Citroen and Peugeot Wagons deliver on cool
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Kiwis do have a fondness for station wagons
Not withstanding the current obsession with sports utility vehicles, station wagons have always been objects of desire for New Zealanders.
There's something about their combination of sleek styling, good handling and family practicality that suits our motoring psyche.
Europeans often steer more towards multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs), so Peugeot's new 308 wagon is something of a surprise. You may remember that the previous 308 SW (as it was called then) was a weird fusion of styles, with a high roof, massive glass areas and three-row seating. But this latest model has embraced the ethos of the classic station wagon, with low-slung styling and a conventional cabin layout.
It's also very practical. It's based on the European Car of the Year-winning 308 hatchback, but it's quite a bit larger: there's an extra 100mm in the wheelbase than the hatch and the wagon is 332mm longer overall. You could potentially downsize from a mid-size machine to this 308.
Question is, can the 308 wagon deliver the same combination of road-car driving dynamics and practicality as the type of MPV that the French are so good at?
Enter the C4 Picasso five-seater from sister brand Citroen, an intriguing spaceship of a thing that promises the best of both worlds.
It even addresses the main issue we Kiwis seem to have with MPVs: the cool factor.
We're pitching the entry-level $36,990 308 Active wagon against the $38,990 C4 Picasso Seduction, both with petrol engines. They're not only close on price, they're closely related: both are based on a brand-new Peugeot-Citroen platform called EMP2 (Efficient Modular Platform 2).
Don't be alarmed by the Peugeot's 1.2-litre, three-cylinder engine. This PureTech powerplant is an energetic little thing that makes some big numbers: 96kW/230Nm, which is not far off the pulling power generated by the Citroen's 121kW/240Nm 1.6-litre turbo engine. Both are matched to six-speed automatic transmissions.
Case in point: the C4 Picasso gets to 100km/h in 9.3 seconds, while the 308 takes 10.1. Combined fuel economy figures are close too: 5.6 litres for the Citroen versus 5.2 for the Peugeot.
The 308 is the better drive, not just because it has a lower centre of gravity. The PureTech engine sounds fantastic at low speed and incredibly strong under load, even if it's working hard on the open road at times. The Peugeot's automatic transmission is also better calibrated than the Citroen's, which will occasionally shudder in urban driving and is more easily confused by changing driving styles at open-road speeds.
The 308 has a push-button sport mode for the powertrain, in addition to a manual-shift facility for the gear lever. The C4 Picasso doesn't really have a gear lever as such; instead, you get a nifty wand beside the steering wheel, which falls easily to hand but is a bit fiddly to get into park, as you have to negotiate a Z-pattern. However, the Citroen still allows you extra control with steering column-mounted gear change paddles, which are large and well-shaped.
The C4 Picasso is not as nimble as the 308, but still capable for a tall vehicle. The biggest issue with the Citroen is braking: the pedal has virtually no feel at low speed, so the stoppers seem to be either on or off. It takes a bit of practice to come to a smooth stop at intersections.
Both cars defy convention in their cabin layouts.
The C4 Picasso has a central instrument panel that's completely digital, with a speed readout in the middle and the tachometer (a virtual dial) on the side.
Interior of the Citroen.
The Peugeot 308 has a variation of their so-called i-cockpit layout, with a split-level arrangement: the conventional instruments are set high atop the dashboard in front of the driver, while the tiny steering wheel sits almost in your lap. It's odd, but you get used to it.
The common cabin element between these two PSA siblings is the large colour touch screen in the centre console, which handles all information and entertainment features.
Oddly, the arrangement of the shortcut buttons on either side of the display is reversed on each car. In the Citroen, the climate, trip computer and music icons are on the left, whereas they are on the right in the Peugeot. Presumably this is because the 308's displays have been swapped around for right-hand drive, while the C4 Picasso's have not; note the tachometer in the Citroen is on the far left of the instrument panel, rather than close to the driver. Not a deal-breaker, but please try harder, Citroen.
The C4 Picasso has a few more comfort and convenience features than the 308, such as dual climate control for the air conditioning and satellite navigation.
Interior of the Peugeot.
Can't do much about the cool air in the Peugeot, as you're stuck with fiddly controls for the temperature and fan which can be accessed only through a separate menu on the touch screen. But you can add sat-nav for $1500, which brings a reversing camera (standard on the C4 Picasso). Tick that box and you're still undercutting the Citroen's price tag.
Naturally, the Citroen offers superior rear-seat space and visibility. Those in the back even get their own fold-up tables, complete with a flexible strap to secure items if the car is on the move. However, the Peugeot is hardly cramped: there's legroom to spare for adult passengers in the back and theatre-style seating, with the rear bench set slighter higher than the front chairs for a better view out.
The 308's rear seat is more comfortable, but that's because it's a conventional 60/40 split bench. The C4 Picasso goes for maximum versatility with three individual seats in the back, which makes for narrow chairs but also allows you to configure the car as a two, three, four or five-seater depending on your load-carrying requirements.
You can fold the Citroen's seat backs down or collapse the whole assembly (there's a complex double-hinging mechanism underneath) for a flat load floor. But you can't remove them.
You expect a people-mover to be versatile and the C4 Picasso is, with those clever seats and high roof. You get 630 litres of boot space or up to 1851 litres with all three back seats folded.
However, the 308 pulls out a few packaging tricks. The long cargo bay means it has as much capacity as the C4 Picasso, with 625 litres. Fold the rear seats down and there's a still-impressive 1740 litres.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's no surprise that the Peugeot 308 wagon is the best drive or that the C4 Picasso is the most passenger friendly and versatile. The big question is which of these cars has the broadest range of talents - which encroaches into the other's field of expertise more.
That's why the Peugeot is the winner: because it combines impressive dynamics with outstanding space and practicality.