest sales figures are anything to go by — appear to be changing when it comes to Peugeot, compared to, say, five years ago. The company has largely achieved this thanks to a combination of excellent vehicles — think of the retro RCZ, upmarket 508 and practical Boxer — good marketing and an after-sales policy that installs confidence in their products.
“We are in much better shape and are one year ahead of schedule with our targets,” said Peugeot Citroen MD for South Africa, Francis Harnie, at the launch. “We are a small brand with a huge opportunity. It’s all about changing perceptions.” I was eager to reacquaint myself with the 308 after being fortunate enough towards the end of last year to spend a couple of days behind its wheel in the picturesque, rolling hills of Belgium. At the time, there were two aspects about the vehicle that impressed me. Firstly, it was the extremely lively 1.2 turbocharged engine. Secondly, the high degree of sophistication of the interior. So, swopping the highways of Belgium for the backroads of the Natal Midlands, it was a chance to explore the vehicle a little further.
In South Africa the initial 308 range will consist of two models: the 1.2 PureTech Active (R275 900) and the 1.2 PureTech GT Line (R329 900). The differences between the Active and GT Line models extend to exterior styling details and interior trim and equipment levels. To describe the Active as the entry-level model would be slightly unfair, considering the number of standard features. Cruise control with speed limiter function, hill start assistance, daytime running lights, central locking, a full sound system incorporating an FM/AM tuner, CD player, USB socket and auxiliary jack, and Bluetooth audio streaming. The safety angle is also wrapped up with a host of acronyms — ABS, EBD, ESP, EBA and four airbags. It’s enough to earn the 308 a prized 5 star Ncap rating. With the GT Line, the list continues to grow, but some of the more important features include dual zone air conditioning, tinted electric windows all round, full LED head-lights, front and rear parking sensors, electronic brake and massage function up front.
In fact, the only addition you have to fork out for is if you wish to have a navigation system installed (R10 000) which according to the techno geeks is a waste of money when these days you can access Google Earth via your cellphone. The exterior design of the 308 is a major improvement on what has gone before. The stance of the vehicle is definitely more aggressive thanks to a lowered ride height of 20mm. Width has been increased to 1.8m. Other changes this time round include larger wheels — you now get 17-inch slabs of rubber with the GT-Line — while twin, slim contoured exhaust tailpipes set in the black diffuser hint at the performance of the vehicle. I place a great deal of importance not only on the materials used in the interior, but how they feel to the touch and most importantly their practicality. The GT-Line ticks the boxes.
Soft touch materials are liberally used primarily on the one piece clutter-free dashboard. Where previously one would find an array of dials and switches, these have now been incorporated into a 9.7-inch touchscreen interface that is host to functions such as aircon, satnav, audio, Bluetooth etc. On the road, the car feels quick. The GT-Line has a claimed 0- 100km/h sprint time of 9.6 seconds, but I must confess — probably due to the excellent power to weight ratio — it feels swifter than that.
Some seriously bad roads in the southern Drakensberg provided us with a good excuse to throw the 308 about. Steering is light; point it in to a corner and it holds its angle perfectly. There’s no bobbing and weaving as you push its capabilities. Work the six-speed gearbox with a degree of haste and the engine is decidedly punchy. There’s also a fair whack of torque available (230Nm); so even in fifth gear it pulls nicely on a hill without having to change down.
The small sports steering wheel – which incorporates various functions like audio and cruise control is chunky, clad in perforated leather and simply feels suited to the car. The instrument binnacle, which houses a speedometer and a rev counter that works in reverse direction, has been raised to make for clearer visibility. Seating is supportive and the combination of black cloth and leather with red stitching is distinctive and appealing. A small amount of satin chrome accents on the door panels and the gearshift provide contrast and class. This 308 is a major step forward for Peugeot and one feels they have upped their game to a level that signals their intention to be a major player in this segment. For too long they have competed without the opposition having to look in their rearview mirror. With the 308, perhaps it’s time to do so.
The Facts: Peugeot 308 1.2 PureTech e-THP 110 Active
Engine: 1199cc turbocharged three-cylinder
Power: 81kW at 5 500rpm
Torque: 205Nm at 1 500rpm
0-100km/h: 11.1 seconds
Top speed: 188km/h
Fuel consumption: 4.6l/100km (claimed)
Price: R275 900
The Facts: Peugeot 308 1.2 PureTech e-THP 130 GT Line
Engine: 1199cc turbocharged three-cylinder
Power: 96kW at 5 500rpm
Torque: 230Nm at 1 750rpm
0-100km/h: 9.6 seconds
Top speed: 207km/h
Fuel consumption: 4.8l/100km (claimed)
Price: R329 900
Pricing includes a three-year/100 000 km manufacturer warranty, a five-year 60 000km maintenance plan, and a three-year/100 000km roadside assistance package. Expect the GT version, packed with a 1.6-litre, 151kW engine in July.