Ghost in the Machine: Peugeot 308 SW Drive Review

A spring break, (or to put it another way, a break in spring) leaves our correspondent in a mildly disturbed state of mind.

A glossy, brochure view of the 308 SW, showing larger alloys that help disguise the rear-end bulk. (source: Peugeot)

One of the many joys of going to the middle of France every spring is that we hire a car for the duration and it never ceases to provide a chance to sample something new from the automotive smorgasbord. This year, for once, we actually got what we expected; Hertz had promised either a 308 SW or a C-Max and we got the Pug.

I wasn’t convinced about the looks – the added bodywork of the SW over the 308 hatch can make the rear three quarters look bulky and like the basic structure is enveloped by rolls of flab, a look which demands larger diameter wheels in order to reduce the relative visual effect.

The frontal aspect is very fussy – over detailed grille, over detailed headlamps, etc. – and not especially Peugeot in style to my eyes. I think the new 508 does it better (by the way, I noticed the other day that Peugeot has brought back putting a model name badge on the prow of the bonnet, a feature I think I last noticed was used in the days of the 504). I don’t think the impression was helped by a rather 80s paint scheme – a kind of dull, mid-gold metallic that reminded me of the Maestros and Montegos of my past.

This rental period provided me with a first opportunity to drive a Peugeot with an iteration of the i-Cockpit dashboard architecture. This includes (for the uninitiated) a much smaller than one would expect circumferenced steering wheel, a much higher mounted than expected instrument binnacle, and a very clean and clear central stack as all minor – and some not so minor – controls are expunged from there and layered into the menus accessed via the centrally mounted touch screen.

It’s quirky and quite stylish and so gives a very Gallic feel to the interior.  It’s also of very decent quality. The plastics look and feel unctuously expensive. The instruments are crisp and nicely detailed (if a bit as if they have been designed in miniature – it’s quite hard to read the speedometer dial and one ends up relying on the high-res digital speed readout that sits between the speedometer and tachometer).

The overall impression is of a blanket of sophistication.  The only major blemish can barely be seen but is horrid to the touch in the form of the fingertip ‘pod’ nestling just behind the wheel that manages the cruise control: it’s the same design as that which I first witnessed in our old Xsara Picasso, although this example was disturbingly sharp edged and felt as if it could very easily leave a scar if fingers were applied in too much of a fumble.  Surely it’s time PSA pensioned off these abominations?

A realistic impression of i-Cockpit, 308 style, courtesy of L’Argus.

The 308 SW is blessed with a huge boot (bigger even than that on our Skoda Octavia – apologies but it’s a very obvious and relevant reference point).  The load area cover is not the best design or quality, although the actual area is very nicely trimmed. Some of this boot space seems to have been stolen from the rear passenger area, which is notably cramped for two teenagers, as well as being a bit dingy and miserable (no air vents provided, for example).

From the driver’s seat, the car felt long and narrow, an impression created at least in part by the fact that I seemed to be positioned very tight against the door. The seat was also quite a tight fit. The handbrake is an electronic jobby and in the 5 days I drove the car I did not think I had fully understood its workings.

It also started via a button on centre console, which looked and felt nice, but any benefit was lost as the ‘key fob’ itself is chunky and so cannot comfortably reside in a trouser pocket while seated in the car. Neither of these features does it for me.

Huge boot – beats even the mighty Octavia in its class (source: Practical Caravan [were you ever in doubt?])
On the road, the 308 SW is quiet and smooth – adding to that sense of sophistication mentioned earlier. Road noise is very well isolated, and only a light wind ruffle is evident from around the wing-mirrors. The turbocharged 3 cylinder, which produces 110 PS in the car we had hired – was willing, smooth, powerful enough and had that pleasant off-beat thrum to it. Fuel consumption was OK, about 38 MPG during our time together.

The gear change was light and smooth but long-winded and not well defined. Moreover, the gearstick visibly jumped forward and back when put under and then taken off load, which I found a bit agricultural.

The placing of all the controls on the touch screen is one of those cases of a nice idea that loses its charm in practice. The need to go into a specific menu for the HVAC controls and then aim one’s finger and prod away at a range of up or down arrows for everything whilst trying to guide the 308 at 130 KM/H down the autoroute quickly became a source of annoyance and not a little frisson of danger. Knobs remain my HVAC medium of choice.

