David MottonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Tow cars’ written by David Motton
Which means any manufacturer trying to climb up the small-hatch pecking order has its work cut out. Take Peugeot. Last year it sold 14,359 of the 308 hatchback in the UK. In the same 12 months the Ford Focus sold 83,115 units.
Peugeot thinks its new 308, arriving in British showrooms in January, has what it takes to move up the sales charts. It's more efficient and better to drive than before. Does it also have the makings of a competent small tow car?
New look inside and out
Compared with the old 308, the new model is shorter and lower. It's a well proportioned car which looks better in the metal than in photographs.
It's stylish on the inside, too, with a high standard of finish. Peugeot makes much of its efforts to improve quality, and the soft-touch dashboard and attractive materials feel a cut above those in many rivals.
Like the 208 supermini, the 308 has an unusually small steering wheel, and you look at the speedo and rev-counter over it rather than through it. Drivers who like to sit low to the floor may find it obscures the bottom of the instruments, but it's less of an issue in the 308 than in the 208. Besides, the narrow-diameter but thick-rimmed wheel feels good to hold.
The other attention-grabbing feature is the 9.7-inch touchscreen, which does away with just about every button bar the volume control for the stereo. It means the dashboard is clean and uncluttered, and with a little familiarisation it's relatively easy to use. However, simple tasks like changing the air-con temperature need well-aimed presses on the screen. It's more distracting than a simple twist of a dial.
On the road
While you can question the benefit of the touchscreen, there's no doubting the new car is a big improvement over the old out on the road.
The centre of gravity is 20mm (almost an inch) lower than before and the new 308 is 140kg lighter than the old car. That helps make the latest 308 more agile. On bumpy mountain roads the Peugeot handled neatly and gripped strongly, although there's quite a bit of roll when cornering with enthusiasm.
I drove several cars, with either 16 or 18-inch wheels. Cars with smaller alloys definitely rode more smoothly, especially at low speeds, but even with big wheels and low-profile tyres the 308 is far from uncomfortable.
From launch, there will be a choice of three petrol (82, 125 and 155bhp) and two diesel (92 and 115bhp) engines.
I had the chance to drive the 125bhp petrol and both diesels. The petrol is a highly efficient turbocharged three-cylinder, with impressive refinement and a lively character. The lower powered diesel posts some exceptional economy and emissions figures (78.4mpg when fitted with low-rolling resistance tyres), but is hampered by a vague and clunky five-speed gearbox.
For now, the 115bhp diesel with its six-speed 'box looks like the best choice for anyone planning to tow. It's smooth, pulls cleanly from low revs, and is impressively quiet. With 199lb ft of torque there's enough muscle for towing a lightweight tourer.
However, the weight loss which contributes to an official combined economy figure of 76.3mpg also means the 308 is only suitable for a handful of tourers if you take a cautious approach to outfit matching. Peugeot quotes a kerbweight of 1160kg, which rises to 1235kg if you include 75kg for the driver. Using the higher weight gives an 85% match figure, as usually recommended for safe and stable towing, of 1050kg. Even an experienced caravanner happy to tow up to 100% of the kerbweight will need a very small, light van, although the legal towing limit is 1775kg.
It could be worth waiting for the 2.0-litre BlueHDi 150bhp engine, one of a new generation of super-clean engines which will join the range from April. I drove a 308 this engine briefly, and its extra muscle was immediately apparent. The kerbweight hasn't been published yet, but although it should be a few kilos heavier than the 115 it will still be a very light car.
Big on boot space, small for passengers
Given a kerbweight which means the 308 is best suited to lightweight two-berths, it seems appropriate that the interior seems designed for couples rather than families. Although there's plenty of space up front, rear-seat passengers don't get much legroom. On cars fitted with a full-length sunroof, headroom is also tight. Peugeot argues its target market won't mind, since the car is aimed at buyers yet to have children or whose kids have left home.
Although the rear of the cabin is a bit cramped, the boot is anything but. There's 470 litres of space if you include the 35 litres of under-floor storage. Fold the rear seats down and that rises to 1309 litres, although there is a step in the boot floor.
Equipment levels and prices won't be confirmed until much closer the 308's UK on sale date, but expect four trim levels (Access, Active, Allure and Feline). All cars will have six airbags, with high-tech safety aids such automatic braking to prevent a collision standard on range-topping models and optional on others. Peugeot predicts a five-star rating from safety experts, Euro NCAP.
So, the new 308 is distinctive, drives well and promises exceptional economy. Is that enough to win over more spoiled-for-choice hatchback buyers? Probably. But as a tow car, low kerbweights mean the 308 will only appeal to drivers with a very light caravan to pull.