Peugeot and Volkswagen can rightly claim long histories of building GTi/GTI nameplate providence in small, fun-filled, front-driven hatchbacks. With Volkswagen responsible for 1976’s Mk1 Golf GTI, the Germans have been at it a little longer than the French, who first lobbed their GTi in 205 form in 1984. But Volkswagen has become (arguably) a little more synonymous with its own big-‘I’ performance branding in recent times, relentlessly pushing the GTI barrow through both light Polo and small Golf ranges.
Peugeot’s history with the little-‘I’ GTi is a little less consistent – more bouncing about model branches with often-patchy results rather than evolving deep seeded roots – and mostly within the compact segment, and hasn’t really had a proper Golf-sized response in about 15 years, since the old 306 GTi6 went the way of the dodo.
Not only is the 2016 Peugeot 308 GTi a welcome return of sorts, it’s been lobbed in both regular (250) and high-spec (270) forms that have Volkswagen’s base Golf GTI and up-market GTI Performance models well and truly covered. At least, that is, when it comes to playing the on-paper numbers game of ‘Who Has the Better Hot-hatch’.
Judging ‘better’, though, isn’t purely one-dimensional. Which, then, is the finer hatch? And, further, which is the fitter performer?
All-round goodness and completeness is crucial for Aussie hot-hatch buyers, because, unlike in other markets, flagship hatchbacks are positioned as premium vehicles and people pay handsomely for them – even the ‘entry-level’ 308 GTi 250 ($44,990 before on-road costs) and ‘normal’ Golf GTI ($40,990 before on-road costs).
But for the top-rung variants here on test, you’re stung a further premium: $46,490 plus on-roads for the GTI Performance and a whopping $49,990 plus on-roads for the Pug 270.
So this test aims to find out which is the better hatch, between the much-fancied GTi returnee and the gold standard-bearing GTI stalwart. But even more so, we want to discover which five-door is the hotter, faster and more fun-laden prospect.
Engines and performance
Before diving into power and performance figures, let’s square up the big differentiators between this pair: their transmissions. The Peugeot GTi breed is only available as a conventional six-speed manual proposition, which is good news for traditionalist drivers though leaves no option for buyers wanting a self-shifting gearbox. Conversely, the GTI Performance is only available in automated dual-clutch form – the plus being the DSG comes at no extra cost, the minus being you can’t opt for a conventional six-speed manual as you can with a ‘regular’ GTI or with hatchback variants of the Golf R.
This, of course, will strongly influence buyer preference – a deal-maker, even – towards one hatch or the other.
Nor is there much parity in the engine department. The Golf’s 2.0-litre turbo-four generates 169kW of power from 4700rpm up to a 6200rpm ceiling, a nominal seven kilowatts up on the base GTI but well shy of either the forthcoming 195kW GTI 40 Years edition or the full-monty all-paw Golf R’s 206kW. The GTI Performance’s peak torque of 350Nm clocks on at 1500rpm and holds true until 4600rpm, right before maximum power takes over the reins.
The 308 GTi 270’s smaller-capacity 1.6-litre turbo-four produces an astonishing and commanding 200kW of power at 5500rpm – Peugeot makes a point of its formidable 2.5bar boost pressure being “one of the highest in segment”. However, at 330Nm, maximum torque falls short against the Golf by 20Nm, and has a narrower 1900-4000rpm sweet spot. That said, on paper at least, it doesn’t appear to bridge its torque and power peaks with quite as flat a transition.
Interestingly, the seemingly more highly strung Peugeot can run on 95 RON fuel, its maker quoting 6.0L/100km combined fuel consumption. The Volkswagen, though, is strictly 98 RON territory and is said to return a slightly thirstier 6.6L/100km figure should you tread lightly with the right foot.
The more you look, the more they differ in how performance is plied. The Peugeot adopts a Torsen-type mechanical limited-slip front differential capable of a 35 per cent lock-up rate, says its maker. The Volkswagen uses the same brake-actuated electronic torque control trickery (called EDL and XDL) as found in regular GTIs, together with an exclusive electronically controlled mechanical ‘locking diff’ to enhance traction during extreme driving.
Suspension wise, the Golf gets three-mode selectable (Normal, Comfort, Sport) chassis control smarts that are real-time adaptive, while the 308 uses one proprietary ‘sporty’ suspension damper setting – albeit in conjunction with a switchable ‘Sport’ mode that retunes the steering feel and throttle response, and enhances the exhaust note.
