REVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Long-time foes VW and Peugeot slog it out for top hot-hatch honours

WORDS BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS PHOTOS ELLEN DEWAR

VERYONE loves an underdog. But even that doesn’t make the task of an embattled Peugeot attempting to take on the might of Wolfsburg any less daunting. That’s exactly what we have here – the everything-to-prove 308 GTi up against the Volkswagen Golf GTI. And not just any old version of the enduring king of the hot-hatch brigade, either, but the extra-spicy Clubsport 40 – a 500-run celebration of the class-defining Mk1 original of 1976.

Clubsport 40? If only. For Australia, the anniversary model has been clumsily rechristened ‘40 Years’ due to a long line of HSV Clubsports.

Going up against the fastest-ever Golf GTI requires Herculean resolve. After more than a decade of dross, the 308 GTi has 17 years of catching up to do. That’s when the French brand last fielded a Golf-size hot hatch in the form of the cracking 306 GTi-6 (see breakout, opposite).

Priced from $49,990, the 308 GTi in flagship 270 (for metric horsepower) guise is now the sole sporting variant in the MY17 line-up. The third hotshot engineered by Peugeot Sport after the under-rated 208 GTi 30th and RCZ-R, it employs the juiciest iteration yet of the 1.6-litre direct-injection four-pot turbo ‘Prince’ engine co-developed with BMW.

With much-modified and uprated mechanicals, outputs are 200kW (the highest specific output per litre of any hot hatch) and 330Nm. The twin-scroll turbo’s maximum pressure is a pushy 1.5bar (22psi).

Distinguishing the GTi from the regular 308 are a chequered grille with a centrally located lion, redesigned bumpers with larger air intakes and diffusers, fatter dual exhausts, LEDs, a bodykit and gorgeous 19-inch alloys. But this isn’t just a cosmetic pack. Every vertical suspension component has also been changed or upgraded. It sits some 11mm lower, sports wider tracks (11mm more up front, 21mm at the rear), extra front camber, stiffer springs and bushes, retuned dampers, fatter anti-roll bars, a more lenient ESC threshold and stronger rear wishbones. Total mass for the Pug is just 1205kg, which is 29kg less than a Polo GTI from the class below.

The 270 also adds a Torsen mechanical limited-slip diff, 19-inch alloys (half a kilo lighter per corner than the old 250 version’s 18s) and larger vented carbon discs with red four-piston calipers. A tyre-inflation kit instead of a temporary spare seems a retrograde step, but apparently offsets the extra weight of the LSD.

The top 308 scores aluminium cabin trim, Alcantara sports seats (with massaging function), a Sport mode that turns the white instrument markings red (to match the more sensitive throttle calibration it also activates), a reversing camera and parking sensors all round, satnav, keyless entry/go and rear privacy glass.

Fifty big ones is still steep, though. For $3K less, the anniversary Golf GTI with a six-speed manual (sold-out before even landing) severely undercuts the 270; even the $48,990 seven-speed DSG (the only version still available in Oz as we write) is still $1K cheaper.

Sitting above the 169kW/350Nm Golf GTI Performance, the GTI 40 boasts a reworked 2.0-litre direct-injection four-pot turbo, delivering 195kW and 380Nm to the front axle. And an overboost facility results in 213kW for 10 seconds, making this the most powerful production Golf ever. However, the 200kg-lighter Pug still accelerates quicker.

Like the 308, the Golf flaunts stronger stoppers, a mechanical front diff lock, 19-inch wheels, reprofiled bumpers, bodykit, bigger exhaust, sports seats and fancier interior detailing. It also gets a two-piece roof spoiler and darker tail-light lenses, then goes further with adaptive dampers, radar cruise, AEB with front assist (warns, primes, then applies the brakes), a blindspot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.

THIS SHAPES AS A BLOODBATH FOR THE GALLIC CHALLENGER, BUT THE LION’S DEN HAS ITS OWN SPECIAL ALLURES

REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME?

Incredibly, this is the first time VW and Peugeot have pitched worthy C-segment hot hatches simultaneously in Australia.

While the Mk5/6 GTI reboot went gangbusters in the 2000s, this was the French brand’s lost years, with no 307 response. Rewind a decade and it was the searing 306 S16 and blistering GTi-6 setting the pace against… nothing. No Mk3 GTI was sold here to take on the former, while the latter only overlapped with the tepid Mk4 Golf GTI by a year.

And the 1990-92 Mk2 Golf GTI 8V slug was a segment above the giant-slaying 205 GTi, so that doesn’t count, either.

AWOL AEB

Full Autonomous Emergency Braking is yet to find its way into a 308, while the driver-assist tech that is available – forward collision alert, low-speed emergency braking (but not to a stop), blind-spot warning and adaptive cruise control – are limited to the luxo Allure Premium, meaning the GTi misses out.

Why? It seems the extra cooling and other mechanical upgrades have precluded their fitment in the hot-hatch versions. A fix is said to be in the pipeline (with full AEB, we hope), but it’s really not good enough.

