Peugeot 306 to 307 = Immediate Loss of Status

From benchmark to backbench in one generation. 

Peugeot 307 - image from
Peugeot 307 – image:

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran as part of DTW’s Benchmarks theme in March 2015.

In these days, it is usually described as a loss of mojo, although I’ve never been certain of what that word actually means. In terms of the launch of the 307, I’d prefer to describe it as a fall from grace. I suppose I could also have picked the transition from 205 to 206 from the same stable, but I think it less obvious and memorable for me. I think I need to become instantly more specific. The 306 was the chassis benchmark in its class. It was also one of the more lovely looking mid-range hatches of its time, but I think aesthetics are much harder to benchmark, and I am certainly less comfortable opining on the way a car looks under such a heading.

Peugeot 306. Image: Autoevolution

As a chassis benchmark, in UK tests at least, the 306 was praised – lauded, even – time and time again. Obviously, this was most prominent for the GTi and S-16 versions of the car, but even lowly 1.4 litre, basic versions were blessed with a deft balance between fun handling and a supple ride. Then, when the more contemporary (but less lithe) looking 307 turned up, something went amiss.

I feel able to comment on this transition as I was a regular renter of hire cars at the time this occurred. More precisely, the company I worked for was prepared to hire cars for me rather than stump up train fares. So I was fortunate (it did not always feel thus) to sample a number of cars in this class, and the period of time straddled the commercialisation of the mature 306 and box fresh 307.

I would always look forward with anticipation to spending a day with the 306; it was a fun thing and often meant that I would rise a little earlier in the morning and take the A5 up to Coventry rather than slog up the M1 and M45. It was, to my mind, the benchmark. It was only eclipsed as my favourite by the arrival of the Focus – an extraordinary drive at the time and, actually, it seems even more so today. Even then, there was something relatively raw about the 306; the Focus was more sophisticated and thereby lost a little in engagement with the pilot.

And then, one day, it was a 307 parked up outside my house. I got up early that morning, nosed onto the A5 and then … wondered what was wrong. The car felt flabby and loose, and yet the ride could be jarring. It reminded me of the Honda Integra EX16 I once owned (my own personal worst chassis benchmark, if that is the word). It was that bad that I reported to the hire car firm that I felt there must have been a failure with one or more of the shock absorbers. Alongside that, the gear-change went from fluid and snappy to long-winded, floppy with a tad of notch about it. And, the 1.4 litre mill felt strained in comparison with its installation in the 306 – was the car that much heavier?

So, what on earth happened? I don’t really know. There has been lots of stuff written about Peugeot ceasing making its own shock absorbers, which is plausible, but I’d postulate that the whole car felt that it had been designed to a more cynical, or, to be more generous-spirited, at least a less precise, brief. The car was taller and larger in every way, and, at the time thought of as a kind of cross-over between a normal hatch and an MPV.

Driving dynamics seemed to have been deprioritised and, I think, the car lost the passive rear-steer element of the suspension that worked so well for the 306. Either way, Peugeot went from being benchmark to also-ran in terms of making a fun, mid-range hatch. Sufficient to say, from that point I specified that I did not want a 307 when ordering a hire car (a status shared only with the Nissan Almera II, which was truly horrid).

Image: Autoevolution

Although the current 308 has marked something of a return to form, I think anyone would struggle to describe it as a handling and/ or ride benchmark. The main lead-indicator that something better may be around the corner seems to come from the RCZ-R and 208 GTi 30th Anniversary models, both of which are drawing quite a lot of praise – but they are both at the sporting end of things. What we want is a new benchmark amongst the more cooking end of the spectrum, especially as the current generation Focus also seems to have let the mantle slip.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

36 thoughts on “Peugeot 306 to 307 = Immediate Loss of Status”

  1. Good morning S.V. The 306 is one of those cars that has not only aged well, but looks even better with the passage of time. There are so many really nice, subtle details to appreciate, such as the way the body flares out over the front and rear wheels, the manner in which the door frames are imperceptibly integrated into the A-pillars and roof, and the subtle bodyside crease that adds tension to the design. It is a masterpiece, and one of those automotive unicorns: a perfect design that could not be improved upon.

    The 306 had a really tough act to follow, and I don’t think the 307 is terrible. (That accolade should be reserved for its successor, the first 308.) The 307 actually looks rather nice in the rear three-quarter aspect above, where you cannot see the awkward A-pillar treatment.