Handling-wise, the 308 SW is safe and nimble, but I found the whole impression overwhelmed by the fact the key interface is the toy go-kart sized steering wheel. Initially, I was pleased to find that the small, low set wheel did not block my view of the instrument binnacle as I had feared. One views the dials over the top of the wheel rather than through it. I’m not that sure of what the benefit of this is meant to be, but the overall effect is unnatural.

I found that the steering wheel sat in my lap, which is a position I have only ever experienced when having hired a small motor pleasure boat once when in York. Second, and linked to the relatively light weighting of the steering (which may have been adjustable, but I did not get to explore the depths of the screen based menus that much) it means that you can’t lean on the steering when cornering in anything like an enthusiastic fashion as you can in most other cars with more traditionally positioned wheels.

Even the C6, which possesses the lightest helm of any car that I have driven, can be punted confidently in this manner on the very rare occasions when one is thus inclined. The result was that I felt less confident in the chassis’ talents than they probably warranted – it’s not that one feels remote, it’s just unnatural and overly synthetic.

The sensations through the steering wheel brings me on to the ‘ghost’ mentioned in the title of this piece. Having picked the car up from the Hertz office just outside Chateauroux station, we set off and quickly boarded the Autoroute. Whilst passing an exit for one of the rather pleasant aires, I felt a weird tremor through the wheel – like I had run over a very large ‘cats-eye’.

I thought nothing of it at first. A bit further along, whilst steering into the right hand lane having overtaken a lorry, I experienced the same sensation, only worse – the steering feel first lightened suddenly and then seemed to resist my action forcibly. It was so odd I turned to my wife and said that I thought there was something wrong with one of the front tyres and would have to stop. Nothing was apparently wrong, so we set off again.

Following another manoeuvre, I had the same issue, but this time noticed a small icon flash up in orange on the dashboard, an icon I recognised only because the C6 has the same one which relates to the lane departure warning system. On the C6, this feature is infamous because the warning takes the form of vibrating the driver’s seat on the side of the car which has traversed the lines in the road.

I then immediately realised that on the 308 SW, the system instead works on the electrically powered steering which is programmed to correct the transgression for the driver. This, then, is the step off point for autonomous driving – the ‘car’ taking control over from the fallible driver. I found it unnerving.

My natural response was to try to overcorrect the action of the ‘car’ and so engender a small swerve, upsetting my passengers. Over the 5 days I drove the car, I did not get used to it and found that it upped my stress levels. On the C6, I turn the feature off with a nice button that has a bright green LED to tell you when it’s on (another reason to turn it off as it’s a distraction).

On the 308 SW, I guess such a control is going to be buried in a menu accessed via the touchscreen, which I did not take the time to locate and so make an adjustment. I have experienced the Autopilot on the Tesla Model S and it did not seem as sensitive, invasive or unnatural as this was. It’s there as a ‘driving-aid’/ safety feature for goodness-sake, but it made me feel less in control and so more in peril.

308 carmoto
A more prosaic view courtesy of an ad in carmoto.

Re-reading this stream of consciousness, I find myself in fear of concluding that I am some kind of luddite or have just drifted into old-fartdom. The main things I didn’t like about the 308 SW were the faddy electronic bits, which, whilst they are not significant issues in isolation, in aggregate they spoil a perfectly decent and, in some respects, very pleasing car.

I like that Peugeot is doing something unconventional with the i-Cockpit, even if aspects of the execution are perfectible to say the least. I was impressed at the general hush, the pliant ride and the smooth and funky engine. The boot is massive and the whole interior nicely trimmed and presented.

In short, I found a lot of old-school fundamentals to like with the edge taken off by new-fangled features. I hope it’s not necessarily the shape of things to come.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

11 thoughts on “Ghost in the Machine: Peugeot 308 SW Drive Review”

  1. Yes, but how does it perform on the Nürburgring, Steven?

    This kind of everyday insight (and it’s everyday this car was created for, rather than two days along picturesque coastal roads in southern Spain in springtime) is priceless – thank you very much!

    Having read a few reviews of the all-new, crease-free Mercedes A-class, it appears as though even infotainment-savvy automotive journalists are struggling with its voice recognition system. I wonder what the likes of you and I would make of that.