Besides throwing down the spec gauntlet, the Golf is also roomier, with more width and considerably greater rear-seat head, leg and foot space. Combined with deep glass areas, it feels like a small MPV by comparison. An obsessively high-quality one at that.

On paper, therefore, this shapes as a bloodbath for the Gallic challenger, but the lion’s den has its own special allures.

The 308 is far from cramped. Its sports seats are invitingly snug – more so than the Golf’s – ensconcing the driver behind what remains one of the segment’s most daring and original interiors. While the Golf’s dash is a stylised slab of intricately crafted practicality, honed over many generations, the 308’s is sculpted and provocative, with instruments sited above a tiny wheel placed down on your lap in the interests of ‘superior ergonomics’. Strange at first, several moments are needed for acclimatisation. Thousands of kilometres in, we’re convinced of its merit.

But room for improvement exists in the 308. Though logical once mastered, the central touchscreen remains overloaded with climate, audio, sat-nav, phone and carsetting modes, requiring distracting menu-diving and a steady finger to navigate. Bring back buttons!

Both hatches sport contrasting yet crisp instrumentation and voluminous ventilation, but Germany trumps France with rear face-level outlets, useable cupholders (the Peugeot’s are dire) and significantly better storage. And the Pug’s violent spring-loaded central armrest/bin lid action is guaranteed to snag your fingers at some point.

On the road, however, only one of these European cars will truly snare the keen driver’s heart.

Two-litre engines don’t come much stronger than the Golf’s. The EA888 powertrain offers vigorous acceleration right up to the 6800rpm cut-out, with a throttle response that feels considerably more forceful than the standard GTI’s, backed up by a flawlessly smooth DSG ’box that always seems to be in exactly the right ratio. Perfectly positioned paddles further enhance the experience.

In Normal mode, the Golf’s muscle is impressive enough; selecting Sport ushers in a stereophonic exhaust bellow to match a pace rabid enough to really get the adrenalin pumping, and the overboost is like a gust of wind on a cyclist’s back, pushing you along even faster. Speed-limited to 250km/h, this GTI is only just really getting into its stride as licence-losing limits are breached, like the autobahn thoroughbred it is.

However, herein lies a major conundrum for a hot hatch. There’s an almost digital coldness to the way the Golf’s performance is deployed, like a radarguided missile that takes no real human or mechanical exertion to achieve. It’s the ever-present barky exhaust that adds flavour – especially on overrun – but even on the driest roads, there’s so much torque cascading through to the Golf’s front wheels it’s hard to keep the axle from tramping. In the wet, it can turn violent.

In contrast, while there’s also enough power in the Pug to corrupt steering and traction, it’s more fluid and contained. Furthermore – and particularly in Sport mode – the 270 always feels more wired and alive, despite the 25 percent capacity deficit and overly long manual gearshift throw, leaping off the line

VW GOLF GTI 40 YEARS

Volkswagen’s interiors are appealing, tactile, functional… and now repetitive. G-force gauges, suede-like flat-bottomed wheel and questionable pleated seats set the Golf 40 interior apart from a normal GTI. While both Golf and 308 boast heightadjustable front seats and full backrest rake, only the VW offers rear vents, remote-control window operation, flocked door bins, proper door grips and a central armrest. Boot volume ranges from 380-1270 litres.

PEUGEOT 308 GTi 270

The latest 308 dashboard is all class, its small wheel set low and instruments set high for reduced fatigue, with textures and quality to match the Golf. However, the sat-nav is unnecessarily fiddly, there’s no Apple CarPlay, not as much rear-seat space for knees or feet, or face-level air vents in the back, and the rear cushion won’t tip forward for a flat cargo area.

Boot volume is better than the Golf’s at 435 litres, however, extending to 820 litres below the window line.

JUST AS IT DOES IN A STRAIGHT LINE, THE GOLF NEEDS TO BE PUSHED HARD TO FEEL REALLY INVOLVING WHEN CORNERING

cleanly regardless of surface conditions, accompanied by a (fake) soundtrack that, while initially annoying, augments an intense and involving drive.

Surprisingly, the numbers match the sensations. The Peugeot’s big turbo and superior power-to-weight ratio keep it marginally ahead to 90km/h, before an upshift to third, and the German’s overboost muscle begins to open a sizeable gap. That said, there’s as little as a tenth in it sprinting from 80-120km/h, despite the Pug being held in third. And the French GTi slurps less fuel.

So it more or less keeps up with the Vee Dub when punted within the confines of the law, and can even pull away where it really matters in a hot hatch – around your favourite set of hairpins. Just as it does in a straight line, the Golf needs to be pushed hard to feel really involving when cornering, yet it still lacks the Pug’s incisiveness and front-end bite. And multi-link rear or not, the back end doesn’t feel as alive either.

The 308 gels brilliantly, feeling conspicuously lighter on its feet, aided by pin-sharp steering with more feel, formidable roadholding (yet more adjustable handling balance) and colossally effective brakes. Its small wheel means delicate inputs are the order – the helm can’t be manhandled cross-armed like the Golf’s broader Alcantara-clad wheel – but French chassis magic is back at last, creating a fluency, agility, intimacy and control we never thought possible again in a Peugeot.