The 308 uses supercar-sized, two-piece 380mm brake discs and four-piston calipers up front, and quite puny 268mm single-piston rear braking hardware, whereas the Golf uses a more balanced 340mm/320mm front/rear combination with quite large sliding calipers. And the Peugeot’s 235mm-wide 35-profile 19-inch tyres are 10mm wider at each corner than the Volkswagen’s 19-inch rubber.
Rounding out key go-fast specification is weight. The Peugeot tips the scales at 1205kg (kerb), while the Volkswagen weighs north of 1400kg (the brand quoting 1364kg tare). With its superior power and weight-saving advantages, it’s no surprise that the Peugeot brings a swifter performance claim of 6.0 seconds flat for its 0-100km/h sprint, compared with the Volkswagen’s tardier 6.4s.
On the road
In a nutshell, the French car wields a bigger stick everywhere, while the German car leverages a more techno-laden, perhaps more balanced and arguably more sophisticated approach. And, at urban speeds, the Golf is generally the more comfortable all-round experience. It is lazier in ‘Comfort’ mode than the 308 is in its default normal drive mode, though, the Golf can quickly turn up the heat on command with either the nifty tap-for-Sport DSG selector function, or tailoring the user-assignable ‘Individual’ drive mode for a mix of punchy powertrain and silken ride comfort – the latter accessible at a touch of a button.
The firm-riding 308 may be less comfortable – abrupt, even – across road imperfections, but it’s a match for the Golf in core refinement. It’s solidly built, impressively isolates environmental noise, and resonates a similar air of quality its German nemesis has built quite a formidable reputation on.
All except, that is, the “groan or fog horn-type noise” – Peugeot’s words, not mine – from the floating front brake discs at low speed. Our test car arrived with a written disclaimer from Peugeot Australia explaining the effect is “not a fault” with the car, but it’s still a significant markdown on an otherwise well-refined package.
The Peugeot has a different character tooling around town at part throttle that some buyers will no doubt prefer to the typical staid Golf – it’s more lithe, punchier in response, a touch more urgent on the move. Fleet-footed, ‘mechanical’ in engagement and near constantly primed with the 1.6’s mid-range potency, there’s a feel-good vibe to the French hatchback that makes the Golf seem, by comparison, conservatively detached and a touch too polite.
But, for urban cut and thrust driving and by the seat of the pants, the Golf is a match for the 308’s swiftness. The larger torque swell, the more linear engine delivery, the crisp upshifts all conspire to equally rapid transit.
The French car can, to some tastes, be too characterful in areas. The laughably small steering wheel isn’t the device of minute adjustment and accuracy the way that that of the Golf’s is. Though, in the CarAdvice fold, I’m a loner – my colleagues unanimously loving its size, despite the fact that it completely obscures the instrumentation lest you drop the wheel awkwardly into your lap. Both cars have variable electric assistance, but the Volkswagen’s is heavier around town and, frustratingly (even somewhat dangerously), the stop-start kills the steering assist when coming to a standstill.
The feel of the Peugeot’s manual gearbox too, drew widespread praise around the office, though, I personally found it lacking the tight, flick-friendly engagement and accuracy of the best of the (dying) breed such as, for example, the Mazda MX-5’s. Ditto the staggered-height pedals, which are difficult to heal-and-toe with. For natural driving ergonomics and clarity, the Peugeot comes up short against the Volkswagen.
Another area where the Peugeot lacks a little resolve is the seating. The front buckets look great, feel great (in synthetic suede and leather), are superbly made and offer electric lumber support and, strangely in this hot hatch format, a massage function. The Golf’s mechanical-adjustable front seats might look a bit plain in their unfortunately named ‘Clark’ fabric though the wings are Alcantara are they’re more form fitting, to my body type at least, and offer superior lateral support. And you’ll really hope the front pews pin you upright the moment you pitch either of these hatches hard into a corner…
In the curves
A series of scintillating curves – in back-of-nowhere isolation, preferably – is where a die-hard petrolhead should come away from either hatchback wide-eyed and bushy-tailed in experiences over-delivered. Instead, to be blunt, both amply meet expectations but raise few eyebrows.
I’ve driven the Golf GTI Performance around a track before and it’s quite impressive when carrying serious speed and allowed a lot of real estate to let its chassis hang loose. In the confines of backroads, where lines must be neat and oncoming traffic must be respected, it’s quick point-to-point, though, not terribly fun.
