Mention hot hatch, and the first couple of examples would likely originate from either Germany or Japan. Perhaps even a British or Italian example might come to mind. Yet for those with a keen appreciation for World Rally Championship (WRC) history, arguably one of the best producers of hot hatches is France — Peugeot in particular.
If you’re laughing in your seat right now, the joke is on you. You’ve been missing out. After all, before Sebastien Ogier was tearing it up in a Polo WRC, and far earlier than Monster Tajima proved just how potent a Suzuki Vitara (Escudo) could be, Peugeots were dominating WRC and Pikes Peak.
We have Volkswagen to thank for making the letters, GTI, synonymous with fast, yet it’s far from an exclusive trademark. Peugeot had long been using the letters on their hot hatches too, producing an equally mad rival to the Golf back in the 80s. It almost disappeared when Peugeot had taken a shine to the letters, RC, yet more recently, GTI has come back with a vengeance.
Indeed, the sparkle of Peugeot’s racing heritage may have faded over the years, but with the 308 GTI, the world might just be reminded once again. Built as homages to the 205 GTI and 205 T16 rally car, Peugeot’s GTIs hope to rekindle some of that lost glory.
Easily the first clue that this is a sporting hatch is the odd diagonal two-tone paint scheme. Don’t worry. You can buy one with a solid color. Other than that, much of the 308 GTI’s look is quite understated. There’s barely any bodykit and the rear wing doesn’t appear to produce downforce. Nonetheless, the 19 inch wheels hiding meaty brakes and the twin exhausts and subtle rear diffuser hint at some sense of speed.
Inside, the cockpit is relatively understated. Red stitching runs across the dash and door cards while sporty bucket seats hint at its speedy aspirations. A flat-bottomed wheel sits in front of dials mounted higher than normal – they’re there to keep the dials at eye-level. Finally, a lovely manual stick shift sits on the center mound, with red accents and a groove to pull up to shift it into reverse.
Under the hood is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It may not look like much, but this powerplant propelled the previous-generation Mini Cooper S. Of course, to produce the claimed 272 PS, the engine has equipped forged pistons, polymer-coated bearings, and bumped up the boost from its twin-scroll turbines.
It then travels to a six-speed manual, which then passes through a limited slip differential that spins the front wheels. These are, in turn, shod on Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. All they have to pull is a car weighing just 1.2 tons.
But before setting off, there’s just a few things to adjust to. First off, the odd dial position will force you to adjust the wheel so as not to obscure it. The tachometer winds counter-clockwise. It makes for great symmetry with the speedo but can take some time to get used to, particularly when shifting near the red line. The speedo itself also displays odd increments — not the usual 60, 80, 100 — instead, it shows 70, 90, and 110 km/h.
There are no confusing drive modes, just regular and Sport. Yet, you need to hold down the Sport button for about two seconds before it engages. It’s well worth the wait as the entire cluster illuminates red, while boost, power and torque are displayed in between them. The exhaust also takes on a more aggressive note, channelled into the cabin through the speakers.
Start the car up and the Peugeot hardly reveals any hint of its inner demons. It will drive quite pleasantly, with just enough torque to roll along in heavy traffic, and shift into 6th as early as 60 km/h. The light clutch and crisp manual are somewhat delightful to use even in the worst of traffic. In spite of the stiff sporty damping, the ride is still relatively comfortable and tolerable, comparable to BMWs but not quite as lofty as a Mercedes. Driving conscientiously will yield a relatively high 8.3 km/L in very heavy traffic and an even higher 12 km/L on the highway.
Of course, the real fun is had by coaxing the monster out. Step on the throttle and it slowly transforms from gentle city hatch to tuned terror. It may take a while to get the boost going, but when it arrives, it does so in spades. The power becomes truly palpable at around 3,000 rpm. Drop down a gear, rev match, and it will unleash a torrent of overtaking power. The vehicle can rocket to 100 km/h in just over 6 seconds. It then goes on to a limited top speed of 250 km/h.
Those familiar with Peugeots will know that one of the best attributes of this car is its handling. There’s hardly any hint of the understeer expected of a front-wheel drive like this. The sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sports take some credit, but much more thanks is owed to that limited-slip differential. It smoothly sends power to the outer wheel, allowing you to power on while turning, eating up long-sweeping bends with enthusiasm. Should some rain dampen the fun in the circuit or a mountain pass, fear not as it works equally well. It’s in these slippery situations where the LSD makes it presence felt, seemingly clawing the asphalt with more ferocity than you expect.
Should you get too cocky, the brakes are equally reassuring, grabbing the discs with force but no hint of fade. The brake assist is very evident, while ABS, traction and stability control feel more like shadows in the background.
All told, the Peugeot 308 GTI is surprisingly fast, incredibly agile, and also surprisingly comfortable to drive every day. In a way, it’s also quite the sleeper with so few aware of just how well a properly sporty Peugeot can perform. It may cost quite a premium, but can easily smoke a Golf GTI and Mini Cooper S in its wake, and with the right driver, keep pace with a Mercedes-AMG A45. Dare I say, it's one of the best hot hatches I've ever driven.