The dynamics are worth the price of entry alone.

Meanwhile, the German feels like a bigger and blunter instrument. And that’s before taking into account the 308’s ride suppleness, which becomes firm over sharper bumps but never jarring like the Golf’s, even in the VW’s soft but prone-to-pitching Comfort setting. In Normal, the Golf’s suspension is too hard, while in Sport the result is punishing. The adaptive dampers demand a rethink for Australia. A base Golf GTI’s set-up is far more agreeable.

What a turnabout. Before the comparo, the Peugeot was expected to play out as a comeback kid while the Golf GTI 40 would easily prevail with its extra torque, size, driver-adaptive tech and value.

But out in the real world, for all the reasons hot hatches need to exist, the 308 GTi 270 is simply a more exciting, engaging and animated experience, as well as being more comfortable and efficient. Indeed, though the limited-edition model is devastatingly fast, we actually prefer the base Golf GTI.

The Pug seems to have channelled its illustrious predecessors – the 205 GTi, 405 Mi16 and 306 GTi-6 – fighting tooth and claw for France’s tarnished reputation as makers of world-class cars. Far from the anticipated bloodbath, we instead see that ancestral DNA is coursing through the 308 GTi 270’s veins.

This is a memorable and decisive victory for the transcendental Peugeot. The underdog is back on top of the world.

PEUGEOT 308 GTi 270

Performance Power-to-weight: 166kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6000/6800rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 97 Speed in gears 50km/h @ 6000rpm 91km/h @ 6000rpm 122km/h @ 6000rpm 159km/h @ 6000rpm 199km/h @ 6000rpm 235km/h @ 6000rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.0sec 0-40km/h: 2.0sec 0-60km/h: 3.4sec 0-80km/h: 4.5sec 0-100km/h: 6.3sec 0-120km/h: 8.0sec 0-140km/h: 10.4sec 0-160km/h: 13.0sec 0-180km/h: 17.6sec 0-200km/h: – 0-400m: 14.2sec @ 168.2km/h Rolling acceleration: 3rd/4th/5th/6th 80-12Okm/h: 3.2/4.2/5.3/6.4sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 35.4m 1 2 3 4 5 6 Verdict 8.5/10 Involvement and adjustability; mega grunt; cabin intimacy; great styling No AEB; no auto option; useless cupholders; fiddly touchscreen Track: Eastern Creek raceway, cool, dry. Temp: 14ºC.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard. Warranty: 3yr/100,000km.

Service interval: 12 months/15,000km. Glass’s 3-year resale: 56%. AAMI Insurance: $1318 * Manufacturer’s claim ** Includes ‘specialised paint finish’ in Ultimate Red ($1700) $49,990/As tested $51,690** Drivetrain Engine in-line 4, dohc, 16v turbo Layout front engine (east-west), front drive Capacity 1598cc Power 200kW @ 6000rpm Torque 330Nm @ 1900-5500rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Chassis Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats L/W/H/W–B 4253/1804/1447/2620mm Front/rear track 1570/1554mm Weight 1205kg Boot capacity 435 litres Fuel/capacity 98 octane/53 litres Fuel consumption 9.8L/100km (test average) Suspension Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar Steering electric rack-and-pinion Turning Circle 10.4m (3.0 turns lock-to-lock) Front brakes ventilated discs (380mm) Rear brakes solid discs (268mm) Tyres Michelin Pilot Super Sport Tyre size 235/35ZR19 91Y Safety NCAP rating (AUS)

VW GOLF GTI 40 YEARS

Performance Power to weight: 144kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6000/6800rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 98 Speed in gears 52km/h @ 6000rpm 85km/h @ 6000rpm 133km/h @ 6000rpm 195km/h @ 6000rpm 250km/h @ 5720rpm* 250km/h @ 4560rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.3sec 0-40km/h: 2.4sec 0-60km/h: 3.5sec 0-80km/h: 4.7sec 0-100km/h: 6.0sec 0-120km/h: 7.6sec 0-140km/h: 9.6sec 0-160km/h: 11.9sec 0-180km/h: 15.1sec 0-200km/h: 19.6sec 0-400m: 14.0sec @ 174.1km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 3.1sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 36.3m 7.5/10 Performance; gratuitous exhaust blurting; space; quality; reputation Over-firm ride quality; slightly digital feel; huge turning circle Track: Eastern Creek raceway, mild, dry. Temp: 11ºC. Driver: Nathan Ponchard. Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/15,000km. Glass’s 3-year resale: 62%.

AAMI Insurance: $1323 * Speed limited ** Includes metallic paint ($500) $48,990/As tested $49,490** in-line 4, dohc, 16v turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1984cc 195kW @ 5350-6600rpm 350Nm @ 1700-5800rpm 6-speed dual-clutch steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4361/1799/1466/2626mm 1538/1516mm 1357kg 380 litres 98 octane/50 litres 10.8L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar Rear: multilinks, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 11.8m (2.2 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (340mm) solid discs (310mm) Pirelli P Zero 225/35R19 88Y (AUS)