New Peugeot 308 vs Seat Leon vs Toyota Corolla
Is Peugeot’s new family car a class leader, or will it find itself stuck in no-man’s land like its predecessor? We’ve lined up excellent rivals from Seat and Toyota tofind out...
New Peugeot 308 1.23 Puretech 130 Allure Premium EAT8
List price £28,020
Target price £27,738
The previous 308 was never a great buy, but Peugeot has been on a roll with some of its other models. Does the latest 308 follow suit?
Seat Leon 1.5 eTSI Evo 150 FR DSG
List price £29,195
Target price £28,616
The Leon is our reigning Family Car of the Year in regular 1.5-litre petrol form. This time it’s represented in more powerful mild hybrid guise and with an automatic gearbox
Toyota Corolla 1.8 Hybrid 122 Design
List price £28,855
Target price £26,469
The Corolla has always impressed us with its comfy ride and excellent fuel economy. Updates to its infotainment system should make it even more recommendable
We’re not here to preach. It’s your money and you can and should do whatever you choose with it. But before you go and buy a new SUV because most of your neighbours have one or you’ve seen a slick TV ad with a happy family going wakeboarding, there are a few things you might want to consider.
An equivalent family hatchback would be a cheaper option. It would also drink less fuel – which, even if you aren’t that fazed by the cost of living crisis, is a good thing for the environment. It would most likely be nearly as practical. And it isn’t just the boring, sensible stuff, either, because being closer to the ground helps make a car more agile, which in turn means you can have more fun behind the wheel.
If you’re still not wavering, take a look at the Peugeot 3008, Seat Ateca or Toyota C-HR. They’re all good cars. But if you are in two minds, read on, because it’s essentially the hatchback versions of those family SUVs that we’re comparing here.
Newest of them is the Peugeot 308 – and it certainly stands out with the French brand’s new shark-nosed grille and ‘fang’ LED daytime running lights. However, unless you go for the range-topping (and very expensive) plug-in hybrid version, one thing the new 308 lacks is any sort of electrical assistance to improve its fuel economy – something our other contenders are available with. The Seat Leon 1.5 eTSI is a mild hybrid, which means there’s a 48-volt battery linked to a tiny electric motor that gives the petrol engine a little bit of support.
The Toyota Corolla goes a step further; all models in the range are full hybrids. That means there’s a much larger 200-volt battery and a more powerful electric motor that can drive the car along on its own for short periods. For this matchup, we’ve gone for the cheaper 1.8-litre version.
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
So, all three cars are powered by petrol but in slightly different ways, and it’s a similar story with their gearboxes. You don’t have to worry about pushing a clutch pedal or stirring a gearlever in any of them, but they each take care of that job for you in a different way.
The Corolla has a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which in essence means there’s an infinite number of gear ratios. All you have to worry about is pushing the accelerator pedal, although the experience still takes a bit of getting used to, because the engine revs have no relationship to the speed you’re doing. Put your foot down hard and the revs suddenly skyrocket and stay there until you lift off the accelerator, before falling again just as quickly.
The good news is that acceleration is always very smooth. The bad news is there isn’t much of it. The 120bhp Corolla takes a yawn-inducing 11.0sec to reach 60mph, so it isn’t ideally suited to country road overtakes. That said, it feels nippy enough around town. The electric motor helps the car respond immediately to prods of the accelerator at low speeds, so you can squirt into gaps in traffic with plenty of confidence. And it isn’t as though it struggles to hold motorway speeds; it just takes a while to get there.
The Leon, meanwhile, has a dual-clutch automatic ’box. This has seven gears, and you can either let the car choose which one to be in, or decide yourself by pulling paddles behind the steering wheel. Do this and your commands are actioned quickly, allowing you to have a bit of fun and feel involved in the driving experience. It’s the quickest car of the trio, too; the 148bhp 1.5-litre petrol engine pulls hard from low revs and can get you from 0-60mph in a very respectable 8.3sec. You don’t really notice the electrical assistance.
In the 308, all of the oomph is provided by its 129bhp 1.2-litre petrol engine. Outright acceleration is perfectly adequate (0-60mph takes 9.4sec), but driveability is badly hampered by the conventional eight-speed automatic gearbox. Go to pull out of a junction and, rather than surging forwards promptly, there’s often a pause as the ’box decides which gear to be in. It’s frustrating at best and can result in some heart-in-the-mouth moments.
The worst thing, though, is the way the gearbox dovetails with the engine’s stop-start system. Driving the 308 smoothly in slow-moving traffic is almost impossible, because the engine cuts out when you’re trying to slow the car with the brake pedal, while the gearbox is still trying to drive the car forwards. The result is a thoroughly jerky experience and sudden unpredictable lurches when the engine fires up.
As with the Leon, you can take control of shifts by using paddles behind the wheel, but the process is once again disjointed; sometimes you get the gear you want quickly and at other times you’re left waiting.
In any case, the 308 isn’t the sort of car you’ll want to take for a drive just for the heck of it. It’s far from being a wallowy barge through corners; you just don’t feel particularly involved in the experience and the comically small steering wheel (more on that later) doesn’t give a great sense of connection with the front wheels.
If you want something fun, the Leon is your best bet. The only car in the class that betters it is the Ford Focus, and even then the margin is small. It feels light and eager to turn in to bends, grips well and is always neatly balanced. The steering is also sharp, accurate and positively weighted, allowing you to place the Leon exactly where you want it on the road.
The Corolla isn’t far behind, though. Its steering is slower but well weighted and surprisingly feelsome. It’s agile enough, too, although it doesn’t have the grip of the Leon – which is also why it took the longest distance to stop from 70mph in our braking tests.
However, the best thing about the way the Corolla drives is its ride comfort. The suspension is reasonably firm but takes the sting out of all manner of road imperfections quickly and without fuss; you feel a small but well-damped impact before the body immediately regains its composure. The ride is particularly smooth on the motorway.
The Leon is firmer still (FR versions have sports suspension) and feels more brittle, jostling you around in your seat more noticeably at all speeds. Mind you, anyone who enjoys driving will consider the small compromise on comfort well worth it for the way the Leon goes around corners.
Least impressive for comfort is the 308. It isn’t overly fractious, but beaten-up stretches of road can send tremors through the car’s structure, and it also feels the least well tied down along demanding routes with lots of dips and crests.
How well do our contenders isolate you from unwanted hubbub? Well, in the Corolla, it depends on how you drive. At town speeds, it can run in near-silence on battery power for short distances, and there isn’t much noise or vibration even when the petrol engine does fire up. It’s also reasonably hushed at a steady cruise, with the lowest decibel reading at 70mph. Drive more briskly, though, and you’ll have to put up with a monotonous drone as the engine revs away.
There isn’t much between the 308 and Leon for refinement; the former suffers from more wind and suspension noise, while you hear the tyres slapping against the road more noticeably in the latter. The Leon does have a smoother engine, though – particularly when you’re accelerating hard.
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