Peugeot 308 GTi

Well-armed French resistance against hot Golfís rule

JOHN CAREY

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

WITH the tachometer swinging into the zone between the 6000rpm redline and 6500rpm cut-out, itís time to hit the brakes. Hard. Four-piston calipers chomp on the new 308 GTiís big ventilated front discs, dragging the speedometer needle swiftly down from 170km/h or so. Slap the manual six-speeder back to third, thread through the slow, tightening right at the end of the straight, and aim at the first of the following left-handerís two apexes. Now begin to feed the 1.6-litre turbo some throttle.

The Peugeotís Torsen differential and beautifully smooth chassisstability electronics convert pedal pressure into authoritative acceleration.

Weíre at a small racetrack in northern Portugal. This circuit provides a snaky series of varied curves, which highlight the French hatchís great grip, accurate steering and foolproof balance.

This is the Stage Two of Peugeotís introduction of the 308 GTi. Yesterday was spent on public roads, weaving through vineyards and attacking squiggly mountain roads. So we already knew one side of the carís character. Its ride is reasonably civilised for something so corner-capable.

The boosted engine is torquey, effortless. And the carís level of all-round refinement is inviting.

This is an important point, as Peugeot insists the 308 GTi was envisioned and developed to be the kind of hot hatch that can be driven every day. Which means that this new Peugeot must challenge the reigning champion in this role, the Golf GTI. While Peugeotís ambition is to be admired, there are some problems with its plan, especially in the context of Australian preferences and expectations.

For starters, the 308 GTi will be produced only with a six-speed manual gearbox. The carís potent engine produces more torque than the six-speed Aisin-made automatic employed in lesser 308s can handle. Ask when an automatic might be ready for the GTi and the evasive answers indicate itís years away, at best.

Secondly, the GTi seems sure to cost more than the GTI. With the Peugeotís arrival in Australia scheduled for sometime in the first quarter of 2016, importer Sime Darby is still some way from finalising prices, but the official line is $45,000 to $55,000.

What this means is that the least expensive Peugeot 308 GTi will be priced higher than a basic Golf GTI manual and that the most expensive version of the French challenger could cost more than a Golf R.

Both versions of the 308 GTi will be shipped to Australia. The basic one comes with the 184kW version of Peugeotís 1.6-litre turbo four. It shares the same Peugeot Sportdeveloped suspension (increased negative wheel camber front and rear; 11mm-lower, stiffer springs; firmer dampers). But the basic 308 GTi misses out on items that make the 200kW version presented in Portugal rather special.

SPECS

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale el erenthyee Peugeot 308 GTi 1598cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo 200kW @ 6000rpm 330Nm @ 1900-5500rpm 6-speed manual 1205kg 6.0sec (claimed) 6.0L/100km (EU) $52,500 (estimated) Q1, 2016

The engine is a richly productive source of practically lag-free torque

The 184kW car rolls on 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 3 rubber, not the slightly wider 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres that endow the 200kW 308 GTi with tenacious grip and wonderful steering sharpness. Also missing from the 184kW 308 GTi spec sheet are the big, 380mm Alcon front brakes and the Torsen differential.

Both versions of the engine are mechanically identical, according to Peugeot Sport. Itís software that makes the difference, removing a slice from the right-hand end of the torque plateau of the lowpower variant. Still, its 184kW claimed maximum is a handy 22kW more than the base VW GTI and 15kW more than the GTI Performance. If Peugeotís 0-100km/h claim for the car is proven correct, the basic 308 GTi will be quicker than both.

Because the 308 is a relatively light car for its size, and because the GTi is front-drive, the 200kW also has a better power-to-weight ratio than the all-wheel-drive Golf R. While it will never have the traction to beat the Volkswagen in standing-start acceleration, the powerful Peugeot can deliver similarly thrilling rolling acceleration. At least in the dryÖ The Peugeot Sport-developed engine is a fine piece of work.

