Price: £17,000 approx
Engine: 1,560cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 115 BHP at 4,000 RPM
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 119mph, 0-62 in 10.2 secs, 74.3mpg, CO2 98g/km
Peugeot's contribution to the most popular category of car – the Golf and Focus class – has been a memorable case of own-foot-shooting over the past two generations. The Peugeot 306, made from 1993 to 2001, was a delight to drive but its replacement, the dull 307, was not. Next came the 308, with a keener demeanour and a pleasing cabin, but it looked a mess and sales were low.
Now we have a new 308, the first time that Peugeot has re-used an old model number for a new car. Shouldn't it be called 309? No – one reason being that eight is a lucky number in China, where Peugeot is making much headway.
Despite the no-change name, the new and much better-looking 308 is pitched as a more "premium" car able to chip away at sales of Audi's A3 and BMW's 1-series. After all, as Peugeot chairman Philippe Varin points out, all the big European car-makers use the same components suppliers, and many of the premium-quality interior furnishings in posh German cars come from a supplier (Faurecia) owned by Peugeot.
This 308 is based on a new understructure, shared with the Citroën C4 Picasso. It helps to reduce weight by a hefty 140kg compared with the old 308, so the new car should use less fuel and feel keener in the corners, the latter attribute once one of Peugeot's strongest suits along with a comfortable, supple ride. Inside, there's a strikingly simple and highly unconventional cabin layout, with a very small steering wheel mounted quite low and the instruments sitting high above and behind it.
The smaller 208 has already split opinion with this arrangement, but here in the 308 it works better because more sizes of driver are more likely to be able to see the dials while sitting in a comfortable driving position. The rest of the cabin features a large, menu-driven touchscreen for today's multimedia functions.
The car (available from January) has engine options that include 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol and diesel units (one of the latter scoring just 82g/km CO2 in the BlueHDI version available next spring), a 2.0-litre turbodiesel with 150bhp, and 1.2-litre, three-cylinder petrol engines with 82bhp or, in turbo versions, also arriving later, 110bhp and 130bhp. Only the last of these, plus the 2.0 diesel, will be offered in automatic.
All the engines are smooth and quiet, but the most enjoyable are that big diesel, with effortless acceleration and cruising ability, and the 155bhp 1.6 turbo petrol, which feels very punchy. But the best part is the way the 308 devours challenging, sinuous roads with uncertain surfaces.
Despite the small steering wheel, the steering feels natural and intuitive, responding wrist-flex quickly and accurately without the dartiness felt in the 208. This gives you confidence to sweep through corners, the front wheels gripping tenaciously, the whole car beautifully balanced as you use the accelerator to help point it through the bends. It feels interactive in the way popular Peugeots always used to feel, and it shares their great mix of suppleness over bumps.
The Focus and Golf seem to garner all the praise when the driving dynamics in this class of car are discussed. But for the sheer interactive pleasure of driving, I reckon the new Peugeot 308 trumps the lot.