    1. I agree that the 307 is inoffensive in its rear 3/4, especially in 3 door form as it avoids that rear door DLO-shutline dilemma that I mentioned on the previous article.

      However, I have to say that its inoffensiveness is probably the biggest issue at hand. The 306 was distinctive and very Peugeot in the rear with its flared taillights, smoked reverse lights, and rakish roofline. This just looks like a contemporary Golf or Civic that got passed through a barely discernable photo filter. As Richard pointed out last time, the overwhelming sensation is just one of vagueness. That is probably the worst crime of all.

  2. The only really good thing I have to say about the 306 since I have no personal driving experience of the car is that the booted version may be the most beautiful looking hatch-to-boot conversions I have ever seen. After a decade with “do my butt look nice in these?” Jettas and Orions it was nice to see that at least someone made a genuine effort to make the lines work in an extended fashion. Looking at the car it could very well have been designed as a sedan from the start, a worthy successor to the 305.

  3. Your experience echoes mine; first thinking I was driving a broken example, and then horror at how bad it was. I think calling it an also ran is generous, I can think of no contemporary that was dynamically worse, and I include in that the puddings that Korea was turning out at the time.

    1. You should read Car´s review in Oct 2002. It beat the Focus, Golf and Astra in a group test. According to the author it was a good all-around improvement. I don´t believe that at all.

    2. I´ve just read it (June 2001). Paul Horrell says very good things about the chassis of this “radical hatch”: the steering is “direct and accurate and serves up loads of feel”. Handling “eager, low on roll…”. Ride is “superfluent”. I can only explain that if this 307 was a really well prepared press car, or it was a pre-production one and Peugeot changed the suspension setup on production cars. I remember the good reviews that got the chassis of the first Golf VR6s and Escorts mkIII.
      Car magazines tend to favour brand new models. Car makers like that.

      By the way, the test black three door Focus with 16 inch alloys looks superb.

  4. The same could be said for when the Fiat Bravo/Brava was replaced by the Fiat Stilo, it makes one wonder what problems and other issues were going on within Fiat and PSA at the time for them to tread down a path of what can only be described as deliberate complacency (like in the Peugeot skit by old TG years back) to create what amounts to their own equivalents of the ill-regarded 1990 Ford Escort.

    Needless to say Fiat and PSA’s loss would end up being Ford and Renault’s gain in terms of driving dynamics and more.

    1. The C-class leader, the Golf, set the template for heavy, uninvolving cars, I believe. “Maturity” came to be a dreaded word when reading the review in the 00s. Funnily, the Golf reviewed in the Oct 2002 article came last though if you read between the lines it clearly sounds like a car to suit people who want to drive in an unengaged way. The Astra 2.2. that they tested was clearly meant for engaged drivers – they thought it was too harsh. The Focus comes across as the best compromise or else not a refined as a Golf or not as fast as an Astra. The 307 did nothing really well but won against peers with clear ambitions to be focused (and whose focus cost them).

    2. The one time I’ve experienced a Fiat Stilo I actually thought there was something wrong with the car, and it was brand new at the time. The road noise as heard from inside the car is the worst I’ve ever heard from a car ever. It was deafening and extremely tiresome and something I would never have accepted if the car was my own.

    3. It was definately the case with the mk3 and mk4 Golfs before it experienced a return to form with the mk5. Unlike Ford that bounced back from the 90s Escorts to the Focus, the Astra was another that never really recovered from its fall to mid-tier status with the mk3 and mk4 after the mk2 even with the involvement of Lotus on the more powerful models.

      Felt the Almera N15 was underrated despite its styling, yet rather bewildered by its own decline with the visually similar Almera N16 and general MS platform. Particularly as to what degree the MS platform was actually all-new and not essentially a rebranded heavily penny-pinched iteration of an existing Nissan platform conceived either during Nissan’s financial difficulties in attempt to reduce costs or post-Renault takeover.

      For what it is worth the Japanese wiki page for the Nissan MS platform (that appeared in 1998 with the Sunny B15) goes as far as to imply it was due to underpin what became the Micra K12 as part of an ambitious plan to unify all small and medium-sized Nissans (from Micra and Almera to Primera) on a single platform by 2002, until it was canceled as a result of the development of the B and C platforms post-Renault takeover.