    1. Ah yes, voice recognition. I have it on the Citroen (a relatively early example, I think) and the Skoda. I tend to use it in both instances only to switch between the radio and the ‘Jukebox’ in the case of the Citroen and the media (USB) in the case of the Skoda. Beyond that, the issues tend to be around either system recognising words (so, the Skoda fails every time to be able to ‘hear’ “BBC Radio 5 Live” however slowly and carefully I say it. I have tried to use it in conjunction with the SatNav, but the problem is that it may get the first word right (for the town I want to go to), but that’s no use if it gets stuck on the road name. In the case of the Citroen, the range or vocabulary is limited, as is the depth of use in any function. I do feel that if voice recognition could be perfected, it should be the answer to eradicating buttons and physical controls.

    2. In my car, the only useful application for voice control is entering addresses into the navigation system.
      I can’t see much use in selecting radio stations using a method that is more complicated than manually selecting it from a list of favourites.
      In my Audi voice control didn’t work at all and even a “retraining” had no effect until I found a “forget voice training” buried deep in dark menus. After that a “retraining” had full effect and voice control now works 99 out of 100 times.

  2. SV: it’s a general problem that acceptable or decent physical structures and the dynamics are overshadowed by poor ergonomics for the user interface. I don’t see it getting better either because, excuse me, the public are not alert to problem and accept “that’s just the way it is.”
    I think the tail light are worth an essay. They spoil the exterior.

  3. SV: it’s a general problem that acceptable or decent physical structures and the dynamics are overshadowed by poor ergonomics for the user interface. I don’t see it getting better either because, excuse me, the public are not alert to problem and accept “that’s just the way it is.”
    I think the tail light are worth an essay. They spoil the exterior.

  4. Thank you, I enjoyed this review.

    I was following a 307 SW in traffic the other day, which reminded me just what a hideous car that is. A contender on the all-time hideous car list. This 308 earns credit for being an improvement.

    PSA’s little three pot petrol motor does seem to be a bit of gem, too, and works well in most applications.

    Overall, the car does sound flawed, though – cramped rear seats, flawed ergononomics, infuriating controls. I simply do not understand the ‘iCockpit’ concept at all. Nothing would make me pause to consider buying one of these.

    1. Are you talking about the previous 308 or really the 307? The 308 Mk1 with its wraparound rear windshield and overall bubbly shapes is truly awful. The 307 on the contrary worked rather well as an estate, where the added length and wheelbase made better proportions than for the standard hatchback which suffered from its excessive height.

  5. Thanks for this report, SV. I only had a very short encounter with a 308 SW as a rental car from my workplace to the airport – roughly a 1.5 hour drive, and spent rather hurriedly on an early morning, so I was not really in the mood to go into test drive mode. Overall it seemed a smooth vehicle to me, and I had no problems with the cockpit. However, I never went on a curvy road where a more physical driving style was required.
    I didn’t notice any action from the lane departure system, so it was either nonexistent, switched off or not active in any of the driving situations I encountered. If it works a bit like the C6’s system, it will be inactive whenever you use the indicator when switching lanes, which is what I usually do. If it acts as you describe, I guess it would have been a major irritation for me as well. It sounds rather unpredictable to me, and this is something that definitely doesn’t contribute to safe driving in my eyes.

    1. Simon, yes, I had realised in writing about the LDWS that I was revealing my ‘imperfect’ use of indicators. I tend to indicate when overtaking but not always when returning to the lane I started in. I did adapt my style to avoid the wretched intervention from the steering system – it is the sole respect in which I can think that the system had a positive safety impact.

  6. It’s funny how in recent years car interiors reflect the consumer electronics trends of years ago. Hence hackneyed names like “i-Cockpit” (or even “iCockpit”; even Peugeot themselves seem confused as to which it is), long after Apple abandoned them. The 2008 Mk7 Fiesta’s centre console ICE switchgear was inspired by the likes of the Nokia 6600 from 2003. Blame long product development lead times.

    The wholesale adoption of touchscreens is hardly surprising given the all-conquering smartphone, but really worrying ergonomically. I guess if you’re having a touchscreen anyway then the opportunity to save costs by moving some functions that previously required physical controls is hard to resist. Just a bit of a shame if you crash because your attention is occupied by jabbing through a tiny menu system on a screen lacking any physical feedback.

    Regarding the Peugeot, I’ve been learning to drive over the past few months and one particular well-known UK driving school’s choice of the 308 with its peculiar instrument binnacle placement actually put me off choosing them.

    1. I’d noticed that said UK driving school was using 308s and had exactly the same thought. It’s a bit of a shame really, because the 308 hatch in particular is a nice a looking thing and quite sweet driving.

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