The Peugeot 308 has evolved. This revised smarter second generation model delivers a better executed family hatchback formula that offers a focus on refinement, interior quality and efficiency that puts it right up alongside the Ford and Volkswagen class leaders. It's that good, especially now that the French brand has brought its engine technology up to date. There's a level of self-confidence and, yes, desirability here that we've not seen from Peugeot in a very long time.
This revised 308 features a sleeker bonnet that flows into a vertical grille that has a central Lion badge and the 'Peugeot' name sculpted into the upper trim. The revised elliptical headlights come with integrated daytime running light LEDs to produce a distinctive front light signature. Other design-led changes include a re-styled front bumper with three lower grille openings to ensure effective engine cooling, while the rear lamps show a smart three-claw light signature. Plusher variants all feature a large glass roof as standard. Otherwise, things are much as before, this car exhibiting a mature, confident look. It's not trying too hard. We like that.
The interior retains the 'i-Cockpit' design that sees the driver looking the instruments over the top of the steering wheel. As before, there's also a 9.7-inch centre dash colour monitor incorporating 'Mirror Screen' technology which allows you to connect in your smartphone using the 'Android Auto'/'MirrorLink' or 'Apple CarPlay' systems. There's also a faster-acting navigation system with voice control that connects into the TomTom real time traffic monitoring service.
Other features are as before. The contra-rotating rev counter is a neat touch, the oversized manual gear knob less so. Space all round is more than adequate and the 470-litre boot is excellent. If you need more space, there's a 308 SW estate variant with a 660-litre boot extendable to 1,660-litres with the rear bench folded.
As for driving stuff, well it's nice to report that the changes made to this 308 are more than skin-deep. There's an all-new 1.5-litre BlueHDi 130 diesel engine for example. And if you're able to stretch up to the 2.0-litre BlueHDi 180 diesel powerplant at the top of the range, you'll now find it mated to an all-new 8-speed automatic transmission. The brand says that its 1.2-litre three cylinder PureTech petrol engine has been extensively revised too, in pursuit of extra efficiency.
Otherwise, it's as you were. Most will want the 1.6-litre BlueHDi 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 an 82bhp, 1.2-litre three-cylinder PureTech unit, then there's a choice of either 110 or 130bhp versions 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 choice of the warmed-up GT model or the full-fat Gti hot hatch. The GT variant gets the older petrol 1.6-litre THP unit in 205bhp guise or the 2.0 BlueHDi 180 diesel unit. Go for the Gti and there's a 270bhp version of the 1.6 THP petrol powerplant.
Dynamically, the 308 has never really been a car for the hard charger. Instead, it's a family hatchback that's more 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 very comfortable around town in the sort of usage it will mostly see.
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 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 82g/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.
In summary, the Peugeot 308 has developed in an interesting manner. In many respects, it has quietly morphed into something very slick, something quintessentially French, despite being benchmarked against a Golf. If you enjoy flinging your car along the twistiest road you can find, a Focus will doubtless deliver a bigger hit. Having said that, the 308's laid-back demeanour and long-legged loping gait, attributes that hark back to classic Peugeots of the distant past, are actually qualities more in tune with the way we use cars today.
You need to avoid the entry-level model to get the touchscreen-trimmed cockpit that really brings the interior to life, but aside from that, there aren't too many caveats. The diesel engines are hugely economical and the three-cylinder petrol units characterful and fun. Peugeot's biggest challenge will come in delivering three-year residual values that will make this 308 as affordable to run as a Golf. That's not the work of a moment, but if this 308 is anything to go by, the French company is certainly moving in the right direction.Click here to find out more about our Peugeot 308 range
A Skoda Octavia was once the least sophisticated of all the Volkswagen Group's family hatchback products. Not any more. Almost nothing has been held back for this third generation version, which now features smarter looks, new hi-tech 1.0 and 1.5-litre TSI petrol engines, the option of adaptive damping further up the range and more sophisticated optional smartphone connectivity.
As with the Volkswagen Golf and the SEAT Leon, the German engineers who created this car took a pragmatic approach to driving dynamics, deciding that drivers opting for lower order engines wouldn't care too much about cutting edge handling response. So the sophisticated multilink rear suspension is reserved for the performance-oriented vRS models, the most powerful of which uses the 2.0-litre TSI petrol unit borrowed from the Golf GTI.
Here though, we're focusing on the mainstream variants that most Octavia customers will be considering, all suspended with a much humbler torsion beam arrangement. A very large proportion of customers opt for entry-level petrol power, previously a 1.2-litre unit but now a more frugal and sophisticated 1.0-litre engine developing 115PS and 200NM of torque. It can be ordered with or without 7-speed DSG auto transmission and in manual form, makes 62mph in 9.6s. Otherwise, the engines on offer are much as before. Petrol people get a 1.5 TSI ACT 150PS unit or, in the top vRS performance models, 230PS or 245PS versions of the 2.0 TSI turbo unit borrowed from the Golf GTI. Those in search of a diesel get either a 115PS 1.6 or 150 or 184PS versions of the usual 2.0 TDI unit. Opt for an engine with 150PS or more and you get the option of DCC adaptive damping. 4WD is an option with the 2.0 TDI engine.
