Three years is a long time in the world of hot hatches. When the Peugeot 308 GTi launched in 2016, it was faced with the ageing Renault Megane RS, a Golf GTI making 162kW, and the Ford Focus ST. Honda wasn't importing the Civic Type R at the time, and the i30 N was just a twinkle in Albert Biermann's eye.
Jump to 2018 and the hot-hatch market has exploded. The venerable Golf GTI is DSG-only and makes 180kW, the Hyundai i30 N is a giant-killer, Honda has the wild Civic Type R, and French hot-hatch lovers can get their kicks in a fresh, four-door Megane RS.
It's been given a nip/tuck since launch, and the lower-powered GTi 250 has been axed, but the 308 is faced with a remarkable field of competitors, some of which the engineers in Sochaux simply couldn't have seen coming.
On paper, the 308 probably shouldn't stand a chance. Whereas its competitors all lean on 2.0-litre or 1.8-litre four-cylinder engines, Peugeot has decided just 1.6 litres are enough.
Thankfully, the four-cylinder turbocharged engine (THP S&S, code nerds) punches above its weight, putting 200kW and 330Nm to the front wheels through a mechanical locking differential and a six-speed manual transmission.
There's no automatic, so get to the gym and start working your left leg. That's a winning strategy among a small puddle of enthusiasts, but a self-shifter is required to swim in the sales deep-end.
The combination of small displacement and a large turbocharger has the potential to make the GTi a laggy mess, but it all works remarkably well in practice, pulling hard from around 1750rpm and hauling smoothly to redline.
Peak torque is available from 1900rpm, but the engine's linearity is what really stands out: you just get a silky sweep of the tach’ needle and an unrelenting shove in the back. It's relatively efficient, too, with a claimed 6.0L/100km translating to around 8.0L/100km in the real world.
The transmission is something of a weak link, though. Peugeot should be applauded for taking the enthusiast 'high road' and offering only a manual, but the six-speeder in the 308 is hamstrung by a long throw and a rubbery feel. "Near-flaccid" is how Curt described it in our mega test, and I can't really do better than that.
The stick-only Honda Civic Type R is still the benchmark hot hatch if rowing your own is high on the list of priorities, but even the i30 N has a shorter throw and more positive, substantial feel. Oh, the Golf GTI did offer a more intuitive shift, but those days are gone. Sigh.
Although it's not fair to punish Peugeot for catering its layout for French tastes, the small pedals, closely stacked throttle/brake and high clutch all require a deft touch if you wear chunky Australian boots instead of thin-soled loafers.
Tight pedals aren't the only control-based oddity – far from it, in fact. It wouldn't be a French car review without even one mention of ergonomics, right?
Peugeot has bet the house on its iCockpit interior layout, which pairs a tiny steering wheel with high-set instruments for what's intended as a more ergonomic cabin layout. I love it, others (ahem, Paul Maric) claim the dials are perpetually obscured. Try before you buy.
The dials are simple, but their stylised font and odd-shaped needles mean the digital readout is an absolute must in Australia. Flicking into Sport mode turns the entire gauge cluster red, which sounds cool but just means you can't see the redline. Plus, the Sport button itself sits uncomfortably close to the parking brake and start button.
You use all three regularly, and they all require a long, firm press to work.
Unique badging aside, the 308 GTi is near identical to the standard hatchback inside. The centre console is minimalist in the extreme, with a row of climate buttons, a CD slot and volume knob the only physical supplements to a 9.7-inch touchscreen sitting proud at the top.
With the MY18 update came a cleaner interface, quicker touch response and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, but it feels dated compared to the i-Cockpit 2.0 set-up from the 3008 and 5008. The lack of physical climate-control buttons is just criminal, and there's often a hint of hesitation if you ask it to do too many things at once.
If you're going to go all-touch on infotainment, the system needs to feel snappy all the time, and the 308's touchscreen just doesn't.
You also miss out on autonomous emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, both of which are becoming must-haves in cars across all pricepoints. Blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning are both standard, though, along with parking sensors and a surround-view camera.
The camera isn't close to the best in the business, with a muddy quality about the picture and a tendency for the front camera to go missing on start-up, but it's still up to scratch if all you're worried about is dinging a wheel on the kerb.
At least the physical basics are excellent, with the standard massaging (not heated) Peugeot Sport bucket seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and metal gear knob combining to deliver a sporty feel. Peugeot Sport absolutely nailed the seats: they're pretty, comfortable, and offer enough support for keen drivers – a rare combination.
There was enough space in the back for three adults on the way back from collecting the car, but with the driver's seat in my preferred position, the only people getting in are very, very small children or professional contortionists. Head room is par for the class.
There's 470L of space in the boot, which grows to 1309L with the rear seats folded, meaning it's pretty practical too. You don't get a space saver – let alone a full-sized spare wheel – though, in news that'll annoy those who frequent rural regions.
Coupled with a quick steering rack, the tiny steering wheel makes the car feel like an oversized go-kart around town. Don't be fooled. This is a serious hot hatch with something to offer serious drivers who like serious driving. Seriously.
Whereas the 208 GTi feels playful, the bigger 308 has a more dialled-in feeling. Turn-in is sharp and there's hardly any body roll, but the rear end doesn't feel overwhelmingly keen to get involved, even when provoked with a sharp lift off the throttle.
Grip from the Michelin Pilot Sport tyres is prodigious, and the limited-slip differential does its thing on the way out of corners, helping channel all 330Nm to the front wheels with minimal torque steer. Once you're turned in, you can really lean on the diff, safe in the knowledge it'll drag you out.
Although it's not the most track-focused hot hatch going around, the little Pug still feels purposeful. As for how it stacks up on a track? Direct your attention to the below quote from our recent hot-hatch mega test, please and thanks.
"Sharp, reactive steering and assertive chassis aside, its soft-edged nature and near-flaccid gearshift rob some key satisfaction from the hot-lapping experience."
It doesn't suffer for it too dramatically around town, either, with light controls, comfortable seats and an amenable ride combining to make the GTi a friendly commuter. The engine is tractable and surprisingly quiet in normal mode, with gentle inputs barely registering a growl, which could be seen as a positive or a huge drawback depending on your perspective.
Flicking into Sport mode adds an obnoxious layer of fake noise, but realistically those chasing aural excitement should buy an i30 N. In fact, the most memorable noise from the 308 wasn't the engine, but instead from the tyres on coarse-chip tarmac. It's noisier than a Golf GTI at highway speeds, although it still shades the more hardcore hot-hatch set for long-haul refinement.
All of which leads neatly to the question of whether you should actually buy a 308 GTi.
You'll pay $45,990 before on-road costs for the Peugeot, making it more expensive than the aforementioned Hyundai with the Premium Pack and sunroof. It's also pricier than a Renault Megane RS280 manual without the Cup Package, and slightly more expensive than the DSG Golf GTI.
As with the Hyundai, you get a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty on the 308, compared to three for the Golf and Megane, but your first three services will cost $659, $702 and $659.
Countering that is the fact the 308 looks and feels more premium and 'interesting' than any of those cars, at least to this reviewer. It's still a very pretty hatch, even late in its life, and that counts for something as well.
At risk of fence-sitting, you probably already know if you want one. Francophiles, free-thinkers and long-time Peugeot lovers will no doubt be frothing at the mouth by now, but the car's quirks – software and ergonomic – would probably be too much for me to abide in the long run.
Plus, the i30 N sounds so damn good...