Road Test: Wanted - a little Gallic flair: Roger Bell finds the new, Coventry-built Peugeot 306 nippy, but without novelty

COVENTRY has been the cradle and the graveyard of the British motor industry. Alvis, Armstrong-Siddeley, Austin, Hillman, Humber, Lanchester, Lea-Francis, Riley, Standard, Sunbeam, Triumph - RIP. The city's car-making tradition is kept alive today by Ford-owned Jaguar and the Peugeot Talbot operation at Ryton, which serves French masters.

Even so, Peugeot Talbot's managing director, Geoffrey Whalen, is a passionate believer in Coventry's regeneration as a car-making base. 'We have to ensure that the city does not rot away,' he said at the launch of Ryton's latest product, the new Peugeot 306.

The 306 replaces the 309 (an unattractive but capable car) as well as some versions of the evergreen 205. In design it is entirely French, and none the worse for that; the Peugeot-Citroen combine (PSA) makes some of Europe's best cars - and the world's best diesels. It is all the better for having much in common beneath the skin with Citroen's ZX, the car to beat in the light-medium class.

Ten years ago, a little eccentricity, a hint of Gallic character, would have been expected of a new Peugeot. Not today. The pragmatic French know, sadly, they must toe the establishment line if they are to be internationally competitive. The 306 is certainly that. Sales start next week with a range of five-door hatchbacks powered by 1.4, 1.6 and 1.8 petrol engines at prices from pounds 9,000. Other models, including saloons, convertibles, a high-

performance three-door and diesels (Peugeot sells more diesels in Britain than anyone else), will be introduced later.

With the 309, Peugeot lacked a strong presence in the light-

medium division - the market's biggest, accounting for more than a third of all new-car sales. With the 306, it aims at least to double its share of a sector set for further growth, as company-car users downgrade to cut their tax liability. (The old tax breakpoints are to be scrapped next year as a result of Budget reforms).

The test 1.6XT is an attractive enough alternative to an ostensibly larger car, offering almost the same in terms of performance and accommodation. A long wheelbase makes the 306's cabin quite roomy - slightly roomier than the ZX's - so there is no undue cramping in the back. Up front, the height-adjustable seats and supple ride offer big-car comfort.

The smart cabin is conservatively trimmed, ergonomically sound despite a severe, slab-

fronted dash, and nicely finished. Big windows (the front screen is huge) make it light and airy. But original it is not.

Performance is nippy. The eight-valve, 90bhp engine of the 1.6XT is adequate for the job. Disappointingly, the more powerful 1.8, said to yield 102hp, sounds more frenzied yet feels no livelier. Changing gear could not be easier: the 306 inherits the 309's wispy-light shift lever.

In the 306's agility, there is evidence of the flair that made some versions of the 205 so popular; steering is precise and responsive (the wheel is power-

assisted), roadholding tenacious, braking strong.

Perhaps too much was expected of a car that does not set out to excite so much as to convey five people safely, quietly, briskly and economically (over 50mpg at 56mph). The XT's equipment - powered windows and mirrors are included - may prove too lavish for those seeking to minimise their tax bill. Cheaper XL and XR alternatives will grab their attention.

SPECIFICATIONS

Peugeot 306 1.6XT, pounds 11,400. Engine: 1,587cc eight-valve 'four', 90bhp at 5,600rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph 12.5 seconds, top speed 111mph. Fuel: 31.4mpg urban, 52.3mpg at 56mph, 39.8mpg at 75mph.

COMPARISONS

Citroen ZX 1.6 Aura, pounds 11,595. Different body, much the same underpinnings as the Peugeot 306. A fine car, widely acknowledged as the one to beat in its class. Roomy, practical, pleasant (and very easy) to drive.

Ford Escort 1.6LX 16V, pounds 11,585. Much-improved car identified by goldfish snout that represents more than a cosmetic facelift. New engine, revised suspension, more safety and better seats makes this the 306's biggest rival in Britain.

Rover 216GSi, pounds 12,605. Anglicised version of the Honda Concerto is a lively performer and crisp handler. Classy, well-appointed cabin is a major attraction; styling is beginning to look dated. Pricey, but you do get Honda quality.

Vauxhall Astra 1.6i GLS, pounds 11,130. Peugeot sees the Astra as the 306's arch-rival. Smart, well-finished car. Outstanding seats make up for mediocre ride. Lacks sparkle in the handling department. Strong on safety and build quality.

VW Golf 1.8CL, pounds 11,785. Out-gunned by most rivals, outclassed by few. Offers a blend of qualities that transcend its lacklustre performance and character bypass. Quality, refinement and safety are strengths rather than perceived value-for-money.

(Photograph omitted)

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