This is Part 3 and the final iteration of our test drive of a Peugeot 3008, that we baptised Quentin, into France and Spain. You can see Part 1: from Paris to Bordeaux here and Part 2: from Arcachon to Bilbao here. Having reached the culinary high point of San Sebastian and nearby Bilbao, it’s now time to explore the ancient, picture-perfect castles of Navarra and Aragon, picturesque Pyrenees villages and one last foodie stop before we return to Paris and go through the final review of the car.
Leaving Bilbao and heading north leads us to the Gorbeiako National Park, and once Vitoria-Gasteiz is cleared, we progressively get higher in altitude towards the tiny village of Uzquiano as the temperature drops abruptly and fog surrounds us even though we are right in the middle of summer. To get there I took Quentin through tiny, countryside roads alternating long straights and twisty bends to pass the hills. Pushing the car speed-wise, it becomes apparent that the 3008 handles a lot more like a sportscar than an SUV, negating its high-on-wheels posture to stay very close to the ground, hugging the road and its curves. The same way the 3008 made me forget I was driving a Peugeot by its cockpit’s sophistication, it’s now working hard at making me forget I’m driving an SUV. A multitude of thumbs up have been earned right here, even though this sporty allure is coupled with a very rigid suspension that has your backbones recording every bump and irregularity of the road. We then pass a ridge which forms the border between Basque Country to the north and the Rioja wine region to the south, and tumble down towards Laguardia and its valley. There, the difference of temperature between the top of the ridge and the boiling valley triggered striking cloud formations rolling down the cliff, pictured above.
Another excellent surprise by our very useful petrol price-friendly GPS enables me to refuel at 1.033€/L in Logroño, at the intersection between Basque Country, Rioja and Navarre, which would end up being the cheapest petrol in the entire trip. It’s then a pitstop in Pamplona, the capital of the Kingdom of Navarra and a city that comes alive when a million visitors visit for the world-famous running of the bulls at the Fiesta de San Fermín from 6 to 14 July every year. I am two weeks late and therefore met with a very quiet but welcoming town for the night.
We start the next day with the 10th century childhood-fantasy castle of Javier, complete with crenellated towers just like you imagined as a kid, and so beautifully preserved you can almost hear the horses neighing as the knight in shining armour calls for the drawbridge to open. A trip back in time if you ever needed one. We then cross into Aragón to reach Sos del Rey Católico – yes that is actually the village’s name, a stronghold on elevated terrain that was incorporated into the Kingdom of Aragon in 1044. Why Sos? There are a few hypothesis. For some, it means “on a hill”, for others, it refers to the pre-Romanesque people of the ‘Suessetani’ that were found settled in that land. Why del Rey Católico? Because it is here in 1452 that was born Ferdinand II of Aragon, who with his wife Isabel I of Castilla became known as the Reyes Catolicos (the Catholic Monarchs). Together they conquered the last Islamic kingdom of Grenada and united Spain. I then traverse a barren plain through Castillicar and Ayerbe, villages that are not only sleepy but that actually seem totally empty, with absolutely no one venturing in the streets in mid-afternoon. It is also the opportunity for me to snap a picture of the Dacia Dokker, surprisingly and by far the most popular vehicle in this part of the country.
Castillo de Loarre… and tortilla
Quentin and I then reach the Castillo de Loarre, built in 1020 and one of the oldest castles in the whole of Spain. The story behind its location towering the southern plains of Aragón is enough to make you stop and daydream for a while. Its construction was enabled when Sancho el Mayor reconquered surrounding lands from the Muslims, and its position on the frontier between Christian and Muslim kingdoms gave it strategic importance. If you have read Part 1 and Part 2 of this test drive you will know that it has quite inadvertently become a bit of a foodie trip, after red wine in Bordeaux, oysters in Arcachon and pintxas in San Sebastian. Let’s continue the trend with a good old tortilla at the Castillo de Loarre. It doesn’t get much Spanish than this – and you will notice that foodie doesn’t mean expensive and pretentious, far from it.
