PugLife

Peugeot is serious about performance again, but can the 308 GTi step out from the shadows of its forebears?

by DYLAN CAMPBELL

T’S PROBABLY more help than hindrance having a parent who’s worshipped as a motorsport god – if you want a career driving racing cars. Ask Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill, Nico Rosberg, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Nelson Piquet Jr, Steven Johnson, Carlos Sainz, Max Verstappen… the entire Andretti family, the Brabhams, the Blomqvists, we could go on.

But then when you start climbing podiums, the questions start: what’s it like being the kid of an all-time Formula One, NASCAR, WRC or V8 Supercar great? Is the sun blotted out by their long shadow?

It must get repetitive. And it’s a feeling Peugeot’s new 308 GTi will get to know.

I It must be already sick of hearing about the 205 GTi, its grandfather of sorts. Oh, it was magic, they say. That 1.9-litre engine, that balance, that playfulness – there’s never been a hot hatch like it since, for it was the greatest.

The 308 GTi can’t even fob off such comparisons to its little sibling, the 208 GTi, because in the late 90s Peugeot went and made the 306 GTi-6. It combined a close-ratio six speed ’box with a rorty 131kW 2.0-litre engine. It was sublime – the closest Peugeot has spiritually come to matching the original 205 GTi.

It’s this hot-hatch pedigree that weighs heavily on the new 308 GTi. Its engineers back it; they openly name the cars with which they’re picking fights – Golf GTI, Focus RS, Civic Type R – but, curiously, not the Renault Sport Megane, as an all-new one is just around the corner.

At a glance the 308 GTi’s spec sheet is encouraging, particularly the bit that says: “Torsen mechanical

limited slip differential”. But there’s more.

Forged pistons, a BorgWarner twin-scroll turbo, 19-inch wheels on grippy Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres… plus 200kW and 330Nm. Not bad for 1.6 litres and, indeed, 21psi of boost will do that.

Then there’s the fact it weighs just 1205kg. That’s 119kg less than a Golf GTI – it’s even lighter than the 306 GTi-6 from 1996, which weighed 1214kg.

In making the GTi, Peugeot’s basically taken a 308 GT, lowered it 11mm, given it new, angrier front and rear bars and wheels, completely revised the suspension (including stiffer bushes and a much stiffer rear swaybar) and prepared a pair of wickedup engine tunes.

Two versions are coming to Australia, the 250 and the 270 (denoting horsepower outputs), which will trigger a 308 range review that, we hear, might cause the 308 GT to bite the dust in place of the GTi 250.

Both the 250 and 270 are manual only (Peugeot’s working on an automatic, apparently) but the 270 is the one you want. It has more power (184kW vs 200kW) and, while they both make 330Nm at 1900rpm, the 250 tails off at 4000rpm where the 270 keeps hauling to 5500rpm.

The 270 also gets the 19s on more aggressive tyres and is the only version available in the love-it-ordespise- it red and black split colour scheme (called Coup Franche, which Babelfish reliably translates to French Cup). But, most important of all, the 270 gets that diff.

The extra zip, better tyres and two spinning front wheels instead of one means the 270 does 0-100km/h in a claimed 6.0sec – 0.2 faster than its lower-spec, lower-powered sibling.

Nicer seats also cosset bums inside the 270, but otherwise the interiors are largely the same – smart, premium-feeling and with a minimalist vibe. For example, all the air-con controls live inside the centre-screen touch menu (for better or worse).

Much like the 208 GTi, if not as extreme, the seating position will divide opinion as well. The instrument cluster sits right at the bottom of the windscreen, to the extent that, if you like your steering wheel high, it’ll be blocking the gauges.

The idea, we presume, is you’re supposed to have the small-ish diameter steering wheel low, in which case the dials are easily visible. It’s not so much an issue for taller drivers as it is those of more average height. Dwarfs might do well to shop elsewhere.

Those into weird French ergonomics will love the backwards-revving tacho. The engineers say it’s to put the redline closer to your line of sight – so no, it’s not just to annoy you.

We only got to drive the 270 at the launch in Portugal, so we can’t really draw any driving comparisons to the 250. But a blast through the hills and at Circuito Vasco Sameiro (Portugal’s version of Wakefield Park) suggested with tamer tyres and an open diff, the 270 would be a very different animal.

The ride is the first giveaway that Peugeot has taken the performance aspect of the 308 GTi seriously. It’s not as firm as a Renault Sport Megane but it’s not as nice as a Golf GTI (which has adaptive dampers; the 308 GTi doesn’t). While the 308 GTi’s suspension tune teeters toward performance rather than refinement, it’s not to say you couldn’t live with it on a daily basis.

The tyres also give up some refinement for performance. They’re not semi-slicks but they can be noisy. Again, no apologies from the 308 GTi’s engineers will be issued. This is a hot hatch.

It shows, too, as you barrel into your first corner, with the 308 GTi sitting impressively flat while the tyres dish up generous lateral grip.

The steering is light, accurate and direct, and once you’re over the whole seating position thing, there’s one of the nicer electric steering systems to be discovered.

But it’s the diff that really has the most transformative effect on the whole experience, allowing throttle greediness that would otherwise

Easy on the aids

GTi: analogue in the right places

IT’S WORTH a nod to Peugeot Sport for fitting a mechanical front limited slip differential, to the 308 GTi 270 model at least.

