With what, we asked, does the new Peugeot 3008 compete? That, said the marketing man, is for you to decide. Such is the near-uniqueness of the idea, that Peugeot has apparently omitted to carry out any market research. We are to believe that the entire project was engineered on a hunch.
Not true, of course. Peugeot has eyed, with envy, the success of Nissan's Qashqai (Is it a hatchback? Is it an SUV?), and has noted that sales of regular, middle-sized hatches were taking a tumble even before the crunch. Nissan, spotting this, decided not to bother with standard mid-size hatches and created a "crossover", meeting buyers' needs and fantasies in one hit.
Peugeot hasn't taken such a risk because it still has the slow-selling 308 hatchback. It is also planning a regular compact MPV later in the year, rivalling the C4 Picasso of its Citroën cousin but looking quite different. But the news here is this car, which looks like an SUV with its high stance and faux skidplates, is actually just a tall, front-wheel drive hatch with attitude. You can't have a four-wheel drive option – you can in the Qashqai – but you can have a "Grip Control" system which tailors the traction and ESP controls for the best progress across snow, sand or mud according to how you set the selector knob. Mud-and-snow tyres are part of the package. So it's potentially a sort of SUV, but not many people are likely to buy a 3008 with off-roading in mind. Rather, we should judge it as a family car and, as such, the 3008 comes out rather well.
It's roomy. It has a drop-down lower tailgate which opens out flat and is strong enough for two people to sit on. The rear seats fold down, of course, and you can set the strong boot floor to the same level as the folded seats and opened lower tailgate to make a long, level, load floor. The boot floor adjusts to three positions with ingenious tilt-and-slide movements.
What else? You can have a giant glass panel in the roof, with an electric blind. The top model has a head-up display for speed (digital) and a distance warning (advisory only; it doesn't intervene via the brakes, unlike some, because Peugeot thinks it better for the driver to retain control). This uses a curved transparent panel which unfolds upwards, above the instrument cluster, on to which the information is projected. Its position, brightness and activation is controlled from a bank of smart-looking, chromium-plated toggle switches.
The rest of the cabin is smart, too, with expensive-feeling materials, soft surfaces, neat bright-metal detailing and a raised centre console designed to evoke a cockpit feel. There's a grab-handle for the passenger in case this sensation goes to the driver's head.
As well it might, for the 3008 proves to be an unexpectedly capable and satisfying driving machine. It goes on sale from October at around £17,400 (ranging from £15,500 to £20,000).
This car is further evidence that, having lost the plot for a few years, Peugeot is rediscovering how to make cars which soak up road bumps, flow through bends, cosset passengers and give the driver a precise, involving drive. The 1.6-litre, 150bhp, turbocharged model shows this the best. The ones I drove with this engine felt a touch fidgety thanks to their hefty 17in wheels and low-profile tyres, but their poise and "pointability" were all the better thanks to "Roll Control", a system which pressurises the damper of whichever rear wheel is on the outside of a bend and so helps keep the 3008 level. All the better, then, to exploit the smoothly delivered energy of that turbo engine. The 1.6-litre, 110bhp turbodiesel, while less lively, shows that the 3008 handles very tidily even without Roll Control. It's more comfortable on smaller 16in wheels, too.
Other engines are a non-turbo petrol 1.6 and a 2.0-litre turbodiesel and, in early 2011, there'll be a 1.6-litre diesel hybrid producing just 109g/km CO2. The electric motor will power the rear wheels, so the 3008 will eventually become a 4x4 and the perfect cross-over. What will its rivals do then?
Dodge Caliber 1.8: from £12,929.
Cheap, roomy pretend-SUV, but you'll find out why when you drive it. Noisy engine, stodgy suspension, nasty fittings. Embarrassingly butch.
Nissan Qashqai 2.0 WD: from £15,445.
Less cabin space and flexibility than the Peugeot 3008 but similar power and driving refinement. You'd enjoy owning one.
Volkswagen Tiguan 1.4 TSI 150 S WD: £18,640.
This entry version has front-wheel drive. Small engine is both turbo and supercharged, and is very efficient.