Though it has 20 percent less capacity than the 2.0-litre turbo fours favoured by other European C-segment hot hatch manufacturers, this isnít something you feel. This engine is a richly productive source of practically lag-free torque. Itís also quiet, perhaps too quiet for some tastes. Thereís little to hear until close to 5000rpm.

Hitting the Sport button in the 308 GTiís centre console activates an amplifier and speaker to relay some engine-bay audio into the cabin. It sounds synthetic and contrived. Peugeot Sport says a flappy-valved exhaust system was considered too expensive for the 308 GTi. Other changes invoked by the Sport button are sharper throttle response and a reduction in steering assistance levels. Both are nicely judged; the steering doesnít become stupidly heavy, just a little more meaty, and the Sport throttle map simply makes the car feel more feisty.

Again for reasons of cost, the GTi is not equipped with variable dampers. It also retains a torsion-beam rear-end, just like the standard 308. But Peugeot Sport seems to have pretty much nailed the sweet spot with the choices they made. Though the car rolls very little and is understeer-resistant at sane-ish public-road cornering velocities, the firm suspension rounds road surface impacts quite nicely.

Thereís a real sense of discipline, but itís not the harsh kind.

While the GTi uses the same 3.0-turns lock-to-lock rack as the standard 308, the excellent 19-inch tyres and the extra helping of negative camber add the right amount of steering sharpness. Feel isnít fabulous, and steering weight is sometimes affected by engine torque and Torsen differential activity, but these are forgivable flaws considering how much torque the front wheels must deal with.

More serious is the rubbery feel of the manual shift. Gearbox internals are toughened for the GTi, but the shot-peening and annealing treatments do nothing to improve its action. A car like this deserves something that feels oily and slick, quick and precise.

The 308 GTiís quiet visuals are attractive. There are new front and rear bumpers, a twin-tipped exhaust, but no shouty spoiler.

The clean and conservative shape of the 308 looks especially fine when sitting a little lower and with wheels and tyres that fully fill its arches.

Thereís no lapse in tastefulness inside, either; some red stitching here, a little shininess there (see panel, right.)

No one will dispute that variety makes the automotive world a richer and more engaging environment. And the new 308 GTi certainly adds a welcome soupcon of French flavour to the hot-hatch class. While it lacks whatís needed to be a truly threatening Golf GTI rival, it certainly presents an alternative.

PLUS & MINUS

Rubbery manual; no auto; polarising steering wheel/instrument layout Engine; grip; handling; ride; styling; interior quality; front seats

Stylish overcoat

THEREíS a reason why the optional two-colour coupe franche Ė French for Ďfresh cutí Ė two-paint job of the 200kW version of the 308 GTi wonít be cheap.

The process is labour intensive. First, a metallicred- all-over car is pulled off the production line.

Its hatch and rear bumper are removed before the car is masked and its rear painted black. A final clear coat is applied before the black tailgate and bumper are bolted back on.

01 SEATING ARRANGEMENTS

Leather and Alcantara cover the sports front seats fitted standard in the 200kW 308 GTi. These are excellent, providing a great blend of comfort and support.

02 ONE GOOD TURN

Steering wheel is nicely finished and feels good in the hands, while the Peugeotís simple dash is classy. But as in every other 308, the novel arrangement of steering wheel and instruments will not suit everyone.

03 HARDCORE HARDWARE

High-output 200kW version of the GTi gets 19-inch wheels that are 2kg lighter than the 18s fitted to the standard car, while redpainted four-piston Alcon front brake calipers and big discs are for the 200kW version only.

OR TRY THESE...

Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance $48,490

The fiery-fast hatch to beat, and the car Peugeot Sport targeted with the 308 GTi. While the Pug easily trumps the Golfís 169kW, it will take a comparison to decide which is the better all-round car.

Volkswagen Golf R $51,990

Itís possible the 200kW version of the 308 GTi will be priced firmly in Golf R territory. The VW has stuff the Peugeot wonít, like AWD, variable dampers and a two-pedal option, but 308 GTi counters with a better power-to-weight ratio and available look-at-me coupe franche paint.