If you thought that Javier and Loarre were all the history-filled fantasy castles this part of Spain had to offer, you would be sorely mistaken, as we next hit the jewel villages of Alquézar and Aínsa. Once again quite intriguingly, the name Alquézar comes from the Arabic القصر (al qaçr) for “fort” or “castle” and the village grew around one at the start of the 11th century when parts of the region were still under Arabic rule. Entirely pedestrian, the town has managed to vigorously repel the flow of tourist cars that engulf the region during summer. I spotted in the parking lot above the village a lovely Renault 4 that would be around 40 years old by now. On the way towards the equally pristine village of Aínsa, I struggle with a surprisingly poor behaviour trait of the 3008. Working hard on the twisty road along the jagged flanks of the Rio Vero canyon and in the slow-climbing plain leading to the Pyrenees mountains, I found it impossible to find the right gear to use the engine efficiently and whip up the car into sustained speed. This is something that is more bound to happen with automatic gearshifts, but this is a manual. In this slow-climb, windy road situation, the second gear has the engine over-reving while coming short on power, but the third gear is too tender and weak, lacking a power kick and only adding marginal speed. The result is a constant and mind-frying shift between 2nd and 3rd gear during the entire journey, all the more surprising as the car’s sporty road handling would have you expect it would lap up that type of terrain with no effort whatsoever. I’m curious. If you drive or have driven a 3008, have you had the same issue? Or is it just my style of driving that triggered it? It is so blatantly wrong in a car that does so many things right that I find it dumbfounding – much like the blind-spot cruise control wand actually. On Aínsa: its breathtaking Plaza Mayor takes you back to the 11th century when the village was built, much like most of the historical sites of the region, and the ruggedness of the surrounding terrain means true blue 4WDs from the eighties still roam free, such as the Lada Niva and Nissan Patrol pictured above.
Next is Gerbe, still in Aragón region, with its bucolic views on the Embalse de Mediano artificial lake. We are now at the foot of the Pyrenees with steep cliffs towering above the road and goats being herded off the road by friendly shepherds. Linking with the picture above, it’s an opportunity to have another go at exploring the very specific car landscape in the region: below the Dacia Dokker incredibly popular we find its posher competitors the Peugeot Partner, Citroen Berlingo and Renault Kangoo seemingly dominating the sales ranking here.
Another element of the car landscape as we get right into the Pyrenees is the ever-reliable Land Rover Defender, the traditional companion of hardcore mountainous terrain, seen in multiple examples in the village of Taüll in the Catalan Pyrenees as pictured above, as well as the Barcelona-made Nissan Terrano II, the Mitsubishi Montero and its twin the Hyundai Galloper and the first generation Toyota Land Cruiser Prado.
We cross into Catalunya for our next pitstop in the Vall de Boí, home of Unesco World Heritage-listed Romanesque Churches, and more precisely in the very picturesque village of Taüll, population 262 and altitude 1550m, complete with old-style wood-balconied alpine chalets that have you believe you are actually in Austria. The friendly local taphouse prepared the ultimate foodie dinner of local ceps, red wine and courtesy limoncello liquor, pictured above. I had to, right? One thing though, if you’ve driven the hours it takes to get here for the sole purpose of visiting the Sant Climent de Taüll church, you’ll have to dodge random and rare opening hours imposed by rude cashiers whose sole occupation seems to be running after you screaming “it’s closed!” even though the door is open. Rather, stay there for the hospitality of the El Xalet de Taüll rural hotel with sprawling views over the valley, overflowing breakfast and adorable host.
In order to come up with an estimated list of best-sellers for the country which will be published in a separate article alongside all the Full Year 2018 posts, the next day is mostly spent exploring the tiny enclave of Andorra. This is one of the smallest countries in Europe with a population of 85.700 inhabitants over an area of 468 sq km, but whose sole purpose for the surrounding French and Spanish populations being cheap appliances and petrol. Oh and cigarettes advertising. Something I didn’t know was still allowed in some countries. Always fascinating to see what cars people purchase in a lesser-known country so stay tuned for my estimates coming shortly.
Retracing our steps to briefly brave the border traffic jams in the direction of Barcelona, Quentin and I now cross the Pyrenees towards France, stopping in Alp surrounded with bell-ringing cows, then Tosos for sunset. The drive down to Perpignan is much easier than the climb was, with the 3rd gear handling most of the journey, but the most satisfying element of this night mountain road drive is the revelation that the Peugeot 3008 is to this day the only car I ever test drove that actually masters the fine but dangerous art of automatic high beams. It recognises all oncoming cars to switch high beams off, even the ones coming from an angle on curvy winding roads, and does know the difference between a car and a particularly bright road sign. In my view, mastering automatic high beams requires perfection because one mistake means you will blind the oncoming car and as a result I end up shutting down the whole system in embarrassment. And the 3008 was perfect in that regard.
Spending a night in Perpignan is not something I recommend, with its city centre being the most unsafe I visited in a long time. Never mind, our last stop of this trip is in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, home of the famed blue cheese produced from ewe’s milk in nearby caves and marbled with blue-green veins caused by microscopic mushrooms. A fascinating side of the Roquefort epic history is the fact that it virtually created the concept of trademark. In 1411 Charles VI granted exclusive Roquefort cheesemaking rights to the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon as they had been doing so for centuries, and in the 17th century the Sovereign Court of the Parliament of Toulouse imposed severe penalties on cheesemakers fraudulently trading under the Roquefort name. Around 18,000 tons of Roquefort are made each year, meaning it is France’s second most popular cheese after Comté. The Roquefort Société is the largest producer, accounting for around 60% of all production, but I’m happy to report that despite their success, their restaurant offering almost infinite variations on Roquefort dishes has kept its friendliness and genuine care for the food-fanatics or the curious like me.
