It’s no fun arriving late for the party, especially if it’s a whopping 15 years too late in the case of the new Peugeot 308 GTi.
But that’s exactly how long it has been since its predecessor, the 306 GTi6, rolled off the production line – and along with it, the iconic GTi badge.
During its absence, Peugeot has been busy building some remarkably fine front-wheel drive fare, like the RCZ R and 208 GTi 30th Anniversary, the latter I felt was largely overlooked by hot-hatch-buyers here in Australia.
But now the Peugeot GTi is back, this time as a double-barrel offering from the team at Peugeot Sport with 308 GTi coming in two equally scintillating versions; the entry-level GTi 250 making 184kW (priced at $44,990 plus on-road costs) and the full-strength GTi 270 (from $49,990) generating 200kW from the same mini-size 1.6-litre turbo petrol mill.
Both engine tunes pack the same 330Nm of torque, but where the 250 peaks at just 4000rpm, the 270 comes on song from 1900rpm all the way to 5500rpm, thanks to the specially-developed twin-scroll turbocharger by Borg Warner that delivers a thumping 2.5 bar or 35psi of boost pressure.
Either way, and in any guise, these are a couple of serious hot-hatch contenders.
This is the car that Peugeot built to go head-to-head with Volkswagen’s definitive Golf GTI, and on paper at least, the 308 GTi should knock its socks off.
Here’s why. Peugeot claims the less-powerful GTi 250 is capable of dashing from 0-100km/h in 6.2 seconds, while the range-topping GTi 270, which borrows its engine and six-speed manual box from the RCZ-R, is good for 6.0 seconds flat. Top speed is 250km/h for both models.
By comparison, the base model Golf GTI is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine developing 162kW and 350Nm – enough to reach 100km/h in 6.5 seconds for the manual, or 6.4 seconds for the more powerful 169kW GTI Performance, with Volkswagen’s dual-clutch box. Impressive – but that’s well down on the 308 GTi.
While both versions of the 308 GTi might use the same engine, the differences between the two amount to much more than just electronic mapping.
Both models also get uprated brakes; the 308 GTi 270 with race-derived 380mm front rotors featuring four-piston calipers developed by UK high-performance brake manufacturer, Alcon, whereas the 308 GTi 250 uses smaller 330mm rotors with floating calipers.
For enhanced grip at the limit, two specific wheel and tyre packages have been developed for Peugeot’s newest hot-hatch twins. The 308 GTi 250 comes with 18-inch alloys shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 3s, while the 308 GTi 270 wears super-sticky 19-inch Pilot Super Sports rubber for maximum corner-carving action on track.
Additionally, both versions get a unique front suspension set-up featuring new springs and bespoke damper calibration, while the chassis also introduces lightweight aluminium wishbones and a semi-hollow ant-roll bar up front, which is 60 per cent stiffer than on the 308 GT. At the rear, the anti-roll bar is 100 per cent stiffer, while wishbone rigidity has increased by 1600 per cent.
The electronic diff in the GTi 250 makes way for a proper Torsen mechanical diff in the 270 version. It’s all real hardware, not simply software magic.
Perhaps the most defining figure for the new Peugeot though, is its kerb weight. It’s light, I mean, it’s really light. Tipping the scales at just 1205kg, the 308 GTi is over 100kg lighter than the equivalent Golf GTI, and almost 200kg less than the Ford Focus ST.
It’s not just the diminutive powertrain, either. Peugeot has embraced a host of other lightweight tech for their latest halo car including a brand new platform incorporating a composite tailgate, boot floor and plenty of high-tensile steel throughout.
Clearly, Peugeot has a lot to crow about with their new car, especially with the GTi 270, which also sets a new benchmark in the segment, boasting a performance output of 125kW per litre, bettering even the Ferrari 458 Italia supercar.
Despite performance claims, the 308 GTi’s relatively small displacement also means its Euro 6-compliant 1.6-litre engine is the most efficient in its segment, producing a paltry 139 g/km of C02 emissions, while consuming just 6.0L/100km on a combined cycle. Those are extraordinary numbers for a full-size five-door hatch with this kind of poke.
So, while it might win the award for the most frugal car in the segment, that’s probably not going to be very high on a buyer’s list of ‘must haves’ for the new 308 GTi - not even in the top five, I suspect.
At first glance the styling is subtle, but step closer and the details start to come into focus. Along with its lower ride height (down by 11mm), there are a few other indicators that suggest this isn’t your garden variety Peugeot 308.
