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