MOTORING: Peugeot 308 Allure AT: Understated – and underrated

Travel through Africa, and you’re likely to see a lot of Peugeot cars: especially old 404s and 504s, harking back to the 1960s and ‘70s, and still going strong. But in South Africa, modern Peugeots like the 308 hatchback are a less frequent sight. So what’s the problem?

The last time I drove through Africa, I was on a two-week road trip, travelling from Johannesburg to Dar Es Salaam. It was en epic journey taking in Namibia, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. My steed of choice? A Peugeot station wagon. It wasn’t an old one like the many 504 and even 404 wagons I encountered along the way. This was in the early 2000s, when the Peugeot 407SW’s combination of space, comfort and turbodiesel power made it an attractive and competent travel companion, even on some of Africa’s most rutted roads. It’s clear that Peugeot has enjoyed a long and revered presence on the African continent. Those 504s and 404s bear testimony to the Gallic carmaker’s ability to engineer cars that can take on tough conditions, and still live to tell the tale. With such a pedigree, you’d expect the current-generation 308 hatchback to be a local sales success. It’s a handsome machine, with a low-slung, athletic stance and sculpted lines that not only cut keenly through the air, but also attract admiring looks. And yet, sales volumes aren’t even close to those achieved by some of its rivals. Admittedly, going toe-to-toe with Volkswagen’s Golf is a tough challenge – but looking at the August 2018 sales figures, for instance, the 308 attracted just seven buyers, while the Golf’s tally was more than 300. Analysing C-segment hatchback sales from less prolific, fully imported brands, the 308 remains an underperformer. The Honda Civic attracted 40 buyers in August, the Opel Astra’s tally was 33 units, and even the ageing Volvo V40 posted 33 sales. Having spent a full week behind the wheel of the latest, recently spruced up Peugeot 308 1.2T Allure, it’s hard to understand why the five-door hatch doesn’t sell in bigger numbers. Aesthetically, it stands out from the hatchback crowd with a combination of smooth surfaces, contoured lines and a distinctive, even trendy character. This updated version gets a more upright grille, garnished with Peugeot’s trademark lion badge, a reshaped bonnet, a more aggressive integrated bumper with larger air intakes, and sleeker headlights with signature daytime running lights. The rear remains virtually unchanged, with the exception of new LED taillight clusters that display the angled ‘claw marks’ – another Peugeot hallmark. The basic shape and execution have remained unchanged, and rightly so: there’s no need to tamper with something that already looks as good as the 308. A lower stance serves to underscore the car’s dynamic promise, with 16-inch alloys adding to a mildly sporty appearance. While the French can err on the quirky side of individuality when it comes to design, the 308 looks the smart and even sexy hatchback part. The cockpit is a pleasing mix of innovative ergonomics and fine finishes. Not everyone will like the unusual, even daring i-Cockpit layout, which places a small-diameter steering wheel below the line of sight to allow an unencumbered view of the instruments. I had no problem to adapt to this arrangement, and in fact it makes a lot of ergonomic sense. But taller drivers may find it difficult to find a comfortable balance between seating position and steering wheel adjustment. Also coming close to being deemed quirky is the way the speedometer and rev counter needles rotate in opposing directions. It’s different, but no better or worse than more conventional arrangements. The dashboard is dominated by a large, high-resolution touchscreen, neatly embedded into the fascia. The capacitive screen measures a generous 24.6cm and is the gateway to the Peugeot’s infotainment system. There’s no satnav, but the built-in MirrorLink allows access to smartphones and their apps when connected to the USB port. The system supports both Apple AirPlay and Android Auto. Also on offer is operation of the 308’s multimedia features, including Bluetooth for hands-free calls and music streaming. Even the aircon and cruise control are touchscreen-based. The system is slick and works with intuitive ease, but it’s not ideal while actually on the move – rather leave that to the front passenger, if you have one on board, and use the controls on the multifunction steering wheel for key functions. The cabin execution is top notch, and good enough to be compared to premium products at steeper price points. The cloth trim looks and feels expensive, the soft-touch surfaces are pleasingly textured, and metallic accents add a touch of high-tech class. Generous glass areas make for a bright and airy ambience, and there’s plenty of space up front. Rear legroom is somewhat restricted though, especially for taller adults. At 3,850 litres, the boot is adequate, but folding flat the split rear bench seat will increase that to 1,224 litres when required. The 308 Allure is by no means a hot hatch, but its 1.2-litre turbo engine does provide ample brio. The four-cylinder mill serves up 96kW of power and 230Nm of torque, harnessed by a six-speed auto gearbox. You can also opt for a six-speed manual ‘box. The auto transmission is a good choice, though: it moves through the cogs with unobtrusive ease, and seems to find just the right shift points for most motoring situations. Sequential manual changes are available, but frankly, automatic mode is better – and more convenient. If you’re in a hurry, opt for the switchable Sport mode, which allows quicker gear changes at higher rev points, while adding some welcome heft to the steering, and sharpening throttle response, too. Progress is certainly swift enough in straight-line terms, with a claimed 0-100km/h acceleration time of 9.8sec, and a top speed of 204km/h. Those stats feel realistic in practice, accompanied by decent midrange punch. But it’s the handling that surprised me the most. The Peugeot has a planted feel when winding it through some corners that is both confidence-inspiring and rewarding. Even on relatively modest 16-inch rubber, there’s plenty of grip, and the chassis feels as if it could cope with much more muscle. The 308 isn’t easily unsettled, even on bumpy and pockmarked tar, and while the nose will eventually start pushing wide if you plunge into a corner with too much enthusiasm, it’s a benign waywardness that’s easily cured with a momentary throttle lift. I liked the brakes, too – plenty of bite, but notihng grabby, plus nicely progressive intervention from the ABS anti-lock system. Stability control is standard, as are electronic brake force distribution and emergency braking assistance. Brake hard, and the emergency flashers activate automatically too. It really is difficult to fault the Peugeot 308 Allure. Apart from that unconventional driving position, this is a smart, competent and attractive hatchback. It’s competitively priced, and backed by a three-year/60,000km maintenance plan and a three-year/100,000km warranty. So, what’s not to like? The biggest challenge facing smaller brands with relatively low volumes is to ensure the high level of sales and after-sales service customers demand. For Peugeot, like other smaller brands, the answer in upping sales lies in ensuring consistent, acknowledged service excellence. The product already overdelivers, but to persuade car buyers to part with their hard-earned cash, service delivery has to be exceptional too. If Peugeot gets that right in SA, we’ll hopefully see many of today’s current models still plying southern African roads for many years to come. And perhaps I’ll choose a Peugeot for my next trip to Dar Es Salaam. DM PROS Smart inside and out. Peppy too – and well equipped. CONS More brand equity required. VITAL STATS

Peugeot 308 1.2 Allure AT
Engine In-line four-cylinder, 1,199cc, turbo
Power 96kW @ 5,500rpm
Torque 230Nm @ 1,750rpm
Power-to-weight ratio 70.07 kW/ton
Gearbox Six-speed automatic, FWD
Wheels/tyres 16-inch alloy, 205/55 R16 tyres
0-100 km/h 9.8sec
Top speed 204km/h
Fuel tank capacity 53 litres
Fuel consumption (claimed/) 5.1 litres/100km
Operating range (claimed/tested) 1,040km
CO2 emissions 119 g/km
Retail price R369,900