Station wagons are seldom sought after in these parts. They’ve fallen out of favor, at least when compared to their taller cousins, the SUVs. Yet there’s a charming confluence of driving experience and utility that’s found in the best wagons, to which we must add the Peugeot 308 SW.
On our first outing, we immediately put it to the airport test. Coming up to curbside amid the Terminal 2 commotion were four motoring writers, five pieces of check-in luggage, several cabin baggage, and large bags of Japanese whisky and Royce chocolate. All these, plus a driver, had to fit in. When the 308 sidled up to the curb, its compact dimensions didn’t seem up to the task. But, as a wagon owner, I had confidence in its capacity.
Sure enough, the tailgate opened to a deep and obstruction-free loading space. The five suitcases slid in with space left over. The raked hatchback ultimately limited the capacity, but with some jigsaw-puzzle fitting, a couple of the smaller bags went in the back, too. The rear seat packed in two of the industry’s giants—both literally and figuratively—with a petite lady between them.
The 308 marks the debut of the i-Cockpit, which mounts controls and instruments to make them ideal for the driving experience. The layout gives the first impression of a futuristic spaceship control panel. The instruments are mounted high up, making them jut into the your view of the windshield and thus easier to see at a glance.
The infotainment interface is a touchscreen-controlled system and allows you to adjust vehicle settings, the audio system, and the A/C. This is more of a mixed bag. The graphics are large and easy to read, but the menu system is more difficult to manipulate quickly than with conventional buttons. It’s a bother, for example, to select the A/C menu, push the fan button, then press ‘minus’ multiple times to turn it off. Some of the automated functions we did appreciate, like the electric parking brake that automatically locks when you select Park.
What is striking about the i-Cockpit is that it’s different when you look at it, but it doesn’t call any undue attention to itself, and after a couple of short trips, it feels natural. One noticeable element is the small-diameter, flat-bottomed steering wheel. It lends a bit of sportiness to the cabin, particularly as it’s connected to a responsive steering system. The 308 SW displays an agility that befits its compact footprint and low stance. The steering feels quick and direct. The ride is perfectly balanced, never feeling firm or floaty.
The cabin is well-built, with a pleasantly tactile choice of materials. In the entry-level Allure trim, seats are covered in Alcantara canvas-like cloth, combined with faux leather at the seat corners. Elevating the interior in Peugeot fashion are bits of design flair, such as the matte-finish metal trim that surrounds the shifter panel and the door pulls. The exterior is likewise sleek and elegant, with no extraneous elements. Nice touches are the DRLs and the LED taillights. Evoking Mercedes-Benz and BMW in this case isn’t a bad thing.
The 308 has one of best diesel engines we’ve yet tried in a passenger car. It’s smooth and, more important, quiet. If there’s any diesel rattle and shake, we certainly couldn’t feel it from inside the cabin. Power from the 1.6-liter turbodiesel is a modest 120hp, but the torque is superb, at 300Nm. There’s no paddle shifters or manual mode for the six-speed automatic, but the powertrain provides brisk acceleration even in the economy setting.
The diesel has an auto-stop feature that shuts down the engine whenever the car comes to a complete halt. And we mean any time that the car stops. This makes it different from Japanese systems, particularly those from Mazda and Honda, which require a hard press on the brake pedal to shut down the engine. Not so with the 308: No matter how lightly you press on the brakes, as soon as the car stops, so does the engine. This can be awkward when crossing an intersection while following traffic. Or when trying to defend your precious bit of road space from a counterflower.
To be fair, the engine fires up in an instant, much quicker than it did in previous Peugeot systems. And you can turn it off by pressing a button or switching the transmission to Sport mode.
The 308 makes a good case for the compact wagon. Its ride and handling are better than those of any SUV in its price range, and it matches bigger cars, too, when it comes to cargo space. The smooth diesel drivetrain and well-designed interior do much to make workday commutes something to look forward to.
SPECS: Peugeot 308 SW 1.6 HDI Allure
Engine: 1.6-liter turbodiesel I4
Power: 120hp @ 3,500rpm
Torque: 300Nm @ 1,750rpm
Fuel economy: 17km/L
Transmission: 6-speed automatic