And handling? Well as we suggested at the beginning, it isn't really geared towards the needs of the enthusiast driver, though to be fair, bodyroll is well controlled and the steering direct and precise. If you're after more than that, then you'll appreciate one of the sporty vRS models. Horses for courses you see. And if those courses are likely to be on the rough and muddy side, then you'll be interested in the four-wheel drive system also developed for this car, primarily for a Scout estate model with additional body cladding and a raised ride height.
On to design. Skoda people will probably quite like the fact that the look and feel of this car doesn't attract too much attention, even in this updated form where the lines have been streamlined, especially at the front. The two adjacent headlights form a dual face with a crystalline look and feature full-LED technology. The brand logo has gained more presence, with the front of the car featuring what the Czech maker hopes is a more powerful and wider appearance. But it's when you lift the heavy bootlid that you get a feel for what this car is really all about. It's absolutely huge, with 590-litres on offer. The estate has 610-litres before you start folding seats.
Has all this been achieved at the expense of rear seat occupants? It seems not. Enter in through the wide door openings and you'll find more headroom and elbow width than you'd get in comparably-sized Focus-clss competitors too. Up front, you still wouldn't think you were in an Audi but everything's certainly much more Volkswagen-like these days in terms both of fit and finish, the feeling supposed to equate to that of 'wearing a well tailored suit', according to the design team.
So-called 'Simply Clever' features include an allergen filter for the Climatronic air conditioner, an optional rear-view camera that's kept clean using washer jets and an optional umbrella under the front passenger seat. Plus iPads can be mounted to the front seats' backrests.
And in summary? Well, the Octavia name - based on the latin for 'eight' - is an almost inseparable part of Skoda's history, dating all the way back to 1959 when it arrived to designate the eighth design produced by the Czech brand following World War II. In modern era guise, Octavias have sold prolifically, enough, if placed end-to-end, to fill all three lanes of the complete M25. This improved version looks likely to continue that trend. The excellence of the latest 1.0 and 1.5 TSI petrol engines means that there's no need to automatically opt for a diesel if you're looking at this car and the 'Simply Clever' design touches make a lot of difference to day-to-day usability.
Like its Korean competitors, Skoda sees a future in which it no longer competes as a 'value brand'. That market will be left to the Chinese. Instead, the Czech maker wants a higher quality image developed alongside higher quality products - cars like this one. They want the purchase of something like an Octavia to be viewed not as a cheaper choice but instead as rather a clever one. That time may already have arrived.Click here to find out more about our Skoda Octavia range
MINI 5-Door Hatch
Forget all the niche models that the MINI brand has launched, this five-door Hatch is serious business, especially in this lightly revised form. With a long wheelbase, class competitive luggage space, room for grown-ups in the back and a range of punchy but economical engines, this one looks to have the sort of strong all-round game to guarantee strong sales.
The engine range isn't going to come as any great surprise to seasoned MINI watchers. It begins with a new 1.5-litre three cylinder unit with 102bhp in the MINI One (up from 1.2-litres previously), then progresses to a 1.5-litre diesel offered with 116bhp in the MINI Cooper D model. The mainstay of the range will be the 136bhp 1.5-litre petrol-powered Cooper variant. Alternatively, there's the four cylinder petrol 2.0-litre turbo 192bhp Cooper S. Most customers will stick with a six-speed manual gearbox but a newly-developed seven-speed Steptronic automatic is available as an option.
The Cooper S will cover the sprint to 62mph in just 6.8 seconds, while the Cooper SD isn't a whole lot slower, getting to 62 in 7.4 seconds. Variable Damper Control with adjustable dampers is available as an option, as are MINI driving modes which offers drivers the choice between Sport, Mid and Green modes. Using a rotary switch at the base of the gearstick or selector lever, drivers can swap from the default Mid mode to either Sport or Green. The three choices offer a set-up which is either performance-oriented, balanced or geared towards fuel efficiency. MINI driving modes also influences the ambient lighting, shift characteristics of the automatic transmission and the Variable Damper Control if the option is selected.
While it's inevitably not quite as pert as the three-door car, the extra 72mm grafted into this 5-door Hatch model's wheelbase gives the shape some roadside presence. In fact, more length has gone into the rear overhang, with the car 161mm longer than the standard Hatch. The five-door also delivers 15mm more headroom and 61mm of shoulder width. As for the most recent changes, well the styling doesn't look all that different, but close inspection will reveal the addition of standard-fit LED front and rear lights, plus there's now extra scope for all-important personalisation.
The pitiful boot space that many might expect doesn't in fact come to pass. In fact, there's a reasonable 278-litre boot which is an increase of 67-litres on the three-door Hatch. Drop the 60/40 split rear seats and there's up to 941-litres available, both measures being better than what BMW sees as this MINI's key rival in its class, the Audi A1. The boot floor can be set at two different heights, which can either optimise space or offer a completely flat boot floor for easy loading. The twin height boot floor is part of an optional storage package which also includes additional lashing eyes and floor net for the luggage compartment, seats which can be angled more steeply so as to create more luggage space and map pouches for the backrests of the front seats. Accommodation in the back isn't bad, with a scooped-out headlining freeing up some extra headroom.
In summary, this is a car that seems to have a whole lot of bases covered. It's well built, it looks good and, if the three-door Hatch is anything to go by, it'll drive well too. Factor in excellent fuel economy, likely strong residuals and a very good standard equipment list, couple that with upfront asking prices that are anything but unreasonable and you have a really strong all-round package with broad appeal. There might well be a queue for this one.Click here to find out more about our MINI 5-Door Hatch range