When a car manufacturer announces a vehicle is aimed at the "emerging markets", it doesn't exactly set the pulse racing. The delights of driving over the plains and up the stunning Taurus Mountains of the hinterland of Antalya, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, certainly helped with the excitement on a recent launch, but it wasn't just the scenery that made our first drive in Peugeot's new 301 memorable.
To be clear, a couple of days in the new 301 won't have you whistling "Je t'aime... moi non plus" as you sip the local product at sunset on the Turkish Med, but preconceived notions of "cheap and cheerful" are well wide of the mark. It's a fine car.
Antalya is actually the world's third most-visited city at the moment, having displaced New York City, so says Mr Google. I'm not sure I would be easily swayed to pass on the Big Apple, but this affordable piece of Pug chic looks right at home in the groovier parts of this cool Turkish resort area.
Peugeot has been moving upmarket for a few years and the cars reflect it. It's also pushing a strategy of "internationalisation", which translates as doing everything you can to reduce reliance on that horrendously overcrowded market in western Europe. Cue: step right up China, Russia, South America and Middle East.
Peugeot executives tell us that sales outside western Europe last year represent 50 per cent of the French car maker's numbers, so something is working. It needs to be, what with France's car industry reeling these days, and the 301 is part of a vital product development outside Europe.
The engine won't have you salivating, but the 301 feels more than adequate for city commutes and weekend pleasure driving. In the UAE, we'll get the 1.6L, four-cylinder petrol unit with four-speed auto. Five gears would be nice, but it still does the job with the minimum of fuss. Indeed, the five-speed manual is more fun (but we won't get it) and the diesel (obviously also not coming here) was far torqueier.
Our drive route over hilly terrain, including 10km of rough, dirt track in the Taurus Mountains didn't expose many frailties; the steering is accurate, the chassis well-sorted and balanced. On the highways, in a straight line with your foot down, the 301 does feel a bit fidgety, but it compensates with its cornering acumen. Among the highlights are perfectly acceptable looks, nifty handling, generous equipment levels, a well-made and roomy cabin, an excellent boot and comfy ride. Insulation is fine, too, with the cabin nicely hushed.
Speaking of the cabin, it's both dignified and impressive. Peugeot has gone for basic black on the dash, rather than that dodgy fake woodgrain favoured by some others. If you want a classy wood feel you have to get on the wrong side of Greenpeace, Sting and Brian May and take the chainsaw to some real trees. There are plenty of goodies to play with, such as a USB port, Bluetooth and loads of expected safety features. Peugeot also claims class-leading legroom in the back. Your tester is a gentleman of girth and height and was at ease front and back, driving and as a passenger.
The 301 will be pitched mainly at males aged 35-45, primarily for family use. They are expected to be single-vehicle households, perhaps the first car bought by the customers and will represent a "significant expense". So the price has to be just right for the 301 to kick any sales goals. Peugeot says it "will be slightly under or equal to a basic 208", which should see sticker prices of about Dh60,000 when it arrives in our showrooms at the end of the first quarter next year.
The 301 had its genesis in the SR1 show car, which we saw in 2010 at the Geneva Motor Show, and reflects the new design language stemming from the larger 508, including a more muscular look. "The 301 is there to conquer new markets, particularly in hot climates such as the Middle East," a spokesman says at a briefing, adding the car had "been tested in temperatures up to 40 degrees." We pointed out that 40°Celsius is a tad on the chilly side down in the Gulf, but in fairness a further battery of tests had taken place to cater for the heat factor. And Peugeot has worked particularly hard on the A/C for fast, improved air flow.
Peugeot appears to have done its homework with the 301. It also put its money where its mouth is by coming up with an exacting drive of nearly 300km in demanding conditions unlikely to be encountered by any customer in the UAE. Assuming the dealers get the prices right, the 301, with its good handling, ride comfort and loads of room, makes a good case for itself as a common-sense purchase.