Road test: 2016 Peugeot 308 GT Line

Peugeot has rolled out some cracking hatchbacks over the decades – none more so than the iconic 1980s 205 GTI and the 306 GTI-6 that followed in its wheel tracks. However, the French lion managed to lose the plot thereafter – the 307 (launched in 2001) was distinctly lacklustre, while the 308 that succeeded it was an improvement, but still no ball of fire.

Things got better with the second-­generation 308 that launched in 2014, built on a lighter, stiffer platform) that slashed 70 kilograms from its girth, resulting in a car that’s theoretically nimbler, quicker and more frugal.

The example I’m given to road test is the range-topping GT Line. It comes with a 163hp 1.6L turbo engine, six-speed auto and a swag of bells, whistles and mod-cons to justify its Dh104,000 pricetag, which positions it in the premium end of the hatchback segment. Rather than being cast in the adrenaline-coursing hot-hatch mould of its hallowed ancestors, the 308 GT Line is orientated more towards luxury than searing ­performance.

Among the goodies included as standard are 18-inch alloys, auto-swivelling headlights, LED fog lights, front/rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, full leather trim, a massive panoramic glass roof, push-­button start, satnav with 9.7-inch touchscreen, dual-zone climate control, aluminium pedals and doorsills, plus six airbags.

First things first: the latest 308 is a much better stylistically resolved car than the gaping-­mouthed first-gen model that preceded it. You could argue it’s one of the sharpest lookers in its segment, serving up more visual flair than the Volkswagen Golf and the Japanese/Korean brigade, although ­Italophiles might counter that the Alfa Romeo Giulietta has more ­eyeball-smacking pizzazz.

French carmakers have never been great at ergonomics, though, and I find the tiny steering wheel (it’s almost ­PlayStation-like) completely obscures the instrument cluster from where I sit. This might not be such an issue for taller drivers, but I had to either crouch and peer under the rim or crane my neck like a swan to glean any info from the dials. The Gallic idiosyncrasies don’t end there, because the rev-counter needle sweeps counter­clockwise (it’s the first car in which I have encountered this), which seems rather counter-intuitive.

On the plus side, the front seats are superbly comfortable, and the layout of the leather-­trimmed cabin is elegantly conceived. The sweeping surfaces are punctuated by tasteful piano-black trim and brushed aluminium highlights, making for a suitably premium ­ambience. The rear quarters are a little constricted, though, and anyone taller than 1.75 metres will find themselves somewhat scrunched up in the back seats.

Once on the move, it’s immediately apparent the 1.6L turbo motor isn’t the punchiest off the mark. There’s noticeable turbo lag below 2,500rpm, so you need a heavy right foot to extract the best from the engine. It never feels rapid, but the Pug is capable of settling into a relaxed 140kph clip – or at least it would be relaxing if it weren’t for the annoyingly persistent speed-limit chime. I spent a good 10 minutes fiddling with various switches, stalks and the vehicle-settings menu on the touchscreen to try to deactivate it, but all to no avail. I eventually gave up and settled on sticking to a 120kph cruise (just below the chime threshold) during a weekend jaunt to Abu Dhabi and back.

The six-speed auto is a smooth-shifting transmission, but it doesn’t come with flappy paddles, which seems a notice­able omission in a car wearing GT badges. That said, you can take command of the auto by slotting the gear lever into a separate plane (to the left) and nudging it forward for downshifts and back for upshifts. It works well enough when you’re in the mood for attacking twisty roads.

When I say “attacking”, I mean relatively speaking, because the 308 GT Line isn’t the hard charger that the 205 GTI and 306 GTI-6 were in their day. Push hard through corners in the 308 and you will find the front end washes out, with the result the car ploughs straight on, rather than tracking the intended line. Drive it with eight-tenths vigour, though, and it’s just fine – quite enjoyable, even.

While it might not be the dynamic masterpiece its last-­millennium ancestors were, the 308 GT Line does come across as a generally agreeable package in terms of its comfort (at least in the front), opulent cabin and overall sense of style. Yes, you could get a fully loaded Mazda3 – which is superbly capable car – for about Dh10,000 less, but that might not be a suitable solution for those with Eurocentric tastes.

As it stands, the 308 GT Line is a marginally more appealing choice than the Alfa Romeo ­Giulietta, and it’s a worthy alternative to the Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI. But if you can afford to spend another Dh25,000, go for the faster, better rounded Golf GTI.

motoring@thenational.ae

Published: September 5, 2016 04:00 AM

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