Consider this. In 1975, the Volkswagen Golf GTI developed 110bhp. In 2012, the latest Golf GTI was launched with 220bhp.
Granted, the doubling of its output hasn’t occurred at quite the same breakneck clip as Moore’s law, which dictates a twofold increase in microchip performance every two years or so, but it is significant – not least because it’s now a recurring theme in the hot hatch genre.
In 1987, the Peugeot 309 GTi developed 127bhp from its 1.9-litre petrol engine. Cut to 2015 and the new 308 GTi, its maker’s latest attempt to re-enter the credible end of the segment, produces 266bhp from an even smaller four-pot unit. With the introduction of its latest Mountune kit, the Ford Focus ST we’ve chosen to test it against develops 271bhp. That’s a massive 166bhp more than the Escort XR3i that Ford was punting to buyers in 1982 and almost 100bhp more than the Focus ST170 it produced in 2002.
Stand back from that inexorable rise to consider it for a moment and the naked grunt being dangled before us by mainstream manufacturers is ridiculously substantial.
The original 2.7-litre-engined Porsche Cayman, introduced only eight years ago, produced less power – and substantially less torque – than either the 308 or the Focus. And don’t forget, neither is outrageously expensive, nor intended to live at the top of the range (an R and RS version respectively waiting in the wings). Both, instead, are still meant to do what the 309 and XR3i were built for in the 1980s – namely, stick it to the copper-bottomed reputation of the Golf GTI.
Thus, their snowballing total outputs are considered an imperative in the hot hatch arms race.
The forthcoming Golf GTI Clubsport (a car for now quietly pushed under the rug by Volkswagen) will have 261bhp at all times and 287bhp available for short bursts.
The Seat Leon Cupra is already destined to get 286bhp. Scandalised though it may be elsewhere, that won’t prevent the mighty VW Aktiengesellschaft rumbling over rivals in this segment, where CO2 emissions and range count for much less.
Peugeot has hardly made a secret of its intention to beat the Golf at its own game. The 308 GTi may be capable of 0-62mph in 6.0sec, but the manufacturer has balanced hard facts with cuddlier subjective terms. ‘Usability’, ‘comfort’ and ‘subtlety’ – in other words, the mortar that binds its rival’s reputation together – have all been stressed in the build-up.
The exterior, then, even on extravagant alloy wheels, is rather subdued. So much so that early on the first day, oop’top moor, photographer Stan initially fails to distinguish the GTi from a stock 308 while snapping at a corner. “I didn’t see you!” the aging maestro proclaims.
Well, indeed. Save for the core sample-sized twin exhausts and a dip in ride height, you probably wouldn’t know. The ST, familiar enough by now, is prettier because the Focus is prettier, and more noticeable because Ford hasn’t yet built the hot hatch from which it couldn’t launch a protuberant roof spoiler.
As ever, the innards are mostly better dressed carry-overs from the cooking model. Seats typically distinguish hot hatches, and each car here deploys two steroidal armchairs that offer the kind of lateral support you’d expect from a good beanbag. The ST gets loopy worry dials atop its dashboard (tick).
The 308 gets loopy dials period (cross), its hampered instrument cluster hiccup made worse by the GTi’s lower driving position. Its rear leg room remains below par, too. Still, the dash is solidly handsome and, in its detailing and sophistication, has much to teach the global (read Yankee) Focus about European cabin panache.
Perhaps in return, Ford could show Peugeot the proper proportions for a hot hatch’s steering wheel, the GTi’s tiny hotel breakfast plate being an issue we’re about to get onto.
Underneath, both owe their Cayman-baiting power to the bluster of turbochargers, mounted to differently sized four-cylinder petrol engines. Neither is unfamiliar. Peugeot’s twin-scroll blower is mated to the latest all-singing iteration of the decade-old 1.6-litre Prince unit, good for 243lb ft from 1900rpm. With a bigger intercooler and new engine map, the ST trumps that, its 2.0-litre Ecoboost motor now generating as much as 295lb ft on temporary overboost.
That’s more than you get from an all-wheel-drive Golf R. Mountune’s tinkering doesn’t get you a mechanical limited-slip diff, either, the Focus continuing to rely on its various electronic aids for traction. Oddly, since handing over its hot hatches to the motorsport department to tune, Peugeot has developed a new-found respect for the usefulness of a bit of torque-sensing hardware between the front wheels. Thus, the GTi gets the same limited-slip diff as previously fitted to the RCZ R.
The Ecoboost is an easy engine to like. Not least because, from a centre-mounted exhaust, it drawls like John Wayne at Iwo Jima. Because there’s a five-pot in its recent past, buyers have come to expect a little burble from their ST and (much like watching the Duke) it hardly matters now that it’s mostly synthesised – particularly as the noise is accompanied by great sinewy gobbets of prolonged shove.
