History tells us that French cars are unusual machines. Their designs are are often polarizing; either you really like it or it's just not your cup of tea. Their mechanicals perform somewhat differently from the Japanese cars that we've gotten used to, especially the gearboxes. There are more, but these illustrate just how cars made or designed, in or by, France can differ.
Having said that, I've had a challenging time placing the Peugeot 301, a car that the French automaker has designated for sale in emerging markets (i.e. ours). In terms of nomenclature, the new 301 follows in the new system of Peugeot to have x01 (i.e. 301) denote models for new markets while x08 (i.e. 308) are intended for countries they already have a significant presence in. We'll cycle back to that later.
This is the first time the 301 moniker has emerged since the 1930's, though this modern 301 compact car shares only the name with it's ancestor, as the latter was considered to be a large car. The new model actually measures in at 4442mm long, 1715mm wide and 1466mm tall. By today's sizing sizing standards, the 301 is in the middle of the subcompacts and compacts; it's somewhere between the dimensions of a Vios and a Corolla.
What I really found unusual is the styling. We've become accustomed to Peugeots being ahead of their time in terms of design, taking a lot of liberties — radically, even — with details, lines and curves. By that standard, this 301 is on the far right of the same spectrum.
The new Peugeot grille is proudly front and center, accentuated by details like the bulges on the hood that frame their lion emblem. The headlamps complement the Peugeot family fascia, the side profile follows the conventional 3-box format, the rear is cleanly designed, while 16-inch rolling stock complete the look. Overall, it's design is safe and doesn't stand out in the office parking lot, but that that could be a good thing; a flashy car might make the boss think he's paying you too much.
Pop open that driver door and you'll see a different side of the 301. The dashboard is actually very nicely done, continuing the hexagonal motif (from the front grille) onto the vents, and the center console. The driver's primary and secondary controls are all framed neatly around him on the dash. The plastics aren't generally soft to the touch, but that's alright, given the concessions for mass production, and they're of good quality.
Features-wise, it's got all the necessities covered and then some. USB, Bluetooth, stability control, parking sensors, automatic climate control and cruise control are all standard for this EC5 variant of the 301. What I found odd was the placement of the power window controls; they're un-ergonomically forward of the gearstick and arrayed around the lone small cupholder. Personally, I would have opted to have had the power window switches moved to the respective doors (along with the master control for the driver) and made room for two larger cupholders; it just makes more sense.
Twist the key and the 1.6-liter petrol engine under the hood gets going. The figures themselves aren't class-leading, though 115 PS of power and 150 Nm of torque are par for the course. The gearbox could use 2 more gears, as a 4-speed auto is something that can be acceptable in the B-car class, but it's a bogey in the new C car category.
Spend an hour with the 301 in urban traffic and all the misgivings about the design and gearbox fade from memory. The 301, simply put, is a very comfortable car to tackle below-average pavement on city streets like ours, thanks to the combination of the suspension and the cushioning of the seats. Without looking under the fenders, it almost feels like the 301 has fluid dampers on all four corners instead of gas shocks. Ambient noise suppression is also very good when compared to other cars of similar dimensions and price. Fuel economy is likewise very good, registering 9.5 km/l at an average speed of 18 km/h (highway economy: 14.1 km/l, 88 km/h average). Overall, you get your money's worth if you take the 301 from office to home on a daily basis, as the car delivers a very low degree of driver fatigue; it's normal for more expensive cars, but not for compacts.
Take the 301 on a winding road, however, and you'll want to head back into the city. Handling is decent, but it's definitely not the 301's strength. Acceleration from the 301 is likewise decent, but the engine whine at high rpms will make you want to back off a bit and cruise. The gear ratios, while good in the city, seem a bit tall for the engine if you want a bit of speed, and the programming doesn't make for intuitive kick-downs if your right foot demands acceleration. The transmission also has a tendency to gear hunt (shifting between 2nd, 3rd and 4th and vice versa, repeatedly) if you're going up or down a hill and holding your foot steady on the throttle. There's a manual mode, but you've only got 4 speeds to choose from.
There is plenty of charm with the 301, but you have to be in the right driving conditions to appreciate them. What is fortunate for Peugeot, however, is that those conditions — urban traffic, rutted concrete, potholes, etc. — are where most prospective 301 owners would find themselves in on a daily basis. At PhP 1,090,000 for this 2015 Peugeot 301 EC5, the price tag is certainly more premium than larger cars such as the Toyota Corolla Altis 1.6G and the Honda Civic 1.8S, and there, however, lies the rub.
The 301 is a car that can easily be identified as an automaker's attempt to hit a wider audience abroad. That's all well and good in a place where it can be priced as intended to compete directly against Toyotas, but those who wish to buy a Peugeot outside of the company's home markets (i.e. ours) do so because they're after flavor and not nutritional value. For the latter, Philippine car buyers tend to shift their attention to the more familiar Japanese and Korean makes.
Without the outward flavor of the French design, the premium paid for the 301 could be a bit more challenging to justify, especially since the more familiar marques are already stepping up their game when it comes to style.