LET’S start this week with a little quiz. When last do you remember a new Peugeot that was a nailed-on classic? By my reckoning it was the 1980s, when the French manufacturer unleashed on the world the phenom which became the 205 and 205 GTi. Since then, well, not a lot.
Run down through the various model ranges since. There was stuff like the 206, 207 and 208. Anything there? Er, no. Then there was the likes of the 306, 307 and 308? Or such as the 406, 407 or 508? Or even greats like the 3008, the 607, the 807 or the 5008?
No, no and no.
There is a paucity among those numbers that will hardly cause any automotive heart to flutter. If anything Peugeot has been guilty of producing, in my view, a string of mediocre cars which have done little to stand the French giant out as a maker of modern classics.
Most certainly they output big numbers — they’re understandably trying to be very big in China and the formerly huge Iranian market is coming back too and if they catch a break in those potentially massive sales regions, the numbers will grow exponentially.
But, these markets, no more than ours, demand sophistication these days and that has not necessarily been Peugeot’s sharp card in recent years.
Purchasing Opel will muddy the expansionist waters for a while, but it is still worth remembering the that the new Peugeot/Citroen/Opel axis potentially represents big, big numbers and the opposition may well have to wear boots in which to quake in the face of this growing conglomerate as time goes on.
The mantle of French élan, creativity, flair and ingenuity certainly has not rested easy with Peugeot in recent memory. Certainly the company has made good things, but mainly along the lines of workmanlike, journeyman cars with worthy engines.
But wait. What of the new 3008? Well, it is the current European Car Of The Year and while that accolade has come Peugeot’s way in the past, you’d have to surmise that those years in which they succeeded (with the 307 in 2002 and the 308 in 2014) were the automotive equivalent of a slow news day and there was little worthy competition for the jury members to vote for.
That view might be a little harsh, but consider that prior to those two victories, Peugeot’s only other successes came with the 504 in 1969 and the 405 in 1988 and both of those cars were indeed worthy winners. Why the 205 didn’t actually make the grade — and it was one of their great cars — is a mystery.
Certainly, the current 308 was a sign that life had been breathed into the moribund Peugeot range and it was a positive indicator. The estate and GTi versions in particular indicated that the French company had finally turned a corner onto a road they had not travelled for some considerable time.
But the 3008? Well, it is a definite game-changer for the ‘Lion’ brand and terribly worthy of the COTY gong it won at the Geneva Motor Show last March.
I did not get my hands on the car until recently, but I have to confess that my anticipation of testing it was imbued with a rare sense of positivity, optimism and expectation that what we had here was a car which could finally smash that aura of mediocrity which hung over the brand for so long. It has.
Aside from its truly pretty exterior looks, it has an interior so nice and so pleasant to look at and live in that it sets a new standard for the whole SUV segment and indicates a new broom has swept through the Peugeot design department, adding inventive uses of materials to the customary comfort levels which are part of the company DNA.
The dashboard design is truly innovative, with fantastic graphics for the speedo (and the curiously but pleasingly inverted rev counter), which morph into all sorts of other things — including, it has to be said, a very annoyingly sensitive vehicle proximity warning.
So too the imaginatively worked switchgear which is as cool and intuitive as anything you’ll see this side of a Bugatti Chiron.
Those major plus points are underscored by new and strenuously improved suspensions which endow the 3008 with the sort of handling ability not seen since the great 205. Sure there are mildly annoying elements of tramp and understeer, but nothing bad.
Despite the fact the car will not be offered in 4WD format, the front drive system has been ramped up to at least give the driver the feeling that there is constant and credible connection between the driven wheels and the road. More than that there is a sporty feel to it that allows press-on driving without any concomitant feeling of nervousness.
Undoubtedly the tiny steering wheel which is part of the ‘i-cockpit’ layout adds to the zesty vibe, but the fact there is real and genuine communication between driver and car and the road is a sign of concerted effort to get the product right.
We tried the 1.6 HDi version and while it is not the most spirited engine out there — or even in the Peugeot range — it is an honest offering with decent pace and excellent economy. It is another admirable engine from the stable.
Mind you the ‘sport’ button is something of a misnomer as it merely holds gears (an automatic six speed ’box was on the tester) a little longer and pipes a moderately unpleasant noise into the cabin.
The combination of all these plus points — engine, handling, comfort, style and design excellence — are added to by a sense of space and roominess which is supposed to be part of the SUV shtick, but have had a French magic wand waved over them to produce and interior which is accommodating, practical, good looking and spacious.
It even has a spare wheel, which is not de rigeur these days, with so many companies opting for the all but useless puncture repair kit, and thus a pleasing surprise.
This truly is the best Peugeot I have driven in recent years. It is a smashing car and a return to form the likes of which has not been seen since Napoleon escaped from Elba.
If it is, as I think may well be the case, a foretaste of things to come, then it is a very definite portent of good things down the road, like the 5008 we will see later this year.
The Cost: from €25,995 to €33,355 as tested in Allure trim.
The Engine: with 120 bhp on offer, the 1.6 HDi is not the most potent, but will return 4.0 l/100km (70 mpg).
The Specification: exceptional — from connectivity and infotainment to 18” alloys and all in between.
The Overall Verdict: Peugeot gets its mojo back.