  5. I´ve never driven a 306 but every time I drive my father´s 307 SW I´m constantly reminded of its tall body and resulting clumsy handling. In the end it´s like driving a MPV but without the interior space (although for a medium size SW is quite good, I´m about 1,77 m and managed to travel around 60 km in the third row of seats without feeling kidnapped), so it´s the worst of both worlds. Bravo Peugeot.

    The 307 isn´t going to win any concours d´elegance but for me a pre restyling SW in a nice color (and a nice landscape) is not bad:

    1. I have to concur that the SW is the least offensive-looking and likely best choice out of the 307 range, getting closest to fulfilling its brief as a ‘near-MPV’ though still failing to fully achieve MPV practicality, as you mention. The side DLO is more cohesive and clearer to read than on the other bodystyles, and in higher spec they do a decent impression of seeming a bit posh with painted rubbing strips and that optional glass panoramic roof.

      Being a 307, though, Peugeot clearly couldn’t resist getting something wrong in the rear; why is the taillight ‘interrupted’ by the rear window glass? The resulting ‘triangle with a bite taken out’ shape is really peculiar.

    2. The glass panoramic roof is cool; shame that in almost every 307 SW the electric mechanism that opens or closes the sun shield doesn´t work and it´s not cheap to repair.

      Considering how he parks, I wish my father´s 307 had non painted strips on the bumpers… oh dear.

  6. I always liked the 306, but sadly I’ve never driven one. Daniel has already pointed out the qualities of the design and I can only agree here. I especially appreciate the design of the 3 and 5 door as well as the convertible. The saloon is a fine effort, but I prefer the hatchbacks. The estate doesn’t work for me.

    One of my friends used to have a GTI 6, or at least that is what I think the top 306 was called. 167 horses, a six speed gear box and, great chassis and all of this dressed in a sharp suit. The car was already sold when I got to know him, but I would really have loved a drive in that car.

    To me Peugeot’s unique selling point was the chassis. They nailed it with the 306, so why they made the 307 so much worse is beyond my understanding. They really killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. Still they made more 307’s than 306’s. Scratching my head now.

    1. I think the reason why the 307 sold better, is because the majority of people really don’t care that much about design. Take myself for instance: I never disliked the 307, but I also was ignorant about the design of the 306. To me, both cars were just Peugeots, nothing special. Now reading this articles, I have to admit the 306 has a fine design and is much more balanced than the 307, but I doubt I would have ever noticed the subtle design elements on my own.

    2. Well, I think I can try to answer Freerk’s question.
      At around 2002 an aquainted of mine stoped by my house in his brand new 307. Inside was his wife and 2 children, all well dressed and ready for an outing.
      He showed me the automatic gearbox, then the inside trim with a bit of chrome inserts, if i remember well, and then told me the price of the car ending with “…can you believe it? What else could one wish?”

    3. I’m trying to make sense of your comment, Zacharias. If people don’t care that much about design, then the design shouldn’t be reflected in the sales figures of a car, all other things being equal. Yet the 307 outsold the 306. If you would have said people prefer uglier cars, it would have made sense.

      Constantinos, I think the 307 was competitively priced, but never the value proposition, at least not here in the Netherlands.

    4. Hi Zacharias. I think you make a good point: the car buying public is largely indifferent to automotive design, except at the extremes* of good or (more usually) bad design, and then only because of what they have read or heard from motoring journalists. Most of my acquaintances think I’m slightly unhinged when I start banging on about shut-lines, C-pillars, sail panels etc. My long-suffering partner is becoming more aware of automotive design and will occasionally comment unprompted about a detail on the car ahead in traffic, usually to criticise something he dislikes.

      * None of the above explains BMW’s mystifyingly strong sales, however.

  7. Re handling

    The vehicle dynamics genius resident at Peugeot retired shortly after this (I’ve forgotten his name unfortunately). After him there was no-one with the combination of sheer talent and force of personality to get things done right. After him came cynicism and the tide of fake continued its inexorable rise.

    Re styling

    Similar story. Staff retirement. Replacement of real by fake.

    Re Product
    Would you really want to be seen in one of these things, let alone admit you purchased it with your own money? It is to be recommend to anyone that they have more respect for their money than that!

    1. The styling of the 306 was very much in the idiom of the 205, itself a design which was probably frozen around 1979 or thereabouts, meaning that it was probably time to move on from it by then. As far as I know, the 306 was an in-house design, although one is of course tempted to detect the hand of Pininfarina in its well judged lines and proportions. Having said that, even when Peugeot retained Cambiano as their design consultants, the team at la Garenne often successfully refined the Italians’ work – see 504 berline, for example.