Up front, full LED headlamps flank an exclusive gloss-black grille, while each side of the lower front bumper sports colour-coded spoiler winglets, which Peugeot claims enhance high-speed stability.
The 308 GTi also adds modest side skirts, while down back, its hot-hatch indicators are made more obvious by a couple of fat tuner-style exhaust tips neatly framed in a stylish gloss-black diffuser.
Inside, there’s no mistaking it for it’s regular 308 siblings, especially if you’re looking at the GTi 270. High-performance cues start with the heavily-bolstered Peugeot Sport ‘bucket’ seats upholstered with Alcantara inserts with thick contrast stitching.
The doorsills have the obligatory GTi and Peugeot Sport plates, only these are embossed and fabricated from aluminium, which is also used for the pedals and oversize shifter.
The go-kart-size steering wheel is familiar from the 208 model range, only this one comes wrapped in perforated full-grain leather, with a GTi badge plate at the bottom and red centre mark up top.
Instrumentation is a combination of analogue dials and a digital centre screen, which is viewed from above the steering wheel – just. It’s all part of Peugeot’s i-Cockpit concept, which adds a large driver-centric touchscreen and not much else. All the traditional buttons and switches have been removed, even the HVAC (Heating ventilation and Air Conditioning) dials. And that’s a bit of a pain, especially if you're driving, as it's just not overly intuitive, as it is with rotary dials.
Rear legroom is adequate rather than outstanding, and there are no rear air-vents, but where it makes up for it is boot space. With 435-litres, it’s substantially larger than most of its rivals.
So, the new Peugeot 308 GTi looks the part, but how does it go? Better than we expected, and by some margin, is the short answer.
Peugeot makes no bones about the fact that its more potent GTi 270 is geared for the track – and that’s exactly were headed, to Baskerville race circuit in Tasmania. But not before tearing up a couple of deserted Targa stages along the way.
Even at low speeds, you won’t pick this as a 1.6-litre turbo. There’s almost no discernable lag and torque delivery is seemingly relentless. Better still, the engine never feels like it's straining, even under big loads, such is the level of refinement built into this powertrain. Improvements include specifically engineered pistons forged by Mahle Motorsport in the US, which also supplies components for Formula One racing cars and off-shore power boats.
There’s also no real sense of just how mighty this GTi 270 is, until you get out of town and open it up. While boost is certainly felt, it’s delivery is also wonderfully measured. Put the boot in, and revs climb fast, along with some serious shove all the way to the limiter. And it doesn’t matter what gear you’re in, even in sixth, there’s sufficient thrust for a high-speed pass.
The exhaust note is more subdued than the more manic 208 GTi 30th Anniversary, until you push the Sport button on the centre console and all that is amplified - though it also sounds a bit contrived. Perhaps more importantly, it also sharpens up the throttle mapping – substantially so.
For those looking at the entry 308 GTi 250, there’s also plenty to like. After all, it’s only 16 kilowatts down on power, and packs the same 330Nm of torque. To get the most out of it though, you’ll need to keep the revs up and shift up earlier.
Grip levels are deceptively high. Both variants feel solid and tied down, even on uneven surfaces at a solid clip. On track, the GTi 270’s front differential does a brilliant job of keeping the car firmly on it’s intended line, while allowing you to get back on the throttle sooner.
Those suspension upgrades by Peugeot Sport have also worked wonders, whether you’re on or off the track. In concert with the brilliant Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, turn-in is quick and precise and there’s real feedback felt though the steering wheel.
There’s no discernable torque steer either, and ride comfort is downright exceptional over all manner of road surfaces, including the broken bits.
The brakes, too, are impressive. They’re highly assisted and take some getting used to, but once you recalibrate your brain the brake pedal feels progressive. Baskerville isn’t a long circuit, but even after repeated laps by myself and former Australian rally ace Cody Crocker, we still couldn’t induce any brake fade from this motorsport-derived brake package.
Peugeot has unequivocally created an impressive hot hatch with the 308 GTi, and certainly has the makings to dethrone its arch-rival, the Golf GTI. It’s more potent, quicker through the bends, and is every bit as refined.
For enthusiasts, the absence of a dual-clutch auto won’t be an issue, but for others, it might be a deal breaker. Peugeot says that it recognises this and tells us that they are hoping to offer a suitable option down the track.
But at ten-bucks shy of 50 grand, the 308 GTi is coming up against new performance titans like the all-wheel drive Ford Focus RS.
The choice will come down to the balance between everyday comfort, refinement and outright performance. And that’s where the 308 GTi is going to be hard to beat.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Peugeot 308 GTi images by Mitchell Oke.
Videography by Mitchell Oke.