Each week our team of experienced senior road testers pick out a new model from the world of innovative, premium and performance badges, and put it through its paces.
Volkswagen may lay claim to inventing the GTI but Peugeot arguably perfected the formula with a run of form inspired by the fabulous 205 GTi. A mad, mid-engined Group B rally version gave motorsport credibility. But the 205 was a hit in its own right thanks to its featherweight build, punchy performance and frisky on-limit behaviour. Underlining its legendary status, those that didn’t get punted backwards through hedges are now appreciating classics. The bigger, more mature 306 GTi took the idea and ran with it, combining sharp Pininfarina design with more practicality and substance. And after years in the doldrums the 308 GTi once again hopes to seize the initiative back from the Germans.
Peugeot didn’t just forget how to make fast, fun cars – it also seemed to lose its design joie de vivre along the way. Thankfully this also seems to have made a comeback and, if perhaps not as crisp and distinctive as the 205 and 306, the 308 at least has confidence and style. This is a grown-up hot hatch and one you can drive without accusations of attempting to re-live your hooligan years, though there is a distinctive half red, half matt black ‘Coupe Franche’ option (pictured) if you must. The generally conservative interior is also enlivened by modern Peugeot design quirks like the tiny, low-slung steering wheel and widely spaced dials above it.
A 1.6-litre engine might sound puny against 2.0-litre rivals. But in keeping with tradition the Peugeot is light – at least 100kg less than an equivalent five-door Golf GTI manual in fact. There are two power options: 250PS/247bhp and the 270PS/266bhp we drove – both impressive numbers for such a small motor. The latter’s proper mechanical limited-slip differential and motorsport grade Alcon brakes are hardcore tech but reflect the influence of the competition department who developed the car. The turbo takes a moment to gather itself compared with bigger-engined rivals but once on-boost takes full advantage of the lack of weight, this and the lithe suspension making it feel agile, fun and compliant.
For a generation of drivers raised on Peugeot’s classic hot hatches the 308 GTi signals a welcome return to form. Like those former owners, the GTi has matured. But it hasn’t lost its sense of fun or distinctively French combination of simplicity, performance and comfort. In a market dominated by the Golf GTI, Seat Leon Cupra and others spun off VW’s modular hot-hatch platform it’s a breath of fresh air. Wisely it also avoids direct confrontation with purist favourites like the Megane Renaultsport or Civic Type R. But under its understated lines lurks a likeable modern twist on Peugeot’s hot-hatch glory days and hidden rewards for those who dare to be different.
Price tag of our car: £28,155
(OTR price before options for GTi 270)