With Peugeot’s 308, there’s a GT and a GTi: How much difference does that attached vowel make?
For: Dynamic appeal, GTi’s Torsen diff, well-sorted tyres, GT’s driver’s seat.
Against: Oddball driving position, GTi’s synthesized exhaust, touch screen overkill.
Scores: GTi 4.1/5; GT 4.3/5.
DIESEL or petrol? When refining hot hatch selection, it’s simply not usual to have to even consider that question.
Muscled editions of family fare simply don’t drink the black stuff. Unless it’s French. Over there they still consider compression ignition is good for firing up sporting passion: Which is why all three domestic brands offer tarmac tearaways that hang out on the dark side of the forecourt.
Over here … well, it’s simply down to Peugeot to keep this particular faith, doing so with two versions of one car: The 308.
Is it even fair to directly compare the $58,990 308 GTi with the $49,990 GT? At technical level and even in respect to equipment opportunity … well not really, non.
Fair to say the difference between the two is somewhat greater than an $8k saving, an absent lower-case vowel and the patently different drivetrain directions, which goes further than what’s directly under the bonnet. Transmission change also comes, with the GTi sticking – as it always has – with a pure manual whereas the diesel diverts to an automatic, albeit one offering a degree of manual control.
While the GT certainly presents rather more performance and dynamic elan than the regular 308 diesel we used to get, it’s still at least one step below the GTi on the sporting ladder.
As well it should be: The latter car is supposed to be a special treat. Over the years Peugeot’s GTi cars have been special fare, although the most classic examples - most obviously the 205 GTI but also the 306 GTi-6 and 106 Rallye - are at least 20 years old now.
Nonetheless, the GT and GTi definitely aspire to be a cut above the average in their respective family groups, and it’s that level of emotional connect that this exercise primarily explores.
Yes, the GTi is going to be more energetic and if not necessarily wholly more explosive – insofar that you just cannot ignore the pleasure derived from the ton of torque that always associates with diesel-centric driving. But is it going to be that much more fun?
It seemed worthwhile to at least take each, independently, over a common 187km route, comprising a high percentage of road condition best-suited to a sporty drive, to establish if the car that costs less to buy and runs a cheaper fuel could give the real racer any kind of rev up.
How’d we go? Let’s start with the challenger …
308 GT diesel
PACKAGING traditional diesel strength of punch and parsimony with the usual GT-like strengths of a lowered ride height, stiffer suspension, grippier tyres and sportier looks is not unknown in mainland Europe, even during the diesel car boom it was a rare flavour here, now so much more so.
Once the oiler car king, even Peugeot has retrenched ambition: Now the 308 is the only tarmac-bound passenger model. Given all this, and appreciating also that all sports hatches are in a niche, it might seem especially brave for it to now pitch up with something that’s sure to appeal to very select tastes.
Regardless of the volume it achieves, the GT is worthy of being considered a car of significance. Peugeot’s reputation for delivering decent diesel cars gets it off to a good start, but it still raises the bar. Similarities at heart with the Allure edition that forms the basis for this project is almost irrelevant. It’s not just a matter of enhanced athleticism. From the moment you slide into the sportier seats, it simply feels more polished.
Is it a proper hot hatch? Not to the same degree as the GTi, but you’ll be surprised by the cooking temperature. Yet while it cannot match for accelerative immediacy, it does have an impressive ability to carry speed. Even the provision of that automatic isn’t the spoiler you might imagine it to be, because the transmission enacts very effectively when employed in manual-ish Sport mode.
Visual assessment suggests so much. There’s no sense of shyness on this score, though it also stops short of wholly emulating the GTi’s brashness. You get the same style of alloy rim – but in 18 rather than 19-inch diameter – and the body has been lowered, yet again less overtly. Overall, though, there’s a pleasing air of purpose, enhanced further by other aesthetic tweaks. GT badging on the grille is expected, of course, and LED headlights and indicators that scroll sequentially rather simply blinking are also effective. The twin tailpipes also tell a story, if one of harmless deceit: The real, single, pipe tucks underneath. The burbling exhaust noise that arises when the car is put into Sport mode is another ruse, too.
The GT has a rakish interior trim, a fat-rimmed steering wheel and sports seats, as well as red instrument illumination and extra performance information from the on-board computer. There’s access to power and torque output readings, turbo boost pressure and both longitudinal and lateral acceleration figures via the driver information display.
That Sport function also enhances steering feel, sharpens throttle responses, speeds up the gear shifts and, as said, synthesizes and amplifies the engine note, albeit simply for the occupants. A thrubbing timbre very much like that produced by the previous generation Focus RS – the five-cylinder one – is at odds with the true, typically rattle-infused ‘Parisian taxi’ note heard on the outside, but so long as you’re not being caught out at idle it’s a good inducement to giving the engine an extra-hard stir when hoofing along.
