Peugeots new 308 looks good and is lower and wider than its predecessor.

Peugeot's new 308 looks good and is lower and wider than its predecessor.

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Peugeot's new 308 is a key model for a company facing challenging times. Dave Leggett took it for a drive and heard from Peugeot about an industrial strategy that has involved major investment in new product.

As luck would have it, I was driving a current model Peugeot 308 to the launch destination for the new model. Just how different would the new generation model be? This, I reminded myself, is a company that lost a whopping EUR5bn in 2012 and is facing liquidity issues that could radically change its financial make-up and ownership. Sales in Europe may be looking up but they are still tanking by historical standards. In the good times before the latest European downturn, PSA would shift 2.3m vehicles a year in Western Europe. In 2012, the total had fallen to under 1.5m. Besides the collapse of what might be considered the home market/region, the middle ground of the market occupied by brands like Peugeot has been under relentless attack from the pushy premium brands and relative newcomers like Hyundai-Kia. That squeeze does not look like ending anytime soon. The corporate wallpaper is, well, a little on the bleak side.

Maybe they have been tempted to cut a few corners? New product development, after all, is an area where manufacturers can make substantial cost savings through delaying new model introductions, deferring investment or compromising on 'all-new'. The question is: will the customer notice? And the answer is, yes, eventually, when your product gains a reputation for being long in the tooth. Product lifecycles do exist and it can be a dangerous path to go down.

Peugeot deserves credit for not going down that path. This really is a new car on a new platform and it is very different from the current model, suprisingly so in fact. Peugeot has clearly invested plenty of valuable resource to make it so. The decision on that goes back a few years when the company decided to invest in a new modular architecture: Efficient Modular Platform 2 (EMP2). The Citroën C4 Picasso was the first vehicle off the new flexible architecture and now we have the Peugeot 308. Think of it as a root and branch redo that enables a full product revamp and redesign for a host of engineering improvements that can only come from the blank canvass that is a completely new platform.

Peugeot's 'lead attribute' engineer on the new 308 is a Briton, Ben Hindsley. He sees the new model in the context of the big decision that led the PSA Group to invest in EMP2. "It was one of the biggest decisions for the company in the last six years," he says. "This flexible architecture has enabled us to make many fundamental changes to design and engineering that led to big benefits in terms of things like weight, CO2 and also quality. There is so much that we can now build into the new designs of our cars to improve them based on this new architecture."

An example is the redesign of cooling system architecture to optimise performance while compacting the size of the operating system. Redesigning the cooling system has led to a reduction of front overhang by 6.3cm and created more space for luggage and occupants despite the reduction in length of the new 308 (-3cm compared to previous 308 model). Reducing the front and rear overhangs also means that the wheels are nearer to the 'four corners' for better handling. Peugeot says there is more space in the car for people and luggage than in the last generation model, despite the more compact size.

At launch, the Peugeot 308 is being offered with three petrol and two diesel engines, including a 3-cylinder petrol engine. The power ranges from 82 to 155bhp for petrol engines with CO2 emissions from 114g/km and for diesel engines the power ranges from 92 to 115bhp with CO2 emissions from 93g/km at launch. A new turbocharged three-cylinder engine (designed with EU6 emission regulations in mind) is due in the spring of 2014. There will also be a BlueHDi 308 variant averaging just 82g/km of CO2. A new generation of six-speed automatic gearboxes are also coming.

Peugeot has also worked with Michelin on Ultra Low Rolling Resistance tyres which it says permit a CO2 reduction of 3g/km, on average, as well as improved braking distance on wet roads (with claimed durability identical to that of standard tyres). They will be fitted on more than one third of the models in the range.

140kg weight loss

The weight loss achieved on this car versus the outgoing model is probably the single biggest engineering achievement. Taking out 140kg of weight on a C-segment car is an impressive result, whichever way you look at it. The starting point is a compact car designed for economy; the previous batch of engineers also grappled with weight-cost trade-offs and compromises. Peugeot says that it has been able to achieve a 140kg reduction in weight on the new 308 using lighter weight materials and employing processes facilitated by the new platform.

