THE more complex and sophisticated cars become, the more I hanker for them to be a touch simpler.
It’s a bit like mobile phones. Now it seems their least important function is to make calls to other people. Instead they’ve gone beyond their initial role and, as well as sending texts and emails, are now sophisticated cameras, mini-tvs and complete communication and entertainment centres with brains bigger and more capable than the average users holding them.
The end result is that you now have everything in one compact but complex piece of kit which needs weeks of study to do anything beyond switching it on and then requires a full overnight battery charge to give it the strength to do the same again the following day.
For operating errors, I’ve found the simplest option is to ask a passing grandchild. Sadly I couldn’t do that when I got behind the wheel of the new Peugeot 308SW, or estate car as we used to call them, mainly because I was hundreds of miles away across the Channel in France – the land of this machine’s birth.
Let me say first of all that I really like the car, which is a beautifully extended version of the latest 308 hatch. The designers have done a great job in creating something easy on the eye and which will go a long way to helping Peugeot achieve its ambition to move up-market.
I really like the sleek exterior and, by being longer, lower and 140 kgs lighter than its predecessor, it has a great stance on the road. The front end shares the family characteristics with LED technology included in the headlamps while, at the back end, there’s a clear resemblance to the bigger 508 estate version.
It’s on the inside though that this new car really excels in style and design, and it’s no surprise that the car has already won a “most beautiful interior” vote. The whole look is clean, simple and clutter-free and I love the current Peugeot trend for a small steering wheel which gives a better feel for the road while on the move.
The build quality is first class and of a standard which Peugeot must reach to achieve its upmarket status. I like some of the little touches, especially the right hand of the two main dials, the rev counter, which breaks with tradition with a needle going anti-clockwise from right to left. I asked the Peugeot people if there was any technical reason for it, but apparently not – it’s just a question of style, mirroring the set-up in some classic Aston Martins.
Doing away with the vast array of switches and controls needed for the bucketload of standard equipment in this car is all very well, but they have to be accommodated somewhere else. In the 308SW, the heart of the operation is the 9.7-inch central touchscreen which controls the climate including aircon, driving assistance systems, multimedia, navigation, phone and vehicle settings.
The people from Peugeot are proud of the technology and were keen for me to experience the very latest elements appearing for the first time in the test car. I was sent off on a tour of the district around the smart seaside town of Le Touquet, using only the car’s internet access through its own Connect App, calling on TripAdvisor for a range of activities and locations such as golf courses and rated eateries.
The idea is good but vulnerable to the sensitivities of mobile phone coverage, which can be patchy, and the system had a few blips along the way. While I managed largely to get to where I wanted, I could have achieved much the same using a conventional satnav or even a good map. Where this goes a stage further is that it is like a concierge service and can not only tell you where filling stations are, but also the price of the fuel. It can direct you to car parks and even tell you whether there are spaces or not.
Appearing for the first time in the UK in the 308SW will be the Coyote App, already used by more than two million drivers around Europe. It provides a real-time warning of hazards such as traffic delays and, by default, gives alerts of speed cameras. However, because all the controls are in the same unit, it becomes complex to do several things at once such as alter the climate control while trying to tune the radio. Making any adjustments means you also lose the navigation map and, in my case, it ended up a bit of a mess.
Admittedly, any owner would in time become used to the operation but I could not help thinking that what’s been created is the automotive equivalent of a modern mobile phone, where even the simplest task becomes something of a major exercise.
That apart, this car is quite exceptional, with great carrying capacity, clever storage space and the remarkable brand-new three-cylinder PureTech turbo engine which produces amazing performance and economy for such a small unit.
If you buy the Driver Sport Pack, there’s a little “Sport” button below the gearstick which tweaks the technical bits for a sparkier drive, but most importantly digitally creates a raspy engine note which comes into the interior through the speakers. It’s purely cosmetic but it does help make this sensible estate feel just that little bit more special.
Car Peugeot 308SW Feline PureTech 1.2
Engine 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol, 3 cyl, 130bhp, 173lb ft
Performance Max speed 127mph; 0-62mph 12.1 secs
Economy 60mpg combined
CO2 emissions 109g/km