PORTO, PORTUGAL –We got behind the wheel of the second-generation Peugeot 308 GTi to see if it can not only atone for the shortcomings of its forebear, but also give the segment-favourite Volkswagen Golf GTI something to think about.
What is it?
It would be easy to wax lyrical about Peugeot’s GTi lineage and the motorsport achievements tenuously tagged onto it, but the crux of the matter here is that the 308 GTi is the French firm’s foil to its similarly monikered – and widely held genre-defining – rival, the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Like the Golf GTI, the previous 308 GTi didn’t trade on outright clout. Instead, Peugeot looked to emulate the German’s balance of everyday comfort and performance. But with its balance leaning toward the former, evidenced by somewhat wallowy body control, vague steering and a sloppy gearshift action, the previous car was met with little enthusiasm.
Fast-forward to 2015 with an all-new standard Peugeot 308 with a European Car of the Year award nestled under its belt, and it looks as though the new GTi has the goods to all but close the gap between it and the benchmark Golf hot hatch.
So, will the new Peugeot 308 GTi make a name for itself as a genuine threat to the genre-defining German, or will it again be relegated to a crowded line-up of hot hatch also-rans?
Subtle outside … sort of
In a similar vein to Volkswagen’s approach to hot hatch styling, Peugeot has opted to steer clear of such hooligan-esque elements as bulging body kits and rather apply a sporty veneer to an already handsome looking hatchback.
Slightly deeper sills, a reworked front apron with more venting, a lowered ride height, some red pinstriping and a set of 19-inch alloys in a fetching two-tone, twin-bladed design are the most noteworthy changes.
If this softly-does-it approach isn’t to your taste, Peugeot also offers a styling package as part of its By Peugeot Sport line that dips the car’s rump in a contrasting black hue.
A similarly light touch is applied to the cabin, with red trim stitching, accommodating but well bolstered sports seats, a fat metal nugget of a gear knob and metal pedal boots being the most obvious additions.
The GTi also continues to feature Peugeot’s divisive i-Cockpit driver array, with its narrow, high-placed dial binnacle/diminutive steering-wheel combination, that takes some adjusting to.
In keeping with the GTi’s everyday-practicality proviso, the cabin is spacious enough to pass the six-footer-sitting-behind-themselves test and the boot serves up a useful 420 dm3 of claimed luggage space.
High performance innards
The 308 GTi’s demure wrapping hides underpinnings that have been heavily worked on with input from Peugeot’s sport division. The springs and front wishbone/rear torsion beam suspension setup have been stiffened, weight savings in the shapes of lightweight alloy wheels and composite materials for the rear hatch have been realised, and a Torsen limited-slip differential working in concert with the attitude of the car’s electrically assisted steering and ESP has been added.
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that the GTi’s direct-injection 1,6-litre turbopetrol engine’s outputs mirror those of the RCZ R. This is an upshot of the pair sharing Peugeot’s EP6CDTR engine. Featuring strengthened con rods, forged aluminium pistons, numerous reinforcing measures and the boost pushed up to 2,5 bar this unit’s outputs of 200 kW and 330 N.m stretches towards the boundaries of what can be safely extracted from the long-serving unit.
Up to this point all of the comparisons have been drawn with the Golf GTI, but once in motion the 308 GTi presents a few more facets than the VW.
Like the Golf, the 308 GTi manages to tread a neat line between trickling through traffic and blasting along backroads without stumbling in between.
Refinement is impressive and perceived interior quality is of a high standard with no creaks or rattles accompanying your drive.
The clutch action has that French car tendency to bite quite high up in the pedal’s travel and the gearshift is a bit longer than you’d expect of a hot hatch, but becoming accustomed to the former doesn’t take long and the gearshift’s reassuringly mechanical feel makes up for its long throw.
Although SA roads will be the ultimate test of this car’s ride, the changeable road surfaces in Portugal still saw the 19-inch-shod 270 model serve up a ride that’s firm but supple enough so as not to prove jarring and the chassis is respectably resistant to body lean.
The steering wheel’s diminutive diameter gives the impression of the car’s tiller being responsive and direct – a feeling further reinforced by electric assistance that’s well weighted and measured.
Pressing on, there’s bags of front-end grip on offer and the limited-slip diff does a respectable job of drawing the nose into line when the corners get tighter. Stopping power is especially impressive, with four-piston callipers biting down on huge 380 mm discs up front.
But where the Golf feels merely punchy, the 308 GTi’s 200 kW, along with an impressively broad maximum torque plateau between 1 900-5 500 r/min that lends the engine a wonderful degree of in-gear clout over a wide range of speeds, makes it feel properly quick.
Activating sports mode lends a hair trigger-like sensitivity to the throttle and filters a growly engine soundtrack into the cabin. It genuinely gives the car an even more urgent air, but this heightened throttle response is sometimes a little counterproductive on tighter road sections requiring a more measured right foot.
When it comes to hot hatches there’s an almost elastic bridge between the poles that balance everyday usability and performance. Despite their five-door packaging, the likes of the Ford Focus ST and Civic Type R stretch the outright performance and agility pole as far out as possible, causing the elastic bounding practicality to twang out of kilter. The Golf still bridges the poles most evenly, but the Peugeot has managed something different altogether.
It introduces firepower the Golf can’t live with, but still manages to remain civilised at the same time – no mean feat!
While pricing and brand cachet, not to mention the legacy of a downright dour predecessor, may prove to be considerable hurdles to its success, it’s fair to say that Peugeot’s return to the C-segment hot hatch fray is an impressive one.