From benchmark to backbench in one generation.
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.
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).
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.