by Joshua Dowling
VIVE la difference? More like can't beat 'em, join 'em. French brand Peugeot has returned to the booming compact soft-roader segment as one of the last brands to embrace the phenomenon of high-riding hatchbacks with off-road pretensions.
The French have until recently been anti-SUV but the global trend was too big to ignore.
Peugeot's previous compact "faux-wheel drive” was a toe-in-the-water exercise with Mitsubishi. The Peugeot 4008 released in 2012 and discontinued earlier this year was a Mitsubishi ASX with a new nose and tail. It was even built in a Japanese factory.
It was a fast and affordable way for Peugeot to get into the SUV market. If SUVs turned out to be a passing fad, then the French could make a hasty retreat.
As it transpires, Peugeot used the Mitsubishi as a stopgap measure while it designed its own compact SUV from the ground up.
The labours of the past four years or so produced the 3008. There are four variants: three grades of luxury with a 1.6-litre turbo and a flagship powered by a 2.0-litre turbo diesel.
All have conventional six-speed automatic transmissions - hallelujah - and are front-drive only.
Prices range from $41,198 drive-away to $54,200 drive-away but Peugeot has lowered the starting price to $39,990 drive-away on the cheapest model only, as an introductory offer.
In profile, it could be any of the two dozen or so compact SUVs on sale but from the front and rear Peugeot makes a style statement, most notably from the claw marks in the headlights to the vertical bars in the LED tail-lights.
The cabin, though, will likely wow most buyers. The digital wide-screen instrument display was until recently only seen on top-end Audis - but the Peugeot screen has more personalisation.
The waistline of the interior is a blend of soft-touch materials and a carpet-like fabric. The cabin control switches look like metal tabs; they feel metallic and precise but we suspect they're plastic.
The touchscreen takes some practice to navigate, and some controls are fiddly while on the move, such as trying to quickly dim the display screen or tune a radio frequency.
There is a volume knob, though it's slightly hidden from view.
Not everyone is a fan of Peugeot's small steering wheel with its almost rectangular shape but it works well in the 3008 because the driver is sitting higher and the instruments aren't obscured from view, as they can be in Peugeot hatchbacks with a similar layout.
The suite of safety technology is impressive but there are caveats.
Peugeot deserves praise for making speed limit sign recognition and lane wander alert standard on every model but the base model lacks automatic emergency braking (AEB) and other safety aids can't be added even as optional extras.
At this high starting price on a car pitching itself into the luxury market, AEB ought to be standard and the other tech should be more widely available.
The two dearest models come with lane-keeping assistance, radar cruise control with automatic stop-go in city traffic, blind spot detection and auto-dipping high beams. This extra safety kit is a $1500 option on the second-dearest model.
But rear cross traffic alert and rear AEB (available on some rivals) are not available at any price on the Peugeot.
An electric tailgate is a $500 option on all four, though some rivals have this standard on certain grades.
There's no all-wheel drive but if you plan to drive down a gravel slope, there's the $200 option of a dial that will limit the car's speed to a crawl using the anti-lock brakes. Just don't bank on having the grip to climb back up.
ON THE ROAD
Australian reviewers don't rely much on the opinions of European counterparts as our roads and conditions are harsher. But drive on the Continent's cobbles and pockmarked backroads and you'll see they can do bad pavement to match any council in Australia.
That's why the 3008, the reigning European Car of the Year, deserves some respect.
Peugeot has arrived last to the SUV class with its own vehicle but it has spent its time studying rivals and benchmarking the best of them. No surprise, then, that the 3008 is impressive to drive.
The sweet spot is the base model on 17-inch wheels and supple Michelin tyres, which provide the ideal combination of steering precision and comfort over bumps.
This is how Peugeot built its reputation, before inexplicably losing its driving dynamics mojo for about a decade.
The dearer models come with 18 or 19-inch wheels. Cars equipped with the 18-inch wheel and tyre combination were also surprisingly compliant on a brief back road test; we're yet to test the 19s so will reserve judgment.
Road noise was more subdued compared to Japanese or South Korean rivals and on par with, say, comparable variants of the Volkswagen Tiguan.
The other pleasant surprise was the performance from the 1.6-litre turbo. It may seem small but by class standards it was near the pointy end of the field in terms of acceleration.
The six-speed automatic makes the most of the engine's available grunt, unlike rivals whose twin-clutch or continuously variable transmissions seem to sap the power and retard the response.
Fuel footnote: the Peugeot engine lacks stop-start technology. Australia gets a more powerful version of the 1.6-litre - it's better suited to our poorer quality fuel. That said, the 3008 still demands premium unleaded.
Peugeot's previous 4008, based on the Mitsubishi ASX, started at $33,990 drive-away. The new range jumps to $39,990 drive-away and stretches to $54,200 drive-away. The introductory $39,990 drive-away deal will increase to $41,198 drive-away.
All models have a digital wide-screen instrument display that can be personalised - and minimised. The cabin has subtle mood lighting. All have speed sign recognition camera, digital radio, Apple Car Play/Android Auto and built-in navigation. Only the most expensive models get the full suite of safety tech.
The 4008 had 2.0-litre petrol power in front or all-wheel drive. The 3008 is front-drive only. Its 1.6-litre turbo, zippy by class standards, was developed and shared with BMW and Mini. There is also a 2.0-litre turbo diesel.
Early 4008s transmitted a lot of road noise into the cabin. Mitsubishi added sound-deadening material to meet European standards. The 3008 feels Euro throughout, from soft-touch materials in the cabin to precise steering feel.
The 3008 is French from the tyres up. The body and structure of the vehicle are completely new and entirely designed and built by Peugeot. It's slightly longer, wider and taller than the predecessor, has a bigger boot and a radically different interior design.
The 3008 has the ingredients to be a class act in the compact SUV segment. But Peugeot needs to make more safety technology available on less expensive models. And then sharpen the price across the range.
PRICE $39,990 drive-away to $54,200 drive-away (expensive)
SERVICING 3 years/ 100,000km (average). $1587-$1822 for 3 yrs (expensive)
ENGINE 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo, 121kW/ 240Nm, 2.0L diesel, 133kW/ 400Nm (zippy)
SAFETY 6 airbags, 5 stars, rear camera. Base model lacks AEB (should be standard)
THIRST 4.8L-7.3L/ 100km (thrifty)
SPARE Space-saver (not ideal)
BOOT 591L/1670L (big)