      The issue here as I see it, wasn’t necessarily the styling theme chosen, (although it was far from inspired) but its rather plump-looking and poorly detailed execution. The car looks flabby and cumbersome, which the scales seems to have borne out.

      The story of Peugeot’s leading dynamics engineer, who I believe was Jean Baudin is one that gets dusted off with regularity, but we should stop and consider for a moment. While Baudin was most likely very good at this job, and one has to suspect, quite forthright in his opinions (they almost always are in my experience), can one man be wholly responsible for chassis excellence? In a small specialist carmaker, certainly, but in a company the size and sheer scale of Automobiles Peugeot? My feeling is that he may well have carried sufficient weight to bulldoze all and any dissenting voices, but even the most forthright of engineers is no match for the boardroom. Having said that, it beggars belief that he didn’t leave a succession plan in place when he left – (unless he was a very poor manager indeed).

      But it is to the boardroom that all of these retrograde decisions were made and carried out. Styling, engineering, all subject to the great god of cost savings. It probably all looked good on paper, but reputational damage doesn’t usually show up on balance sheets.

    2. Ford’s excellence in chassis setup of the early Focus/Mondeo era was largely the result of Richard Parry-Jones’ influence.
      VW hired Ulrich Eichhorn, inventor of the Focus Mk1 rear suspension. Result was Golf Mk5, pig ugly but good to drive.
      It was Fugen Ferdl himself who showed his chassis engineers how to set up the rear suspension of Golf Mk3 estate.

  8. Eoin

    Re the Boardroom
    It is said a fish rots from the head.

    Re Succession plan
    The succession plan of an engineer is easily and trivially frustrated once he has departed. There are vanishingly few people with the power and influence to ensure their plan continues as designed once they have departed, especially if the boardroom has alternative ideology.

    Re Peugeot
    There was a purge of older talent at this time. Capable people retired. Some were made generous offers to retire so that the decks would be clear for changes to be implemented.

    Re 306
    Farina certainly did have a strong influence there. There was co-operation, guidance and assistance. They too retired or, more accurately, were “retired” not so long after. Someone thought they had “better” ideas and cleared the decks so changes could be implemented. They sure got their way.

    Re balance sheets
    How reputational damage appears on the balance sheet depends how it is measured or realised. For example, some accountants show it as goodwill. Others prefer not to. Then it can be subsumed
    in other metrics. For example, as revenue, marketing overhead, even as ROI on capital deployed- plenty of ways. To know for certain you’d have to read the notes to the balance sheet (clearly understanding the basis of accounting/reporting employed) and preferably discuss it with those involved (director, CFO, senior finance/accounting officer in the company or its banker/s, a competent finance analyst- preferably a specialist who has been following the company carefully for an extended time etc).

    Re the present and the future for the Peugeot
    More recently there has been attempt to make some of the Peugeots look somewhat elegant again and also give them back a little of the chassis sparkle they once possessed. Indeed some have reported on Peugeot product “returning to form”. It is too early to tell whether this is really the case though. Note it is likely very, very late in the game – possibly too late. For European car makers the future looks grim.

  9. The knowledge of suspension-tuning clearly did not dissipate from Sochaux, it just sought a refuge from the Parisian manager’s incompetence within Peugeot Motorsport. Their WRC programme saw obvious benefits from engineering know-how and rally cars up to the 207 S2000 mimic the road handling of their forebearers like the 306 Maxi, which – according to rally champions such as Sébastien Loeb – is possibly the best-handling racing car of all time.
    I don’t want to spoil the discussion on the road-going versions with too much motorsport fandom, yet the story really seems to involve passionate employees who worked for Peugeot and spent their free time at French motorsport events such as the Andros Trophy, went venturing into African deserts or were into rallying and hillclimb races. It can’t be all blamed on boardroom decisions that these people disappeared, the world simply changed too much. If a design kick-off meeting starts with soulless KPI setting rather than discussing the latest Alsace Rally you get a 307 instead of a 306 as a result.

