Peugeot 308 GTi: Going forward by looking back

Remember when a GTi badge on the back of a Peugeot hatch really meant something? The new 308 flagship rekindles memory of good times from long, long ago.


OFTEN hot hatch events kick off with a self-aggrandising reflection; usually expressed as a fast-paced, slickly-edited video showing wheel-lifting, tyre-smoking dramatics involving famous past products.

No such historic histrionics from Peugeot New Zealand. For sure, it has some fast, fun classics in its back catalogue, but the truly good ‘uns, most obviously the 205 GTI but also the 306 GTi-6 and 106 Rallye, are at least 20 years old now. To relive those times would have meant watching some very grainy film.

So, even though the launch today of the $58,990 308 GTi saw the Peugeot distributor going to the trouble of displaying an immaculate, customer-loaned 1.9-litre 205 GTi in the carpark, even that landmark measuring stick for so many other small tarmac racers of its time (the 1980s), was barely referred to during the briefing session.

More interestingly, the Peugeot people also pretty much sidestepped discussing more recent ‘sporting’ product. This was on the grounds that – and how’s this for candour? – they suggested stuff presented since pretty much the turn of the ‘noughties’ has been … well, whatever the French word for ‘smelling vaguely like a Parisian sewer’, that’s the one they were perhaps thinking.

Peugeot NZ boss Simon Ross was surprisingly upfront in commenting “the last time we saw a true hot hatch was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A lot of the cars we have had since then have been more warm than truly hot. That’s a fact.”

Now some good news. Just when we might have imagined that France’s biggest brand has lost that original special recipe forever, it seems that someone has unearthed a bunch of blueprints from the Peugeot archive, dusted them off and handed them over to the people from Peugeot Sport. This being the specialist division that, now that the brand is out of the World Endurance Championship, has time on its hands to start tweaking road cars.

Their first effort is the 308 GTi, a new flagship that is really quite promising and certainly far more convincing as a street racer than the $9000-cheaper 308 GT that has been flying the checkered flag until now.

The only hesitancy I have is that the first impression has been gained from driving on a circuit, not the road. As fun as it was to burl this car around Hampton Downs circuit south of Auckland, I’m always loath to suggest this sort of exercise should be as barometer for assessing a road car because … well, it should be blindingly obvious. Regrettably there was no chance to take it even out for five minutes on the public thoroughfares that run alongside this circuit. So, another time.

 Still, as I say, an agility and responsiveness on track suggests that the PSA parent brand has revived something of a formula we all feared was lost, which is really great news.

So what’s this model going to do for this brand? As an image-lifter, it has immense potential. Sales-wise, not so much. Though Rose is surprised how much early interest there has been in this car (and a GT D diesel that will be the subject of another story) fact is they reckon on as few as 30 sales per year (five more than they have already landed) because, frankly, hot hatches are not truly hot sellers now, as market stats for last year show. The eight brands already playing in the sector cumulatively reaped just over 200 registrations for all of last year, of which 135 were secured by the Golf GTi.

While Peugeot cites the Wolfsburg whizz as their target, fact is if the 308 GTi can hit the cited target it will run with the other fringe racers such as the Ford Focus ST (44) and Renault Megane RS - 35 in RS265 form, seven in hotter RS275 specification - but behind the Holden Astra, which despite arriving mid-year claimed 30 registrations in VXR format and 54 in the softer GTC specification.

Still, don’t for a moment think Rose isn’t serious about pushing performance; he sees a good future in GT cars.

The seriousness of the 308 GTi’s role is reflected by New Zealand taking only the more powerful of two versions available in Europe. We’re bypassing the GTi 250 for the GTi 270 (both so-named for their metric horsepower outputs). They have the same turbocharged 1.6-litre four-pot and equal torque, of 330Nm, but the bigger number makes 200kW rather than 186kW, is a touch quicker to 100kmh – Peugeot claims six seconds flat – and a stronger specification.

The general GTi recipe is for 19 inch wheels and styling tweaks, plus the ride height is 11mm lower than standard and the springs are dramatically stiffer, by 60 percent at the front and 40 percent at the back compared to the 308 GT. The GTi also has retuned dampers, more aggressive camber and resized anti-roll bars.

Apart from an extra 14kW helping of horsepower, the ‘270’ also gets lightened rims with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, a Torsen mechanical limited-slip diff, bigger front brakes with four-pot calipers and heavier bolstered front seats.

Overseas’ tests suggest this more potent version is worth the extra outlay for the limited-slip differential alone, as that really lets you get the best out of the GTi. I do agree it does seem to have brilliant effect punting through Hampton’s tighter corners.

It wouldn’t be a French car without at least a hint of torque steer, but overall the differential works with the electric power steering to counter this effect in a most effective manner, locking in the apexes in almost uncanny manner. France’s best performance tyres are also fantastically grippy and communicative, especially when warmed to high temperatures.

Thought that the engine might be a bit on the small side, capacity-wise, should also be brushed aside.

Agreed, a mere 1.6 doesn’t seem like much, but its outputs compare okay with the Megane RS (205kW, 360Nm), Focus (184kW/360Nm) and the Golf (162kW/350Nm) and the car it is hauling is, at 1205kg, lighter than those, so much so Peugeot is claiming a kilowatt per kilo class best.

This engine also did time in the now-departed RCZ coupe, but feels better-sited here. It’s a special device, with jet-cooled forged pistons by Mahle, a 9.2:1 compression ratio and a Borg Warner turbo that peaks at 2.5 bar. Revs are its friend and, despite the high boost pressure, lag is pleasantly absent. There’s good power delivery across the rev range, accompanied by a satisfying exhaust and induction note.

So what’s the catch? Well, for some, it’s the usual story that explains why the Golf wins so many sales. VW offers a direct-shift automated manual (that’s near enough to being an auto in action it’s considered one) where Peugeot only has, and will only have, a six-speed manual gearbox.

Oui, it’s a nice box; you’ll love it’s fast, precise short-throw action. But only if you already love an old-school manual. Increasingly, people seem not to. Which is a shame because, the car is a hoot.

As as it is a blast, this isn’t a blast from the past, insofar that there are lots of electronic shackles that just weren’t available when Peugeot last won GTi gold. Back then even anti-skid brakes were a novelty. Now it has every traction and stability control known to man.

That’s fine, but I’m bemused why the ‘ultimate’ performance edition requires a ‘Sport’ button to perk up the throttle response, turn the dials bright red and pipe in an angrier-sounding, synthesized engine note into the cabin. Back in the day, this sort of thing came naturally.

Some of the ‘French-ness’ is also a tad forced, too. I quite like how, when it’s thrown hard into a corner, it feels set to cock an inside wheel into the air: That’s an elan the 205 expressed on any roundabout on the way to the shops.

But the 308’s miniaturised steering wheel and raised instruments aren’t wholly agreeable, because depending on your driving position you might find the top of the wheel obscures the base of the instrument panel. The backwards-reading (right to left) rev counter, making the car self-lock as soon as it starts off then hiding the release switch (it’s the furthest one away from the driver, perfectly placed for left-hand drive) and giving it a ‘door open’ warning chime that to my mind sounds as stridently as a nuclear sub’s would on detection of a radiation leak … well, it’s a bit much, really.

Conversely, it has great sports seats, a very good driving position and, the modern, minimal interior styling is kinda chic. Most of all, it seems a blast to drive. If it’s half as pleasurable in the real world and the rigours of public roads as it is on a dream track, then we’re potentially in for a tres bon time.

Thanks to Chris Dillon for some of today’s images.