Engineers dialled out the playfulness of the Mk V and VI GTI in the regular Mk VII breed. Planted and predictable, this Performance version isn’t much friskier than the regular GTI.
Lean into a corner, and the Volkswagen will inevitably err toward safe understeer well before the rear gets to dance. It’s not light on its rubber feet. In typically tight second- and third-gear corners, it’s almost too easy to coerce the front Pirellis into loosing their grip. In fact, the German hatch is so composed, it’s dynamically nonchalant.
It steers with consummate accuracy and, with its various electronic enhancements, plies drive well. Though, the chassis remains largely inanimate at the point where you’re wishing it had more corner exit drive, that there was more mid-range punch from the engine, and that there was more front-end grip to harness it.
While very capable, the Golf is far from laugh-out-loud in fun factor. Sport mode is satisfying rather than thrilling, and you sense engineers have held back on the reins a little. If you want Race-mode thrills, you’ll have to buy a Golf R – or, at least, that seems to be the underlying message you get by the seat of the pants.
The Peugeot is quite a different animal. But while we’ve come away raving about its ragged-edged track abilities in past reviews, I’m not quite as enthusiastic about digging in in a public forum, demanding a more circumspect approach with slimmer margins for foolhardiness.
The more lightweight car is patently more nimble and is noticeably more eager to change direction on a whim. The Peugeot is patently livelier to punt with vigour. It generates good grip form its wider rubber and exhibits a sharp edge to its chassis… at least up to a point.
Driven in brisk moderation, the 308 GTi 270 is very impressive. But grab its scruff and show it who’s boss – in grand hot-hatch traditions – and some resistance rears its head.
For one thing, the engine becomes mid-range peaky when pushed – it drops on and off the boil, without that Golf GTI-like linearity. When it surges during that mid-range peak, the nose can shimmy off the chosen line, and it takes a moment for the Torsen LSD to work its magic and regain front-end composure. And when the front tyres cry freedom, the otherwise super-direct and communicative steering becomes light and a little aloof. And with more than a hint of torque steer.
As a complete dynamic package, you can find the Peugeot’s limits, over which there’s a little drop off, not so much in ability but in its co-operation with the driver’s wants. Call it above nine-tenths. But where the 308 GTi 270 remains impressive is from about four-tenths and beyond, right up to the nines. Which is about the breath of the envelope where most owners might wish to enjoy their considerably pricey hatchbacks, short of investing in some off-street track time.
The complexion of this head-to-head might change dramatically on a race track, but as a Sunday morning punt on your favourite public blacktop, the Peugeot 308 GTi 270 brings more smiles at less than antisocial, and very much legal, speeds. And this makes it patently the hotter hatchback for real world use, regardless of which car makes it to the cafe cool-down stop first. In which case, we’ve found ourselves a winner this time out.
Does that make the Peugeot the better hot hatch? Not necessarily so. Once pragmatism creeps into the decision-making process, the Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance really lays on the positives, beyond the fact that you can read the instruments properly from behind the wheel. Its infotainment system (with Apple CarPlay) is superior to the French car’s system. And the Golf has vastly superior second-row accommodation – be it all-round roominess, seating comfort or fundamentals such as rear air-con vents – than the cramped 308 does. Neither, though, lacks for appointments or levels of standard equipment.
The 308, though, isn’t without a surfeit of charm. The minimalist and easy-to-use approach to cabin design is inspired – still French, though highly functional and logical, making the button frenzy of the Golf seem overwrought. It’s an exceedingly handsome hatchback too – though perhaps, in another aesthetic outside our test car’s ostentatious half-red-half-black scheme – and it sits oh-so-nice and hunkered over its rolling stock. Importantly, there’s an essence of quality throughout that doesn’t play second fiddle to that of the Golf.
Nudging $50k for a small hatchback with just 1.6 litres under the bonnet may very well put some buyers off. The advice is not to part what’s serious cash for the flagship Peugeot hatchback without at least cross-shopping against the Golf GTI Performance, no less looking at the considerably more affordable option in the lower-spec 308 GTi 250 or regular Golf GTI, which will save you a whopping $9000 in like-for-like conventional manual form.
That said, the Peugeot 308 GTi 270 certainly doesn’t lack in substance in the company of the best of the two-litre heroes. And it delivers a little more where it counts to take the win. But only just…
Click the Photos tab for more images by Glen Sullivan.