    1. Very well put Laszlo, o tempora, o mores!

  10. i worked at a main peugeot dealership some years back. the 307 was a current model at the time. not to put to fine a point on it but compared to the 306 and even the little 106 the 307 was a poorly designed and badly built pile of rubbish which was plagued with electrical faults and gave rise to a lot of disgruntled and irate customers in the service reception. certain owners threatening to drive cars through the showroom windows springs to mind. as for the looks of the 307 my 50 year old 304 coupe looks more dynamic.

  11. I’ve never driven a 306, or been driven in one, so I can’t pass judgment on its dynamic merits. However, I always considered it a handsome car that was let down by its dashboard. As for the 307… To be honest, I found the hatchback versions were rather awkward, fat-assed, and much more functional than graceful. The interiors were a different story: they looked upmarket (save for the plastic with the woodgrain print on it) and well-built. In all, the car seemed more grown-up than the 306, and I could forgive the twist-beam axle in the rear…

    Then, I decided against it. You see, the version I could afford to own back then was the 1.4-liter one. The one that couldn’t accelerate on a slope. Yeah, the steering was OK, the car’s manners were predictable and safe, but it was just too heavy for its own good.

    1. The truly amazing thing is that these really good Peugeots were created in the era of PDG Jacques Calvet, a decidedly non-car guy of truly bad taste. He seemingly let his styling and chassis teams do their job and only when he personally interfered the results were awful like the 306’S dashboard that looked the (cheap and rattly) way it did because Calvet wanted it exactly that way. There were much more attractive proposals but his personal chice was the one that the 306 was plagued with.

    2. I can step in and say I drove a 306 sedan, mostly on Irish roads but also (the same car!) in the Black Forest where it moved in the 00s. It all behaved nicely – a pleasure to conduct. The dashboard didn´t bother me at the time. I don´t think there´s anything wrong with it at all.

    3. The 306 Series 2 dashboard was much improved in terms of quality and just suffered form the same uninspiring looks as the rattly Series 1 item, except for the strange patch of seat fabric on its top in front of the passenger which was unique to the second version.
      Normal non-sporting 306s were fun to drive. The TU engines were noisy and unreliable but willing to rev with good throttle response, the ride was astonishingly supple and the handling really agile and secure. The only drawback was the heavy steering if there was not power assistance. Even a humble 1.4 with 75 PS could could travel surprisingly quick on winding roads and it encouraged its drivers to do so.

  12. For me, Peugeot’s lost reputation for well-mannered suspension is not to do with its rally success. A traditional Peugeot’s suspension was comfortable and vice-free, designed to be driven safely by people of average, or even low, competence. This possibly can be seen as the Baudin era, though as Eoin points out he was doubtless assisted by other talented engineers. Of course Baudin would have overseen the 205Gti, justifiably highly praised yet known for its lift-off oversteer, a trait that no family Peugeot would have been allowed to show. This was Peugeot entering a new market. But by this century it seemed that, like Renault, all the better suspension engineers were put to work at the rally/performance end, and any adequate set-up would do for the regular punters who, I assume, were judged as being unable to tell the difference.

  13. Hi Lazlo

    You mention, “the world simply changed too much”. It wasn’t the world that altered. What changed was the attitude people hold to life and how they live their lives. So many have allowed their passion to be subsumed by compliance. Instead of facing fact people prefer narrative. The results are a rising tide of mediocrity (eventually experienced as failure and then, if it goes long enough, calamity- call that high tide).

    You are correct to identify the dull corporate tick-box meeting as being problematic. It is without soul. How can anyone get passionate about their work in such a situation? How can an innovative, talented person thrive to produce in what is really a destructive environment. This isn’t the engineer’s fault (unless he chooses to stay on and tolerate it). Boardroom and senior management are responsible. They set and lead the culture. The fish rots from the head!*

    *this doesn’t absolve anyone who is accepting of the rot.

    Magyar vagy?

  14. I loved the 306 too, it is a lot of fun to drive car, surprisingly even with the small engine of 1,4 litre an 75 hp. the convertible version was and still is a really beautiful car (but not built in very good quality).

    The 307 was the Blueprint for the Golf V. Very same proportions – even more same dimensions – same father (Murat Günak). Yes, it was a car of the backbench – but here were a lot of cars following this path.

    The 307 CC was a design made in hell !

    1. Hello Markus: nice to see you again. I think the reason for the dimensional similarity of the Golf V was due to convergent evolution. I don´t dislike the 307CC because at least it has some visual interest. That said, I wouldn´t actually want one. I´d go for a 306 cabriolet, despite its iffy robustness.

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