Where other car makers might try to get away with an open diff and braking the inside wheel, nothing quite compares to the feeling the GTi’s Torsen unit supplies. Meanwhile Peugeot’s gone easy on the electronics and driver aids everywhere else – there’s no electronic torque vectoring, not even multi-stage ESP. Refreshingly, there are just two modes – On, and Off. For GTi, the ESP’s been retuned for On and, short of when you’re trying to throw the thing sideways, it’s surprisingly relaxed. Meanwhile Off does exactly as it says.

Cockpit view

Quite a smart place to sit

PEUGEOT 308 GTi

BODY 4-door, 5-seat hatch DRIVE front-wheel ENGINE 1598cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbocharger BORE/STROKE 77.0 x 85.8mm COMPRESSION 9.2:1 POWER 200kW @ 6000rpm TORQUE 330Nm @ 1900-5500rpm POWER/WEIGHT 166kW/tonne TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual WEIGHT 1205kg FRONT SUSPENSION struts, dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar REAR SUSPENSION torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar L/W/H 4253/1804/1446mm WHEELBASE 2617mm TRACKS 1570/1554mm (f/r) STEERING electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion FRONT BRAKES 380mm ventilated carbon discs, 4-piston calipers REAR BRAKES 268mm solid discs, single-piston calipers WHEELS 19.0 x 8.5-inch (f/r) TYRES 235/35 R19 91Y (f/r) PRICE AS TESTED $52,000 (est) PROS That diff, decent poke, corners well, steering CONS Gearshift, could be more playful, engine note STAR RATING 11113

lead to single-spinner action and frustration in a conventionally-‘diffed’ car. Up a twisty road the diff just lets you get on with a neck-wringing rhythm befitting a proper hot hatch – and it will certainly make for scratching the driving itch.

Unfortunately gearchanges aren’t quite as satisfying, with a woolly, functional and long-throw about it, but on the whole it doesn’t really get in the way – in fact, it’s easy to forget you’re driving a 1.6- litre, such is the grunt on tap.

The engine has flexibility like a 2.0-litre right across the rev range, with low-down oomph translating to mid-range urge as it hurtles past the 6000rpm redline right up to the 6500rpm limiter. There’s plenty of pep.

It’s when the throttle is pinned leaving a corner that a little torque steer says hello and the steering wheel tugs slightly left and right as you’re winding off lock. Nothing major, but on a narrow road you can get spooked.

The 308 GTi won’t make any “best-sounding fourcylinder” lists, either. Peugeot plumbs phony engine noise through the stereo in Sport mode, which says something. It adds some much-needed aural participation, but it’s obviously fake.

Fortunately, put the window down and the turbo is quite the entertainer, hissing on boost and sneezing like a blow-off valve. But mostly, the 308 GTi sounds much better from outside than in.

These are minor grievances that don’t really ruin the whole shebang – far from it. The 308 GTi is quite the tool, and it’s a big step up from the 308 GT – even, to some extent, the 208 GTi.

It’s a bit of a weapon on track, too. At our Portuguese Wakefield Park it had enough grunt to keep the knuckles white down the straights, and enough brakes to keep you going deeper and deeper with each lap. Four-piston monobloc calipers and fairly massive 380mm front discs will do that.

The tyres make more sense on track as well, dishing up an impressive amount of grip and letting you get away with some corner entry speeds where other cars might wash wide. And the 308 GTi chassis, with its pointy, accurate front end, is more than up for it.

The revised-for-GTi ESP is pretty shy as well, even fully on. In fact, short of some serious cretinism, it behaves not unlike its only other setting – Off.

Hit that and the 308 GTi turns a little feral, easily spinning up both front wheels.

A mid-corner lift will also show off some adjustability, but largely the 308 GTi feels more planted than playful – it certainly doesn’t initially feel to have the bordering-on-homicidal oversteer of something like a Ford Focus ST. That is, unless you were born without a self-preservation instinct.

Meanwhile, the diff has just as much a transformative effect on track as it does on road, letting you pick up the throttle more eagerly and early – in fact, without it the experience could be entirely different.

Otherwise the performance is accessible – and on track, the 308 GTi is effective, owing a lot to the diff and tyres. Don’t be tricked by the polite exterior and interior styling – this thing is a proper hot hatch.

Is it as fun as a Renault Sport Megane or a Focus ST? It’s not as playful. Is it as clever and polished as a Golf GTI? Almost, we will say for certain come comparison time when the car gets to Australia Q1 next year.

Price will play an enormous role in whether the 308 GTi is a contender for any halls of fame, at least locally. “Between $45K and $55K”, Peugeot says. The 308 GTi is good, but $55K good? There’s some stiff competition in that territory, and that’s excluding the Focus RS, the price of which we don’t yet know.

As a bit of kit, the 308 GTi is good enough to play Golf, but perhaps GTI, not R, and that’s why the price does matter a fair bit. And then wherever it lands it must deal with those questions about its superstar parents. That said, we suspect having them around’s been more help than hindrance. M

Don’t be tricked by the polite exterior and interior styling – this thing is a proper hot hatch