Next door to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is the Millau Viaduct, no less than the tallest bridge in the world, having a structural height of 343 metres (1,125 ft). It opened in 2004 and was designed by English architect Lord Norman Foster and French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux. It will cost you 12€ for the privilege of driving on it, a little steep to my taste but an interesting experience nonetheless. It’s now the last stretch: cutting a straight line through the sparsely populated centre of France for 6 hours or 660 km to the royal city of Versailles. But Quentin hadn’t said its last word: faced with an empty tank alert near Verneix in the Auvergne region, the GPS promptly got into urgent, no-messing around mode, suggesting no less than five distinct routes (all coloured differently) to the nearest petrol stations. Yet again, another nice touch that just brings you closer to the car in a emotional way. Finally, after one week of almost uninterrupted driving, Quentin and I reach Versailles, and we conclude our last driving day with a dinner with my good friend Mathieu, a Renault engineer curious to hear my impressions on one of its employer’s fiercest competitors. The next day, after 3.652km / 2.269mi, I return the car to the Peugeot Poissy factory. It was nice to meet you Quentin! Now I know why the Peugeot 3008 is thriving with stunning success all across Europe.
- Interior design and digital personalised dashboard pull Peugeot up a couple of giant steps right into premium territory. When you’re inside, it’s actually hard to believe this is a Peugeot, not an Audi.
- GPS shows diesel price in every nearby petrol station, congested roads in red, weather at destination, current altitude, calculates accurate ETA at destination and shows you five routes to the nearest petrol stations upon empty tank alert. GPS directions are incredibly precise and repeated up to three times before it’s time to action them, which means it’s almost impossible to make a mistake but it’s also totally impossible to listen to music uninterrupted.
- The first car I ever test drove that actually masters automatic high beams perfectly. It recognises oncoming cars even in winding mountain roads where the cars appear at an angle, makes the difference between a car and a particularly bright road sign. To master automatic high beam you have to be perfect because one mistake means I’ll turn it off in embarrassment. And the 3008 was perfect.
- Small steering wheel is confronting at first, but very quickly becomes extremely fun to manoeuvre – making you feel like you are driving a sportscar on a Formula 1 circuit. The experience is so intoxicating that getting back to “normal” steering wheels after that feels like you’re driving farm machinery.
- The car is very nimble for an SUV, I would even go as far as saying it handles like a sportscar, hugging the road and giving off a feeling of staying close to the ground while at the same time offering the dominant driving position all SUV drivers have come to love.
- Lots of reassuring clicks when turning the car on and off, closing the boot, makes the 3008 a truly sophisticated experience.
- Sound signature is very soft and touchscreen reactivity is sophisticated, even better than a Volvo which was the previous benchmark for me.
- Sound system is top notch.
- Lacks oomph in slow-climb windy roads, betraying a particularly badly levelled manual gearshift, with the 2nd gear over-reving but the 3rd gear too weak to add any significant speed. Rookie mistake for a car that otherwise does a lot of things right?
- The sporty behaviour mentioned in the positives comes with very rigid suspension that has a knack for making your back bones register every tiny crack or pothole on the road.
- Cruise control wand is in a blind spot behind the steering wheel and has quite convoluted commands. Unless you know them by heart it’s almost impossible to action while driving at speed, which completely defeats its purpose. Peugeot: just put the commands on the steering wheel next time.
- iPhone connection keeps dropping off resulting in crackling sound, and when connecting a phone the iCar connection monopolies the entire touchscreen with no “return to home” button or tabs on the screen allowing to return to navigation.
- Seat adjustment is manual (metal bar) which is a pet hate of mine, especially at this price point (34.350€) when a 8.000€ Chinese Baojun offers electric seats.
- Some touchscreen controls (piano touches) are located a lot lower than the touchscreen below the air vents, mandating a double-look at the controls and the screen itself and necessitating way too much distraction away from looking at the road ahead. Why haven’t all the controls been centralised on the actual screen?
- Innovative exterior design looks too squarish to me, not giving enough angles under which the car looks sexy on photographs: there are no shapes that catch the light and make the car look sporty in a way the Toyota C-HR does for example. But clearly I’m in a minority here since the 3008 has had smashing success ever since it launched, and it has grown on me during the trip, helped by the dark paint colour that drowns the convoluted front headlight bumper design that would otherwise look way too complicated. I had not noticed the black bar between the tail lights before and it does make the rear of the car look somewhat cleaner, if still fat-arsed.
- Lack of visibility through the back window which is very narrow.
- Only a week-long test drive would uncover this – and that’s the beauty of these drives: the roof is so low inside that there’s not room to finish drinking a 1.5L bottle of water, you have to turn your head to the right to do so which is dangerous. Random I know, but actually quite frustrating in the long run. And yes I did try and lower/retract my seat but to no avail.
Stay tuned for our next test drive: a Dacia Logan across 10 Eastern European countries…