New Cars Peugeot 309

It is no secret that Peugeot Talbot's recent history has been full of incident. The marque Talbot has not been a success due to in-herited problems, poor initial quality control, and the wider problems of overcapacity which have affected the European motor industry as a whole. Presently the only Talbot model in production is the French-made Samba.

Peugeot too had its problems with a fading image. Then came the 205 range which has vividly demonstrated that the company is still a serious producer of motor cars. Over the last couple of years we have been able to write glowingly of this superb little car in all its manifestations, the GTi model is the sexiest little car available while the diesel-engined GRD has proven that you can have all the advantages of diesel power with handling characteristics to satisfy the most critical of sporting drivers. In addition, the company's rally programme has been outstanding from the start.

The introduction of the company's first new model range since the introduction of the 205 is therefore an occasion of unusual interest for the 205 is a hard act to follow yet Peugeot's future depends on it getting the new car right, particularly since it is aimed at the Escort/Astra level of the market where fleet sales become an important factor.

I recently had an opportunity to drive some pre-production examples of the new car and can report that while it is not as outstanding in its class as the 205, it has a lot of that car's qualities and is a worthy big brother to it.

Cars on sale in Britain will be built in the company's Ryton plant and, it is claimed, 65% of the input is British in origin. This figure should assist Peugeot in placing the model with fleet-buyers in the UK who tend to favour cars which are perceived as being British even though, in the case of Ford and Vauxhall, many originate overseas.

A great deal of attention has been paid to quality control in the assembly of the 309 and I must say that the cars I drove did not have any of the failings which one often associates with pre-production models which frequently leave something to be desired in terms of trim and fit. We were assured, too, that the labour problems which have dogged the Ryton plant are now a thing of the past.

Prices will be announced nearer the cars UK launch in February but are expected to be competitive against the Escort, Astra and Maestro and, like those cars, the 309 has a transversely mounted engine and fwd.

Initially, there will be three engine options a 55 bhp 1.1-litre model. a 65 bhp 1.3-litre car and an 80 bhp 1.6-litre car, with a 115 bhp injected engine added to the range early in 1986. There are five levels of trim and every car comes with Peugeot's precise five-speed gearbox.

All manufacturers now pay a great deal of attention to aerodynamics and depending on the model, the 309 range has a drag coefficient of between 0.30 and 0.33, which is extremely good for a small car. Style is a matter of personal taste and I found the car pleasing in looks without being a headturner but the standard of finish is unquestionably high.

My main complaints about the 205 centre on the interior design and here the 309 is a great improvement. The stalk controls are neater while the heater/ventilation system is as good as any. One has a pleasing sense of interior space and there is an ample boot with 60/40 rear seat split for larger loads. So far as equipment is concerned, you get what you pay for and on the higher spec models there are pleasant touches such as driver's seat lumbar adjustment.

its on the road that the car comes into its own. Ride and handling are good on all models, front and rear suspension is by McPherson struts, coil springs and dampers. The 1.6-litre models have a rear anti-roll bar while their front bars are thicker than on the others in the range. All cars have servo-assisted split circuit braking systems with discs at the front and drums at the rear and these are astonishingly effective.

Steering on the 309 is as precise as on the 205 but on the smaller-engined cars it seemed a trifle on the heavy side with very positive castor action. With the extra power of the 1.6-litre engine, the steering seemed in harmony with the car but Id prefer a lighter action with the less powerful engine options.

Driving the cars through the winding, and sometimes slippery, roads of Dorset proved exhilarating. The power goes down smoothly, direction can be changed with a flick of the wheel and entirely without fuss, even on a surface of wet leaves, wind and engine noise is low and I finished a lengthy stint at the wheel eager for more and relishing the prospect of the 115 bhp injected engine.

Peugeot claims a top speed of 106 mph for the 1.6 (0-62 mph in 12.5 seconds); 97 mph for the 1.3 GE and GL models (0-62 mph in 15.4 seconds): 101 mph for the GR Profile car (0-62 mph in 14.8 seconds) and 95 mph for the 1.1-litre cars (0-62 mph in 17.3 seconds). These figures are roughly in line with the cars' stated rivals and given the overall feel of the range. I can only repeat that I look forward to the 115 bhp injected model which should stretch the model's capabilities. This range breaks no new ground technically but is a well-compiled package which has benefited by a great deal of attention to detail. Its a serious contender within its niche and should certainly fulfil its maker's hopes of a larger share of the market. M.L.