If you’re after a family hatchback, there are plenty of different options to choose from – whether it’s the reliability and practicality of the Toyota Auris, the sharp styling of the SEAT Leon or the teutonic build quality of the VW Golf. But for something with a bit more style, your best bet might be to go French. In our video group test, Mat Watson pits the Peugeot 308 against the Renault Megane and Citroen C4 Cactus.
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The Peugeot 308 is the priciest car in this company, with even entry-level models costing more than the most expensive Citroen C4 Cactus. The 308 starts at £19,770 and rises to a smidge over £25,000, while the Cactus ranges from £16,395 to £19,650. A fully-specced Megane tips the scales at £26,690, although entry-level models undercut similar 308s by almost £2,000.
However, at the time of writing, the discount carwow can save you makes the Megane a very tempting proposition. Instead of paying £17,790 for a low-spec car, you would pay just £12,823 – the older, cheaper Cactus only beats it by around £250 while the lowest price on a 308 is currently £15,396 – still, a discount of £4,374 isn’t to be sniffed at.
The Citroen stands out by having pseudo-SUV styling and, of course, Citroen’s signature Airbumps that are as good at dividing opinion as they are at preventing dings and scratches in car parks. But the Citroen has sold so well that the Airbumps are now fitted on the C3 hatchback and C3 Aircross SUV.
The Peugeot is smart and sophisticated compared to the offbeat quirkiness of the Citroen. Its shape is more traditional and Mat describes the 308 as looking like a Golf with more personality, while its rear lights are meant to look like lion’s paws. Er…
The Renault is arguably the most distinctive to look at, despite having a similar shape to the 308. Its boomerang-style lights are borrowed from the Espace MPV and Talisman saloon that aren’t available in the UK. Park the Megane next to a Golf or BMW 1 Series and the Megane will look far more crisp and modern.
Inside, the Megane feels modern too. The cabin feels smart and well-made, although most of the goodies are only available on the higher trim levels. One example is the intuitive portrait-style infotainment screen that controls the music, navigation and other entertainment functions, but lower-spec cars have to make do with a much smaller screen with less functionality.
The 308 interior feels equally modern and feels slightly more polished than the Renault. There’s a distinct lack of buttons which de-clutters the centre console, but also means you have to access functions like the climate control through the touch screen. It’s not the easiest system, meaning your eyes might be away from the road for longer than they need to be.
Fed up of all car interiors looking virtually the same? Get into the C4 Cactus’ cabin – it’s like nothing else on sale. It’s interesting to look at and the definition of minimalist, while there are touches like the leather door straps that are apparently inspired by posh luggage. The Cactus uses the same infotainment system as the 308, with all its features and foibles, and one downside is that there’s no forwards and backwards adjustment in the steering wheel.
Because the Cactus’ front airbags are stashed in the roof lining, the top of the glovebox is freed up for a huge storage compartment. Overall the storage is good in the Cactus, although it has a smaller boot capacity than both of its test rivals. If you regularly travel with three in the back seats, the Citroen might not be the best option because its narrower body means it can get a bit cramped. That said, it’s the best for fitting a child seat thanks to easily located Isofix points and large doors.
The Peugeot has a much larger boot than both the Cactus and Megane, but that comes with a sacrifice. Leg and headroom both suffer in the back and the storage cubbies aren’t up to the standard of the other cars.
In this company, the Megane seems to offer the best of both worlds. Three adults will be happy enough on short journeys in the back, there are enough places to stow things and the boot isn’t the biggest in its class but should be suitable for most needs. However, there’s a big ledge to heave things over and the narrow rear doors can make it trickier to put a child seat in.
Driving and engines
The Citroen is the most French-feeling to drive out of these three. Like classic Citroens, the suspension is soft and pliant, there’s a lot of body roll and the gearbox isn’t crisp and engaging. It’s engineered for comfort, providing a relaxing driving experience and a good view out thanks to sitting higher. The 1.6-litre diesel is quite noisy, although the 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engine that’s also available is much better.
The same 1.2-litre engine is fitted to the 308 and once again it’s the pick of the range. The 308 is also set up mainly for comfort – it’s better to drive when you’re not in a hurry. It feels the most sophisticated and expensive in this company, although wind noise is more intrusive and the small steering wheel can be off-putting if you’re not used to it.
On paper, the Megane should have the dynamic advantage with the rear wheels being able to steer slightly. At low speeds, the rears point in the opposite direction to the fronts to make the car more agile, and point in the same direction as the fronts at high speed to increase stability. However, the Megane also majors on comfort and lacks some personality and fizz. The 1.5-litre diesel is economical, though.
All three of these cars would be worthy purchases and all offer a slightly different proposition. The Citroen is cheapest, has funky styling and an original interior, but is let down by a small boot and uncommunicative driving experience. The Peugeot’s cramped interior is a major shortcoming in this class and the posher cabin quality can’t make up for it.
The winner is the Renault Megane, managing to strike a good balance between practicality and interior space. It has the most distinctive styling and a solid interior, and a sporty driving experience won’t be at the top of many people’s wishlists.