Driving the French countryside a pleasure
As it transpires Christian Peugeot is rather a nice chap. Not at all grand, a bit diffident at first, he warmed up at the unlikeliest of topics.
Deposited at the Peugeot Museum, I’d whipped through the early cars, the rifles, pepper-grinders and tools and secreted myself happily among the motorcycles, where I was busy filling the memory card on my camera when Mister Peugeot and his far more dashing minder appeared. Turns out Mister Peugeot rides a Triumph Bonneville, while his Asia Pacific man has an MV Agusta Brutale – a bike with pure sex for a soundtrack.
Naturally the conversation shot directly to two wheels, unfortunately for the bored minder, but fortuitously for us. The ten-minute ‘Kiwis interview the boss’ segment turned into seats at his dinner table; the bonus, a long chat over coffee the next day and a drive to the airport chauffeur-driven by Mister Peugeot himself.
Now, I could have assumed he was doing the typical French flirting thing, but he was just too nice. He’s the eighth generation Peugeot to be involved in the company since 1810, the fourth since the wider family shares came under the umbrella of Robert, “that is why we are not too numerous,” he said. There are three Peugeot men and one woman on the advisory board, plus two cousins; the other six are not related, to ensure independent experts also man the helm.
Christian was keen to make sure I appreciated just having the right name doesn’t guarantee a future – indeed it couldn’t, or the company wouldn’t survive. It’ll get you a job. What you do with that opportunity is up to you. Of Christian’s three sons one is in the business, one a pilot and the youngest, well, he hasn’t made his mind up yet.
As the conversation wandered from bikes to rugby, to cars and kids, I was free to explore the nicely-built interior, with its pleasant materials and ambience. And to be reminded how much I’d liked it driving this car the previous day.
Its 307 predecessor hadn’t done much for me, though it boosted local sales by 60%. It was a pioneer of the high-roofline, boxy shape that creates a roomy interior within a relentlessly sensible outline. Which meant the 307 was little more than a tarted-up Corolla with some nice diesel engines and a bit of ersatz garlic to give it flavour. Its already uninspiring demeanour wilted further when the 207 arrived, with its sharp lines and thrusting nose.
So it was with pleasure that I saw the 308 follows the smaller car’s cues with a slightly lower roofline, a longer, wider body and track on the same wheelbase, and that thrusting nose which ensures this is one car that won’t be a wallflower.
Those dimensions offer dynamic advantages too. The 308 isn’t a sports car, but the wider track, the stiffer body with its lower centre of gravity, and the revised MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspenders did rather a good job on the roads we encountered. Yes, there was moderate body roll, but ride proved comfortable and even plush – indeed suspension compliance was impressive, particularly given the wide variety of surfaces on our test loop.
We left our chateau to gambol in the vineyards, to switchback up through forested hills with golden leaves glittering in the soft autumn light; we wound through tiny villages fringed by geraniums, and even detoured through an orchard and vineyard (the suspension took even rocky gravel in its stride) before swooping back into the valley and home.
What sharpened the pleasure was how good the engines are, especially the 1.6-litre turbo, with a torque spread so wide you could virtually sit in one gear. These petrols are co-developed with BMW and sell alongside the usual line-up of excellent diesels, all paired with particulate filters.
The 1.6-litre diesel was perhaps better suited to the manual gearbox in these conditions, shame it won’t arrive here as it won’t come mated to an auto. We’ll get the 100kW, 340Nm 2.0-litre diesel, the 88kW/160Nm petrol and that 1.6T with its twin scroll turbo and 110kW plus 240Nm of torque.
NZ is feeling confident about this car and its future. With sales bundled alongside Australia’s and higher than Japan, we’ve now got some bargaining clout with head office. Plus there’s that extra factor – the French love rugby, and especially the All Blacks.
Shame that couldn’t protect us from a price rise – though the car’s standard features list will increase to suit.
Apart from the big stuff there are lots of neat little touches, like a storage tray hidden within the parcel shelf and accessible from the boot or rear seats; an innovative range of interior colours; boot-mounted bag hooks – frivolous, until you’ve used them.
There’s even a scent diffuser and a 30GB hard drive as well as more sensible fare like ABS brakes with EBA, ESP stability control standard on all but the base cars and seven airbags – contributing to a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating (not to mention the four-star pedestrian and three-star child protection result).
We’ll even get the lane departure warning that vibrates the seat squab if you stray across a white line. How does it work? Christian fumbles round the wheel, fails to find the switch and expresses helpless embarrassment. That he can’t find it is not surprising, it turns out, as it’s not fitted to our launch cars. But there’s no bluster from Peugeot’s VIP – he apologies, smiles sweetly, and leaves me at the airport with a final pressing invitation to sample his beloved bike. An unassuming man, but clearly a nice one. Bit like his car.
I’ll be meeting the latter again quite soon – it arrives at NZ dealers in February 2008, with early models landing in time for Christmas. As for the former, he’ll be here for the 2011 rugby world cup. Best make sure I’ve got a bike for him to ride.