About that. A route chosen for a high count of challenging twists could easily be accused as being unduly favourable to the GTi, so it says a lot about the qualities of the GT that it also did pretty well, too.
It’s not just the engine, though that clearly plays a key role. This 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is intrinsically the same that goes into the 308 Allure but it has extra fire - 133kW and 400Nm representing a 23kW and 30Nm gain. As you’d expect, it’s the torque enhancement is the one that makes its mark, though at the same token the manner in which the kapow unfurls is also quite distinctive.
Simply put, diesels are about emergent thrust; the big dollop of thrusting muscularity is a good thing that takes a bit of time. You can squeal the tyres at take-off, but don’t try to race a GTi off the mark. Step-off is slower in the GT (8.4 seconds versus 6s) and optimum pace, too. Peugeot cites a 220kmh top speed, so it’s 30kmh slower.
Where the diesel makes significant ground is with a mid-range wallop that delivers with impressive authority, more than you’ll experience in the petrol alternate. But, then, it’s also a wholly different kind of experience because, with compression ignition, the highs occur at relatively low revs. Forget chasing the redline. This thing optimizes when revving between 2000-3800rpm. It’s a weird thing and probably explains why the enhancer has been introduced; without the boom playing through the speakers, the whole experience would be a lot more underwhelming.
Anyway, when hauling within a rev range at which the GTi is not even awake, the GT starts to move incredibly impressively; you’ll be astounded how quickly it’ll ramp up to quick significant pace.
This isn’t just point and squirt, either. This is not a car that falls to pieces at first sight of a decent bend. The other plus of the GT package is that it presents a happy blend of pace, grip and handling. For sure, no 308 is a handling dray, but with the diesel patently adding extra kilos over and ahead of the front wheels, you might expect the GT to feel nose-heavy. After all, the Allure does.
Yet while the GT hasn’t the GTi’s dynamic finesse, there’s little understeer and it is easily contained. This trait, in turn, enhances the model’s ability to carry a surprising turn of speed through the bends, which is terrific: With diesels, slow in, fast out doesn’t translate. It’s more slow in, slow out too.
As I say, it’s not as agile as the GTi, but the margins are impressively close. Certainly, if you are a driver who likes driving, then you will enjoy what the GT is doing. It certainly feels connected, but more than this, is feels compelling.
At the same token, it demands to be in Sport mode to achieve this; fail to hit that little switch and you’ll wonder why the GT rates. You’ll know when it’s in Sport – not only because it switches the instrument illumination from white to red but but also because the steering weight increases and the mapping for the accelerator and gearbox sharpens. It should just be the default setting, because once tried you’ll never go back.
The others trick to getting the best from the engine has to do with assuming as much control over the gearbox as its programming allows. Basically, the moment the city limits are left behind you want to shifting it by hand. Also, get used to short-shifting and think about running in one gear, sometimes two, higher than you might employ in a petrol. Doing so means you’re certainly driving to speed, rather than sound, but get used to that and it really engages.
‘Driver involvement’ also defines the design of the so-called i-Cockpit, in which the steering wheel is not only of quite small diameter but also set so low that the driving position is akin to that of a kart – all so you get a clear above-the-rim view of the instruments. It’s slightly unusual and not wholly to my liking, though you too get used to it: The same can be said of the touch screen centre display.
While not as well-specified as the GTi, the GT is nonetheless equipped with all the obvious must-haves. The model also comes with a Driver Assistance Pack that includes radar cruise control, emergency collision alert and emergency braking system, plus sat nav, LED headlights, sequential indicators and gloss-black detailing.
All in all, it’s a car that proves beguiling enough to surely change more than a few preconceptions about what diesel driving is all about.
But is the GT as good as the kinghitter?
Fair to say that, had this exercise been undertaken on a race track, the GTi would have completely wicked it. Whereas the diesel romper is fast, the petrol flagship is positively feral.
But public road driving demands different considerations to speed: apart from the well-being of your own license, consideration has to be given this being a shared environment. So driving within the limits doesn’t just apply to those specifically relevant to the car.
All the above certainly closed the margins. Even so, the GTi still ran the trip in less time. Not a lot less. We’re talking a matter of a few minutes which, given the distance, says a lot about the diesel’s abilities. But enough time in which you could make a decent coffee.
It won’t surprise that the GTi extracted quite a bit more from its fuel tank than the GT or that, while neither came remotely near to achieving the optimum economies cited by the maker (with the diesel, that’s a remarkable 4.1 litres per 100km), the gut feeling was that the GTi – which can supposedly sup just 6L/100km - was further adrift.
