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Click for pictures“Need a competent
  family all-rounder?
  Peugeot’s turbodiesel
  307 SW HDi could be
  right up your street”

WITH UK NEW CAR SALES DOWN in 2005, due mainly to retail customers having other financial issues to worry about, you can bet your life the first few months of 2006 will be awash with deals and too-good-to-miss offers as the industry tries to establish a strong start to the New Year.

A big increase in 2005 was the demand for vehicles with diesel engines. These now account for nearly 40 per cent of all UK new car sales. Not only are they more frugal but they also generally offer better mid-range performance due to the higher engine torque than petrol models. I'm not talking exotic cars here, just plain and simple volume selling models.

Even before the end of 2005, certain manufacturers were setting out their stalls with aggressive 'reasons-to-buy' from January to March in the New Year. Dealers are chock-a-block with pre-registered vehicles and dealer demonstrators all with very few miles on the clock — and all looking for new homes. These stocks must be cleared before dealers can start registering new 2006 cars — so folks, it's bargain time.

However, do bear in mind when visiting a dealer (franchised or an independent) or any of the car warehouses, that you are in charge: they need to sell you a car and will not want you to leave the showroom without having bought one. They need your business. So haggle hard.

Typical of the C segment, or medium sized mainstream offerings, is the Peugeot 307 range. Voted International Car of the Year when it was launched in 2001, the 307 underwent a significant facelift and revamp during 2005 to freshen it up. Its main competitors are the Ford Focus (the UK's best-selling car), the Vauxhall Astra, the Golf, the Renault Megane and the 307's cousin — the Citroen C4.

Sometimes the 307 range makes the UK's monthly top ten sales chart; sometimes it doesn't But around 45,000 of them found UK homes in 2005 and 250,000 have been sold in less than four years. Fifty per cent of customers are retail buyers and fifty per cent of all sales are diesel models.

The 307 is a range I quite often recommend to people who ask what
to buy when they want a safe, secure, roomy, value-for-money, middle-of-the-road car at a sensible price. So far nobody has been disappointed with my advice.

The 307 range has numerous variants with Euro IV compliant petrol and diesel engine options. Bodystyle options consist of three- and five-door hatchbacks, five-door estates, the elegant four-seater Coupé Cabriolet with a folding metal roof and my favourite version, the SW or Sports Wagon.

This model is more than a five-door hatch but not quite an estate. Benefiting from a longer wheelbase (+10cm compared to that of the hatchback) and a rear overhang that takes the overall length to 4.43m, the SW gives you the best of both worlds. It provides seating for five or more with a useable and flexible load carrying space big enough for luggage for all the passengers, and certainly big enough to carry the largest dog. The rear seats in the second row are individual and can be folded, realigned in the absence of a middle seat, or moved to the third row, endowing the SW with a versatility that lets you adapt it to your lifestyle. The good news is that you're not carrying around loads of generally unused space as you would with a fully-fledged estate car.

Surprisingly, according to Peugeot 62 per cent of UK customers go
for hatchback models, with just 15 per cent opting for the SW. Fleet customers mainly buy the estate versions. Depending on the exact model, there are up five levels of specification available.

The SW range starts at a very reasonable £14,300 bought new, but
you should be able to negotiate a discount on that price. Top model in the range is the SE HDi 136 diesel, which is priced at £17,800, although diesel models do start from a more realistic £15,100.

My test car, the top-of-the-range SE HDi 136, was fitted with the optional third row of seats, making it a six/seven seater. Costing a reasonable £389, the beauty of them is that they can be folded completely away into the floor so you retain the load area space but the seats are always there as and when needed for occasional use.
All SW models have as standard a wonderfully huge sunroof with a one-touch electronic shutter sunblind that generates an outstanding feeling of light and space inside the car. Air conditioning is standard on all models.

Part of the 307's revision in 2005 was a complete front-end facelift.
It now adopts the new 'smiling mouth' pioneered with the distinctive 407 range as well as wide-set elliptical headlamps. The large front windscreen extends uninterrupted to the end of the panoramic sunroof. Together the front and rear styling changes have created a very neat package, and in common with most cars in this class the interior is well laid out. Better still, it does what real customers want it to do, and in some comfort as well.

On the road the handling — or driving dynamics — are not as sharp as those of the class-leading Focus, Astra or Golf. But you really have to be a perfectionist to be put off by anything this car has to offer as far as road holding and ride comfort are concerned.

The 307 SE HDi 136 has an electronic stability programme with traction control and, of course, anti-lock braking. The 307 SE also has a four-star Euro NCAP safety rating, and with six airbags as standard it is pretty well equipped.

The four-cylinder 2.0-litre direct injection turbocharged diesel engine with 136bhp and — more importantly — 177lb ft of torque developed from just 2,000rpm makes it a very responsive and fast car to drive. The diesel engine, although noisy from the outside, is very quiet inside the car. Top speed is a swift 122mph, with 0-62mph being covered in just 10.8 seconds.

This car is a real performer and it's actually faster than most petrol-engined vehicles in its class. The official average fuel consumption is quoted as 50.4mpg, with 38.6 and 60.1mpg for urban and touring respectively. My test car came close to matching Peugeot's claimed 50.4 figure, returning 48.9mpg. Very impressive.

The only niggle — and it is one I have with several Peugeot models using a diesel engine in conjunction with a 6-speed manual gearbox — is the fact that fifth and sixth gear are too high. Particularly sixth, which can only realistically be used on motorways. There is too big a gap between fourth and fifth gear and in busy traffic on open roads you just seem to be always in the wrong gear mid-range.

The problem is that Peugeot and its sister company Citroen design these engines and transmissions to suit European markets as a whole and mainland Europe has many more miles of motorways and traffic-free open roads. For me this made it an efficient drive rather than class-leading one.

Not wishing to end on a negative note, overall the 307 SW really is a great family car. It's a useful size, offers a versatile passenger and load carrying layout and it is well equipped. The diesel engine delivers fine on-the-move performance.

The 307 SW looks smart and most models are pretty good value for money. The top of the range SE 136 would be nice to have if I could get the price down but I could easily live with the 'S' specification HDi 90 or 110 turbodiesel versions priced at £15,100 to £16,000. — David Miles

Peugeot 307 SW SE HDi | £17,800
Maximum speed: 122mph | 0-62mph: 10.8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 48.9mpg | 136bhp | 177lb ft

------------------------------------------------------------------- Peugeot 307 SW