Europe's 2014 Coty holds its head up high in a fiercly contested segment.
Europe's 2014 Coty holds its head up high in a fiercly contested segment.

By: Jason Woosey

Johannesburg - How to write a review of a French hatchback 101: Insert a whole bunch of clichés relating to Gallic design flair, then go to Google Translate to find some fancy French vocabulary to scatter into the mix. Granted, those you don’t confuse might think you’re being a bit pretentious, but at least you get to feel all smug and de rigueur. Oops.

Sooner or later though, you’re going to have to tackle the elephant in the room and that’s none other than the automotive over-achiever that is Volkswagen’s Golf. That German just oozes understated class inside and out and it’s a delight to drive. At worst you might accuse the VW of looking too clinical, but then that’s clearly the winning formula in this automotive neck of the woods as many others, including Peugeot’s 308, have taken a similar design approach.

Though it lacks the voluptuous charm of modern Renaults, the 308 looks rather smart in its own right, particularly in GT Line trim with its unique grille, shiny 17-inch alloys and glossy black mirrors.

Surprisingly upscale cabin

Featured here is the 1.2T automatic model that was added to the range at the end of last year and we’ll soon get to the ins and outs of the drivetrain, but first let’s step inside. Here you’ll find the same high-end trappings as the manual version, including dual zone climate control, a 25cm touch-screen infotainment system and some classy detailing – and I’m sure you’ll agree that the GT Line just feels so much fancier than your average C-segment hatch.

Those plush, electrically-controlled Alcantara seats, with leather bolsters, look like they belong in a premium brand sports car and the dashboard holds its end of the upmarket bargain with a generous helping of satin chrome accents and soft-touch surfaces. It’s flashier than its arch-rival Golf, and certainly competes with it in terms of overall tactile quality.

Yet it’s not entirely user-friendly. All but the most essential buttons and dials have been absorbed into a touch-screen to create an uncluttered look, and this includes the entire ventilation system, which you have to stretch far left just to activate. Yes, the set-up is straightforward enough but I still find it much easier to turn a rotary dial than tap repeatedly on a screen with a frozen finger just to raise the temperature on a chilly morning.

The other bugbear is that rear passengers get less legroom than they would in many hatches in the class below and for a medium sized adult or teen it’s only tolerably comfortable at best, although headroom is ample.

Willing little turbo motor

Turn the key and you’ll hear the playful, off-beat thrum of Peugeot’s acclaimed 1.2-litre, three-cylinder PureTech petrol engine with turbo-charging and direct injection.

In the GT Line the motor is tuned to 96kW at 5 500rpm and 240Nm from 1 750, versus 81kW and 205Nm in the more affordable Active model.

The former is the only 308 that’s available with an autobox, this being Peugeot’s new six-speed automatic. In everyday conditions the gearbox goes about its business smoothly and effectively, with minimal hunting, but it doesn’t really like to be rushed – forgivable given that this isn’t a hot hatch.

There is a bit of lag on pull-off at altitude, however. It’s probably not enough to prove dangerous when pulling into a busy street, but it’s still more than I’m comfortable with.

Other than that, there’s as much oomph as the average hatchback driver is going to need and ample torque for overtaking. There’s a good blend of performance and economy going on here and our test car sipped just 8.5 litres per 100km, which is decent enough considering most of the driving was in town. When it did end up on a short highway stint, the 308 impressed with its quiet, low-revving cruising ability.

The cabin is rather well insulated and the suspension is damped for a compliant and cushy ride, although the low-profile tyres do transmit a bit of unwelcome shock when hitting harsher ripples in the road. In fast corners, the 308 feels stable and fleet-footed and the small steering wheel adds a real, grin-inducing fun factor.

VERDICT

The competition might be fierce in the hatch game, but the 308, which also happens to be 2014’s European Car of the Year, manages to hold its head up high. It’s possibly not worth trying on if practicality is high on the agenda, but if you’re after a classy and sophisticated hatch that’s also great to drive, the 308 GT Line will look good in your wardrobe regardless of how much French chic you do, don’t or think you might have. Just a pity about the R371 900 price tag, which puts it at a premium over most rivals.

FACTS

Peugeot 308 1.2T GT Line auto

Engine: 1.2-litre, 3-cylinder turbopetrol

Gearbox: 6-speed automatic

Power: 96kW @ 5500rpm

Torque: 230Nm @ 1750rpm

0-100km/h (claimed): 10.7 seconds

Top speed (claimed): 200km/h

Price: R371 900

Warranty: 3-year / 100 000km

Aftersales plan: 5-year / 100 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Audi A3 Sportback 1.4T S auto – 90kW/200Nm – R390 000

Ford Focus hatch 1.5T auto – 130kW/240Nm – R317 900

Mazda3 hatch 2.0 Individual auto – 121kW/210Nm – R329 200

Opel Astra hatch 1.4T Sport auto – 110kW/245Nm – R374 000

VW Golf 1.4 TSI Comfortline auto – 92kW/200Nm – R352 500

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