But those are givens. What about the sensory side of things? Well, certainly, the petrol racer leaves less to the imagination: The completeness of the GTi package is rather more immediately obvious and so too the performance. There’s probably more ferocity here than you’ll ever need during everyday road use.
For sure, on this note Peugeot NZ didn’t leave anything to chance. The model here is the more powerful of two versions: Same engine in both, and equal torque, of 330Nm, but the GTi here, as the ‘270 model’, creates 200kW rather than the 186kW out of the ‘250’ left in France.
The big brother car also delivers a stronger specification. The general GTi recipe is for 19 inch wheels and styling tweaks, a ride height that’s 11mm lower than standard and springs that are dramatically stiffer even than the 308 GTs; by a further 60 percent at the front and 40 percent at the back. The GTi also has retuned dampers, more aggressive camber and resized anti-roll bars.
Apart from the extra helping of horsepower, the ‘270’ also gets lightened rims with track-ready Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, a Torsen mechanical limited-slip diff, bigger front brakes with four-pot calipers and heavier bolstered front seats. Michelin Pilot rubber, too.
Thought that the engine might be a bit small 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 served 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, there are a couple. On the test drive, I couldn’t help thinking that, as good as the six-speed gearbox is, a a direct-shift automated manual would suit this car even more. Oui, the manual is 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.
Secondly, there’s the driver’s seat. It’s from specialist supplier Recaro, which can generally be relied upon to provide great pews. I suspect this one is good, but the location is a little wrong, at least for a tall bloke like me. The fore-aft adjustment is fine but the angle of the chair less so because the front edge digs into your flesh, which is aggravating.
Again, the teensy steering wheel – even more miniaturised than the GT’s - and raised instruments aren’t wholly agreeable and the backwards-reading (right to left) rev counter and speed also irk. Also, the determination to run even the ventilation from the centre touch screen is a bit of a pain when you’re driving, as it’s not intuitive as it is with rotary dials.
Still, Peugeot has created some great and some not-so-great GTi cars in the past. This one sits with the good ‘uns, even though it is also rather different than those past blasts, insofar that there are lots of electronic shackles that just weren’t available when Peugeot last won GTi gold. Back in the days of the 205 GTi, even anti-skid brakes were a novelty. Now it has every traction and stability control known to man.
But no Sport button, right? Actually, there is … and I’m bemused why. I know that modern sensitivities require cars such as this to be quiet at times, yet a pukka GTi shouldn’t need a control 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. And it still should.
Insofar as pure driving pleasure (the point of this story, I know) then, yes, it aces the GT: Every single important element required to contribute to driving pleasure is singing in perfect harmony.
It’s a small engine, perhaps, but doesn’t feel that way. The energy levels are all big boy stuff; there’s virtually no discernable lag, torque delivery is relentless and there’s never a moment when it like it’s straining.
Also enhancing the fun is the differential, a proper Torsen mechanical device, and the car’s low weight. Yes, lightness is an ingredient all 308s benefit from, yet at 1205kg the GTi is especially good: That’s 100kg lighter than the equivalent Golf GTI and almost 200kg less than a Ford Focus ST and is contributor to Peugeot’s compelling kapow per kilo claim. The performance output of 125kW per litre betters even the Ferrari 458 Italia supercar.
All this added up to the road drive becoming something of a low-flying exercise; this car took no time at all to show off its shove and it wasn’t hard to find the motherlode. You can hold it
it lower gears and rev the snot out and there’s no concern. Alternately, you can change up early and feel the pull that way. Obviously it’s not as strong as the diesel, but even in sixth gear, it has overtaking pull. You’ll use Sport because, as in the diesel, it substantially sharpens up the throttle.
Grip levels are incredibly high and that differential does a brilliant job of keeping the car firmly on its intended line, which of course means you can get on the throttle all the sooner when racing out of bends. The GTi also take suspension upgrades from Peugeot Sport; it’s a firm little jigger on coarse chip – moreso than the GT – and that can be a turn-off at times. Yet even when it seems to be bouncing from surface rut to ripple, turn-in is inevitably quick and precise and there’s no discernable torque steer.
The 308 GTi is an absolute ripper, with the goods to hold its own against anything else in its immediate class. The price is a careful construct, close enough to the tags attached to the VW Golf GTi and Ford Focus ST to provoke serious thought, far enough removed from the $75k Focus RS to alleviate concern that mega-hatch will rob sales. The only negatives are those that go against all 308s. The pluses are far more numerous.
So where does that leave the GT? Actually, still a winner for me, for the simple fact that, in this exercise, it was the car that went above the call. Both cars were always going to be good, but the GT was the one that delivered more than it conceivably should have. So there it is; the car that almost no-one with preconceived ideas about diesel will look to buy is the one I’d put my money on as the best value performance sleeper of the moment.