Peugeot 308 GT Diesel: Sporting chance or long shot?

Peugeot is known for its diesel prowess. And it’s not unknown for making the occasional half-decent hot hatch. But what happens when these two world collide?

AMONG all the European-made cars sold here, surely nothing so specifically says ‘made for Europe’ than an automatic diesel performance hatchback?

Sorry, a what …? Yeah, don’t be concerned that you’ve never had thought to consider that something like $49,990 edition of the Peugeot 308 GT just released here would even exist.

Officially, until now, it hasn’t. While a concept that packages traditional diesel strength of punch and parsimony (in this instance expressed by a claimed 4.0 litres per 100km optimum) with the usual GT-like strengths of a lowered ride height, stiffer suspension, grippier tyres and sportier looks is not unknown in mainland Europe, it’s not a flavour tried much here for the simple reason that, even during a diesel car boom that was pretty much deflated by factors including the inconvenience of Road User Charges, there’s never been any perceived requirement.

Empirical evidence suggests demand should now be lower than ever. Kiwis clearly like diesel, but almost wholly in marriage to crossovers, sports utilities and commercial vehicles. Diesel cars are a bust and Peugeot New Zealand has felt the burn.

Years ago it was the oiler king. Not now. Boss Simon Rose admits the climate has so changed that of the three passenger lines he offered last year, only one – the 308 – retained a compression ignition choice. Even the soft-roaders are petrol and the 508 large sedan that used to provide both kinds of engine is currently not even on sale in any format.

So given all this, and appreciating also that all kinds of sports hatches are in a niche, why pitch up now with something that’s sure to appeal to very select tastes?

Various reasons. Peugeot here is retrenching. Having recognized that it cannot make ground in the mainstream market, it’s setting out to pull the cheapest entry models which it finds are being ignored and going specialist; at the moment, the least expensive cars it sells sit around the $30,000 mark. Rose admits soon the admission fee might be closer to $40k.

The drive going forward will centre on crossovers – even though the crucial cars, the new 3008 and a 5008 – are respectively not here until the end of 2016 and around March 2017 and, in addition to actual GT cars, also some GT-Line fare that has the sporting look but maintains mainstream engineering.

But a GT diesel? Overcoming perceptions will be the key. Although the provision of this model with a six-speed automatic rather than a manual transmission is seen to be a crucial factor in its entry, there’s still potential for ‘diesel’ and ‘performance’ to be considered like camembert and crème brulee. Delicious in their own right, but not necessarily a winning flavour when brought together.

That’s not just an average punter opinion. Rose says signing off on the 308 GT diesel meant having first to overcome strong resistance from within his office. Among those counselling against introduction was his marketing manager, he cheerfully admits.

The car will be promoted as “an efficient daily driver that turns into a bundle of fun,” Rose says, but there’s still no clear idea about how it will sell.

Obviously Peugeot has the game to itself - when asked whether he could suggest even one rival for the car, marketing manager, after a very long pause, had to concede he could not - but whether that counts for anything is total conjecture.

It might be a winner – or it might yet end up riding on the same level of luck that is attached to that first division Lotto win you’re hoping for every week. Who can tell?

Prediction of 40 sales this year seems simply based on that been the count of registrations in 2015 for the sole existing diesel 308, the Allure – a $5000 cheaper alternate that might now be dropped due to it being shown up on by this GT on specification and sizzle.

Anyway, what’s it like? On the strength of very limited time, in very limited conditions – exposure at the Hampton Downs circuit was restricted to trying out its acceleration in a drag race then being allowed a couple of laps behind a cautious guide – the impression is that, while clearly not a proper hot hatch like the 308 GTi that has also been introduced, it is sportier than your average hatchback.

It, of course, dresses for the part, with the same style of alloy rim meted the hot GTi – but in 18 rather than 19 inch diameter – and other aesthetic tweaks.

There's GT badging, interior trim and steering wheel highlights as well as red instrument illumination and extra performance information from the on-board computer. There’s access to power and torque output readings, turbo boost pressure and both longitudinal and lateral acceleration figures via the driver information display.

The GT package also delivers a Sport function that enhances steering feel, sharpens throttle responses, speeds up the gear shifts – to a point, even in manual mode and using paddle shifters it’s short of being snappy - and synthesizes and amplifies the engine note, but only for the occupants. From the inside an almost petrol V8-like smooth and deep thrubbing timbre will be heard in its true, typically rattle-infused ‘Parisian taxi’ note.

What about the wallop? Well, it’s there but rather than tyre-smoking ‘sizzle’ it’s better to consider this car in terms of it’s on-the-move ‘shove’, since diesels are all about torque.The GT’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is intrinsically the same that goes into the Allure, but with extra fire - 133kW and 400Nm represent a 23kW and 30Nm gain – yet, as is the way with auto-diesels, mid-range wallop is far more impressive than off-the line-sharpness or even top speed.

Peugeot’s claim of 0-100kmh time of 8.4 seconds (just 0.2s ahead of the Allure) wasn’t challenged by the sprint exercise. Top speed of 220kmh is 11kmh higher than the Allure’s, but 30kmh short of the GTi.

Aside from the shove it presents with some authority around the legal open road pace, because by then the rev counter is hovering around the 2000rpm p the car also delights by presenting some decent agility, steering feel and braking.

The first is not wholly unexpected as the 308 underpinnings save a lot of weight compared to some of its rivals. Nonetheless, thought the extra weight of the diesel lump up front might have adverse effect on the chassis balance is unfounded.

Whether all this amounts to the kind of car that you’d therefore choose to chuck into the occasional car club gymkhana or track sprint is probably debatable, but it did cross my mind that it would be well sorted for providing Peugeot with opportunity to regain a 24-hour endurance driving record it achieved about 12 years on Manfeild circuit with the 306 XT diesel then subsequently relinquished to BMW. I know all about that, having been one of the drivers on that day (and very long night).

Meantime, there’s obviously a bit of flair for road driving. Also making this more appealing that the Allure is that the GT comes with a Driver Assistance Pack that includes radar cruise control, emergency collision alert and emergency braking system, plus sat nav, LED headlights, sequential indicators and gloss-black detailing.