Hot hatch fans are spoiled rotten at the minute. After a wobbly few years in the late 90s and early noughties, the major manufacturers have got themselves into something of an arms race – with car buyers the beneficiaries.
Peugeot’s 308 GTi isn’t the fastest of the bunch, but can its lightweight footprint and nimble handling fire the blood with the best of them?
It’s more subtly styled than some of the competition – I’m looking at you, Honda – but sitting 11mm lower than the standard car on 19-inch alloy wheels, with a roof spoiler and two fat exhausts at the rear our test car certainly looks like it’s spoiling for a fight – an effect accentuated by it being the colour of a burst lip (purple with red detailing).
The cabin feels well put together, although the dash isn’t as elegant as that in its little brother the 208. Like the 208, it’s got a sporty, flat-bottomed steering wheel and, just as it does in the 208, the rim of the steering wheel cuts right across the driver’s view of the speedo.
The leather and suede bucket seats are some of the comfier examples of the genus and the massage function is a nice touch that means it’s one of those rare hot hatches that leave your back feeling better than it did before you went in.
I drove the full-blooded 268bhp version rather than the less powerful 246bhp variant. Nought to 60 comes in 5.8 seconds and the car pulls well throughout the gears with bags of top-end torque and raspy engine noise in evidence when you hold down the sport button – something you’ll definitely want to do if you want the full hot hatch experience.
The sport button in the GTi isn’t just for show, and provides one of the most pronounced shifts in driving experience I’ve felt in a hatchback since manufacturers felt the need to start putting in ‘push here for Mr Hyde’ switches. Not only that, but it turns all the lights in the cabin red and cranks up the volume of the exhaust – catnip for hot hatch fans.
Whether down to cost saving, or a desire to recapture the pleasure of GTis of old, there’s no paddle-shift gearbox option available in the 308 GTi. Changing gear isn’t the exercise in precision that it is in, for example, the Honda Civic Type R or the Ford Focus RS, but it’s still pretty slick.
Handling-wise the car is great fun around the town. It’s 100 kilos or so lighter than the standard car, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it had shed more than just some holiday weight. The 308 GTi feels more like a supermini and the small, dial-obscuring steering wheel suddenly starts to make sense as you negotiate the gymkhana of city driving.
The light steering is precise, but at speed it doesn’t stiffen up enough for my liking, feeling a little fussy on the more challenging B roads. The suspension is well judged though and the ride is crisp enough without compromising comfort. The limited-slip differential does its job too, and I could feel it working to keep me on the road as I tested the 308 on a cross-border jaunt through the Yorkshire Dales in the rain.
There are more dramatic looking and driving hot hatches available but the 308 GTi is fast and – if you stick it in sport mode and give it some welly – a lot of fun.
According to Dewey Finn – Jack Black’s character in School of Rock: “You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore.”
That sounds a little tiresome to me – much like Jack Black himself. I think it’s okay to be hardcore just some of the time, particularly if it’s controlled by the flick of a switch.
Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol producing 268bhp and 243lb/ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual driving the front wheels
Performance: Top speed 155mph, 0-62mph in 6.0 seconds
Economy: 47.1mpg combined
Emissions: 139g/km of CO2