The EMP2 platform itself permits a reduction in weight of around 70kg, in three key areas: materials, design and new assembly processes. Materials yield a 27kg saving by using innovative steels, composites and aluminium. Very high and ultra-high strength steels form 76% of the platform. The spare wheel floor is made entirely of composite materials and aluminium has been used on more components than previously (front beam, rear beam,handbrake lever). Some 10kg weight reduction comes from using innovative assembly processes such as laser welding that save material. Peugeot says there is some 12 metres of laser welding on new 308, as well as the use of hot stamping.

Design accounts for another 33kg of weight loss. Interface parts between the body and the engine or the suspension and wheels have been optimised and simplified, the company says. Modules such as the fuel tank have been lightened (the reduced size, Peugeot admits, is linked with reduced consumption). Others are available in variants which permit selection of the most appropriate module for the performance to avoid fitting needless excess weight. The power steering electric motors, for example, are available with three different levels of power.

To achieve the overall 140kg reduction in weight, a further 70kg was saved by examining major components for weight optimisation. The front wings and the bonnet are constructed in aluminium, a technological choice that Peugeot points out is usually reserved for premium vehicles. The company says that the use of high strength steel, innovative materials and the redesigning of components have all permitted considerable reductions in weight. The tailgate is formed using a composite material called Thermoplastic, which Peugeot says reduces the weight of the tailgate by 3kg. In addition, it is claimed that the 'compactness' of the new 308 provides a reduction of 12kg saved on parts across the vehicle.

LED headlamps

The new 308 is available with full LED headlamps (standard on two of the four main trim levels) - some 31 on each headlamp (comprising 10 for the dipped headlamps, two modules of four micro LEDs for main beam headlamps and 13 LEDs for the light signature). Peugeot says the full LED headlamps consume 50% less energy than halogen headlamps, helping to reduce CO2 emissions. Whatever the running cost benefits, the LED headlamps (still a relatively new technology most heavily associated with premium brands) and the light signature are a part of the premium feel that Peugeot is striving for.

Clean and uncluttered interior

And premium is the feeling Peugeot wants to convey with an interior that has been thoroughly revamped and rethought. The company says the Peugeot 'i-Cockpit' comes with four integrated components: a compact and low-set steering wheel; a high-positioned 'head up' instrument panel that sits above the steering wheel; an enhancing high centre console and a large 9.7" touch screen from where most of the comfort controls can be worked. The HMI design is pretty intuitive and even on a first drive, I quickly got the hang of the radio, phone, sat-nav, climate control (not always the case, I can assure you). The overall effect is quite minimalist. There's not a vast array of buttons and, to my mind, that's a good thing. 

The relatively small steering wheel does indeed convey a sportier feel. Essential dials above the steering wheel and just under the eyeline also work well (although I wonder if the arrangement would suit every human shape). It was on climbing into the outgoing model after the launch event that I realised just how much improved the interior and driving experience on the new 308 really is. 

Summary

The LED headlamps are one part of what Peugeot is hoping will suggest quality to potential conquest customers in the C-segment who, perhaps, would not have considered a Peugeot before. Put simply, Peugeot wants a product that comes close to VW Golf quality and near premium feel, but at a significantly lower price. It has clearly decided that it had to invest in the new platform and invest in making the 308 as good as it could be in what is a highly competitive segment of the market in Europe. Will it succeed? The general consensus from those who have driven the new car is that Peugeot has given it a good shot, especially in terms of coming up with a product that is demonstrably better than its predecessor. Is it good enough to seriously challenge cars such as the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf? There was some talk from fellow media colleagues of slightly excessive 'body roll' when cornering (didn't seem like a problem to me). If the 308 is slightly dynamically inferior to the Focus or lacks the prestige of the Golf, that's not exactly surprising. The new 308 is, however, being sensibly positioned in the market. The point of the car is to deliver a credible product in a vital segment, attract some conquest buyers and lift the image of the Peugeot brand. Underpinned by EMP2, the new 308 looks like a well taken product action step for a company facing the challenges that PSA faces.

See also: INTERVIEW: Maxime Picat, Managing Director, Peugeot