Given the superabundance of twist at half mast, the experience is predominantly a linear one but never seems tepid or one-trick. The torque finds its way into the steering feel, no doubt – Ford’s RevoKnuckle seems a distant memory these days – but there’s so much viscous resistance around the straight-ahead that the effect is stifled and mostly edgeless.
Instead, the lingering source of disgruntlement is the ST’s unexpectedly spiky ride quality. This has nothing to do with the £1195 Mountune pack. It’s a symptom of the recent facelift and Ford’s decision to get a little more uncompromising with the chassis’s spring rates and bushes.
Back to back, there’s probably a modest improvement in the model’s agility, but not to the extent where you’d forgive it for getting all prickly when the going gets British.
Like the filler in a Fleetwood Mac album, however, it doesn’t substantially detract from the warmly likeable, glossy whole. Response to the clay-like steering feel is always prompt and deft, with its purposeful change of direction neatly complementing a meaty, fat-footed sense of grip. The Ecoboost’s delivery feeds into this big-shouldered presence, giving the ST’s apparently easy-wrought polish just the right amount (namely, quite a lot) of deeply thrummy punch.
It’s difficult to tap into the 308 GTi in a way that could be described as satisfying. Compared with the Focus’s lusty heft, the Peugeot’s steering seems extremely light and, because of the child-sized wheel, it’s incredibly easy to over-egg or undercook with erroneous inputs. It is an inconsistent thing to shift off the line, the accelerator being about as resistant as a feather pillow (yet ultra-responsive with it) and mismatched to a clutch pedal endowed with way more travel than is surely necessary. The gearbox throw is needlessly long, too, and second engages with all the grace of a toddler hammering a square peg into a round hole.
There’s more. Although the ST certainly doesn’t ride spectacularly well, the car is cleverly deadened for sound. You tend to feel isolated despite jolts to your jowls and glutes.
The 308, as promised, is much better playing sponge to the Peak District’s haphazard topography on its more receptive dampers. Yet its low-speed compliance is a little undone by the car’s flimsy attitude to noise suppression and the front axle’s excitable, scrabbling attempts to transmit its climaxing twist.
Consequently, while the GTi is probably no more susceptible to the vagaries of torque steer than the Focus, it often seems as though it is because the uncanny tremor at the steering through the first three gears makes its electric resistance seem even more ephemeral than to begin with.
So, for a good while – about half a day in my case – you end up lurching discontentedly about the place, turning the steering too much or not enough, perpetually stuck somewhere between appreciating the ride and cursing its inability to keep the wheels firmly in check while nailing it. Which you do all the time because, no doubt about it, the 308 is fast. We’ll break out the V-Box timing gear soon enough, I’m sure, but I’d be surprised if it’s not a long nose in front of the ST – and head and shoulders brisker than a conventional Golf GTI.
The reason for this is twofold. Peugeot’s smaller, whinier lump may be nowhere near as sonically pleasing as Ford’s but it is quicker to spin up, and when it comes on boost, the high-rev surge seems almost frenetic after the ST’s more measured build-up of crank speed. Its shove is all the more forceful because the 308 is so much lighter than the Focus – by as much as 200kg, if the spec sheets are to be believed. A mounting appreciation of that difference is the key to unlocking the GTi’s appeal.
Make your peace with the steering and the finer points of the 308’s wider, stiffer front axle are readily apparent. The turn-in is superior to the Ford’s – flatter and sharper to the apex, and thanks, of course, to its Torsen diff, far keener to have you through it and back on the power.
Under duress in fast corners, the quicker line is always the 308’s, the portly ST unable to resist lumbering toward the verge at the same pace. With more space than is ever available in the Peak District, you’d almost certainly find the ST’s rear axle the more playful (the Focus remains the doyen of the wet roundabout), but a big lift still causes the GTi’s back end to pucker with more than enough balance to keep you interested.
Is it all enough to pip the ST at the finishing post? By the time I pull onto my driveway, the Peaks 250 miles behind, it very nearly is. The 308 would be cheaper to run, quicker over most ground, nicer inside and more comfortable.
Nevertheless, for all the Ford’s drawbacks – and the 308 eventually does a good job of highlighting most of them – the ST sports the look, noise, better-tuned control surfaces and flagrant barrel chest I tend to value in a household hot hatch. The Peugeot’s lightness and outright speed, though, put it in good stead.
If I wouldn’t have it over the Focus, would I have it over a standard Golf GTI? A car with less power, less purpose and the same price tag? I think maybe I would. And that, from Peugeot’s point of view, is the ultimate compliment.
Ford Focus ST-3 Mountune
Price £27,490; 0-62mph 6.5sec; Top speed 154mph; Economy 41.5mpg; CO2 159g/km; Kerb weight 1437kg; Engine 4 cyls, 2000cc, turbo, petrol; Power 271bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 295lb ft at 2750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
Peugeot 308 GTi 270
Price £28,155; 0-62mph 6.0sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 47.0mpg; CO2 139g/km; Kerb weight 1205kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1598cc, turbo, petrol; Power 266bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 243lb ft at 1900rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual