Here’s even more sugar-coated temptation for hot hatchback fans in a climate that’s already has a recently released versions of the Mini John Cooper Works, Renault Clio RS 220 Trophy, DS 3 Performance, Ford Focus RS and revamped Mercedes-AMG A 45, while also awaiting the new Honda Civic Type R and Audi RS3 and shedding a tear for the recently departed versions of the Type R and RS 3.
The Peugeot 308 GTi is the latest instalment in a line of fast French front-drivers, such as the discontinued RCZ R and 208 GTi, which have already impressed us with their hardcore purposefulness and driver engagement. They’ve also done their bit to restore Peugeot’s reputation among petrolheads, taking it from the doldrums of the past decade towards heights not seen since the halcyon days of the 1990s.
This go-faster 308 has equally promising potential. The car is driven by the same engine and gearbox that we liked so much in the RCZ R, but it’s updated with a higher-pressure direct fuel injection system for an even broader spread of torque and better high-range power delivery. It rides 11mm lower than the rest of the 308 range, with stiffer springs, uprated dampers, a front track that’s 10mm wider than standard and more negative wheel camber on both axles.
Stiffer suspension bushings at all four corners should enable more precise handling and better control feedback. Alcon brakes, with 380mm front discs clamped by four-piston calipers, provide the stopping power, and the same Torsen helical limited-slip differential as on the 208 GTi and RCZ R transmits power to the road, via lightweight 19in rims and Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres.
Peugeot has canned the cheaper, less powerful version of the GTi, with its detuned 247bhp engine, smaller wheels and front brakes, an open front differential and less figure-hugging sports seats. But the full-fat version looks like appealing value, with a list price only just above £29k and a decent list of standard equipment.
Speaking of which gets all of the exterior trimmings to suggest this no normal hatchback on the outside, including sporty side skirts, front bumper and rear diffuser, as well as large twin exhaust system, parking sensors, LED headlights, and automatic wipers and lights. Inside there is cruise control, half-leather/half-Alcantara upholstery, heated and massaging front sports seats, dual-zone climate control and Peugeot's 9.7in touchscreen infotainment system complete with sat nav, DAB radio, reversing camera, USB and Bluetooth capability.
Before we get too carried away, this isn’t our first taste of the 308 GTi. A quick drive in a late prototype earlier this year made it apparent that Peugeot’s engineers have been aiming to dethrone the Volkswagen Golf GTI with a car of apparent substance, certain driver appeal and rounded good manners, rather than to reincarnate the legendarily lithe and lovely 306 Rallye.
That may be a less enticing mission statement, but the 308 is well placed to achieve it, with its smart, tactile cabin quality and an engine that’s frugal enough to put the car in a class-leading position on company car tax liability. The rear seats are a little short on space, but the boot is a decent size, making for a more than respectable score on usability, too.
Peugeot’s 1.6-litre twin-scroll turbo petrol engine sounds more reserved here than in the RCZ R, but press the Sport button on the centre console and the car’s soundtrack comes to life. Some would doubtless rather the effect wasn’t achieved via ‘frequency augmentation’ through the car’s audio speakers, but to this tester’s ears, the audible results are more than acceptable – in a growling, burbling, tremulous sort of a way.
Performance feels every bit as strong as you’re likely to want, the four-pot pulling hard and with a pleasing consistency and zestiness, through the entirety of the rev range.
There’s no paddle-shift gearbox option here, though. Golf GTI owners may not like the sound of that. And rather than make a particular virtue of the manual as Honda has for its hot Civic, Peugeot’s six-speed gearbox lacks mechanical definition and feels a little more limp and ordinary than it ought to.
The ride and handling are well judged for keen road driving, as you might imagine, than the standard 308’s are – but its power steering, although improved, remains the low point.
Peugeot Sport has managed to take most of the body movement out of the 308’s suspension during cornering and over bumps without compromising it with any more harshness or hyperactivity. It has sharpened the car’s directional responses while making it more stable and easier to place. Crispness and accuracy are the car’s dynamic calling cards, delivered atop a supple, well-damped and mostly quiet ride.
However, the primary limit to your enjoyment is a steering system with very little feedback and decent weighting for normal effort levels that becomes light and over-assisted as you begin to lean harder on the contact patches. The car’s grip could also be more sweetly balanced for fun at everyday speeds. Too often a scrabbling, understeering pair of front wheels calls for restraint from the GTi’s driver where the Peugeot’s more talented rivals will grip harder and then slip gently but more playfully from the rear axle.
Despite its dynamic limitations, the 308 is a more vivacious and interesting driver’s car than the Golf GTI and runs it close enough as an ownership prospect to just about seal the deal. Little else at the less pricey end of the full-sized hot hatch class combines material class, understated desirability and moderate driver appeal quite as well as this.
The trouble, both for Peugeot and Volkswagen, is that the Golf GTI no longer represents the last word in affordable performance thrills – nor even the penultimate one. For this tester, the Ford Focus RS and Seat Leon Cupra between them have the more value-savvy end of the hot hatch class pretty tightly sewn up. Anything else, however creditable, is quite difficult to recommend.