Peugeot's latest 308 SW is aiming high. Jonathan Crouch assesses whether the French have zeroed their sights correctly.
The Peugeot 308 SW is that rarity; a compact estate car that not only looks good but is practical too. There's no seven seat option this time but otherwise, this model comes with a classy interior, a state-of-the-art chassis and, thanks to a weight-loss programme, some excellent efficiency numbers.
It's good to know that just once in a while, the European Car of the Year panel gets things right. We've had some stinking decisions that have seemed to smack of brown paper bags in service station car parks at night. It's harder for clangers like the Renault 9 and the Ford Scorpio to win these days but as recently as 2002, the pretty awful Peugeot 307 won. Given that the runners up were the Renault Laguna and the Fiat Stilo, it's fair to say it wasn't a vintage year. The clear winner in 2014 was a car that fully deserved the plaudits. Again it was a Peugeot family hatch, but the numerical closeness is all the underwhelming 307 and the excellent 308 have in common. We've been getting used to the hatch for a little while now and Peugeot has subsequently fleshed out the 308 line with the car that we run the rule over here, the SW estate. Forget what you thought you knew about small estates. This one comes with a rare injection of desirability.
The 308 SW rides on the same chassis as the hatch and is all about refinement and a relaxed gait. The suspension carries no great surprises, with a standard front strut and rear torsion beam arrangement. Peugeot has fitted rear trailing arms that allow greater longitudinal arc in the wheel travel. It sounds esoteric but it makes for a smoother ride when the rear wheels hit ridges or bumps. The electrically-assisted power steering is geared towards ease of use rather than detailed feedback but perhaps that's just as well. It makes the 308 SW very comfortable around town in the sort of usage it will mostly see. Onto engines. The 308 SW range has now migrated into Peugeot's latest BlueHDi diesel technology. Most will want the 1.6-litre unit, which comes in either 100 or 120bhp guises. There's also a 2.0-litre BlueHDi engine, offered with either 150 or 180bhp. For petrol people, the engine line-up opens with a 110bhp, 1.2-litre three-cylinder PureTech unit, then there's a choice of a 130bhp version of this same engine further up the range. Across the line-up, transmissions are fairly standard fare, with five and six-speed manuals or a six-speed torque-converter automatic. If you want something sparkier, there's a warmed-up GT model. This variant gets the 2.0 BlueHDi 180 diesel unit.
Peugeot has quite some track record in this sector. Since the arrival of the 304 in 1969, every generation of the 300 series has included an estate variant and estates tend to mop up around 10 per cent of what the manufacturers call C-segment cars. This one might account for a little more than one in ten Peugeot 308 sales. There's usually a lot of nonsense spoken by car stylists but the buzzwords around the 308 SW really do ring true. Stretched, slender, fluid and dynamic, it's anything but your usual hatchback with an afterthought of a glasshouse clumsily attached. Despite that arcing roofline, there's plenty of space in the back. The boot below the parcel shelf is a respectable 660-litres, which includes 70-litres of storage under the floor. You also get so-called Magic Flat rear seats which allow instant folding of both parts of the rear seat using levers accessible on the sides of the boot. Thanks to the automatic lowering of the rear seat cushions, the result is a flat floor and 1,660-litres of luggage space. Not enough for the extra third row seating that pevious models used to have though. The boot aperture has a width of up to 106cm and a length to the rear seat backs of 107cm. It has vertical side walls with minimal wheel arch intrusion and the load sill is among the lowest of any estate car.
Prices start from around £17,000 and all models include Bluetooth, air conditioning and a DAB radio. You'll need to avoid the entry-level Access model though if you want the 9.7-inch multi-function infotainment touchscreen that makes the 308's interior such an engaging place to be. That's included at Active level, along with alloy wheels and auto headlamps. The range-topping Allure model gets leather and Alcantara seats, or you can pay a bit more and go for full leather. This features subtle stitching, some impressive fluting and a particularly comfortable shape. The optional electric adjustment includes a variable massage function. The full-length glass roof transforms the feel of the rear seats and is sure to prove a favourite option. Electric parking brakes haven't found universal favour but the one fitted to the 308 is one of the better examples. It disengages automatically as you pull away and makes the centre console look clean and tidy. The aluminium roof bars are a standard fit item and Peugeot will also sell you accessory and carrying systems for roof boxes and cycle carriers.
The EMP2 chassis is something that Peugeot's engineers are rightly proud of and they've managed to carve weight out of the car while at the same time improving torsional rigidity, making the interior more spacious and improving quality. Compared to, say, a Volkswagen Golf, the equivalent Peugeot 308 is a massive ten per cent lighter, which helps enormously when it comes to economy and emissions. The weight reduction includes 27kg from the use of high tensile steels, composite materials and aluminium; 10kg due to smarter assembly processes; and 33kg through optimised design, such as the thermoplastic tailgate. With less to lug around, your engine has less work to do. And fuel economy? Well, if you really want to eke every mile from a gallon, you'll probably be drawn to the 1.6 BlueHDi 100 model which returns 80.7mpg on the combined cycle and emits a mere 92g/km. In the 120bhp version, these stats actually improve - to 88.3mpg and 85g/km. Don't automaically opt for a diesel though until you check out the PureTech petrol options which could make more sense for lower mileage owners. The 110bhp model manages 60.1mpg on the combined cycle and 109g/km of CO2. For the 130bhp version, the figures are the same.
The Peugeot 308 SW is that rarest of things; a compact estate with genuine style. All too often cars in this class are horribly compromised, offer little in the way of genuine practicality over their hatchback siblings and look gawky and ill-proportioned. The 308 SW is sleek and stylish with a reassuring aura of quality both inside and out. It might well be worth looking beyond the entry-level model to get the touchscreen glass cockpit that really brings the interior to life, but aside from that, there aren't too many caveats. As long as you don't miss the fact that this generation model doesn't offer a seven-seat option, there are no complaints about the SW's practicality, its load bay being a bit bigger than a VW Golf estate and considerably more spacious than that of a Ford Focus estate. Residual values look to be firming up nicely for this latest generation 308 too. Peugeot looks to be well and truly back at the top table.