Good: subtly sporting design, high specification, great engine, good to drive
Not so good: pricing puts it into competition with serious rivals
France has produced some truly iconic hot hatches. There are the obvious ones, such as the Clio Williams and Renault 5 Turbo, along with those most have forgotten, such as the Citroen AX GT. And of course one of the most famous and revered of them all is the Peugeot 205 GTi. However, while the 205 GTi still grabs all the attention, many seem to be forgetting about its equally impressive relation, the 306 GTi-6. It didn't look over the top, it had a spacious interior and was blessed with one of the most fluid chassis in the business, mixing hilariously fun lift-off oversteer (though not as abrupt as the 205 GTi's) with surprising suppleness over bumps, with an innate ability to smoothen out a road's rough edges. That's the very car the Peugeot 308 GTi has to live up to.
And that's before we discuss the 308's modern day rivals. Pricing for the entry-level 250hp model starts at €36,990 and all versions use a six-speed manual gearbox and a five-door body style. Hence it compares favourably to the standard Volkswagen Golf GTI. But as anyone that ever wanted to be a millionaire might have heard Chris Tarrant say, "but you don't want to do that!" The reason is the availability of the 270hp 308 GTi by Peugeot Sport (to give it its full name). This costs a full €3,000 more, but that buys you a lot more than just another 20hp.
The key change is the addition of a Torsen limited slip differential to the front axle, replacing the open differential of the 250hp car. This greatly aids stability and traction on the exit of a corner, allowing the driver to deploy full power earlier and more effectively. To allow it work at its best, the ESP stability control has also been tweaked, as has the electric power steering.
Also unique to the 270hp variant is a set of gorgeous 19-inch alloy wheels. They're a significant 2kg lighter than the 18-inch rims fitted to the standard car, to the further benefit of control. They also look great of course, enhancing the 308's pretty shape no end. Nonetheless, the 308 GTi is a relatively subtle looking thing, in spite of its large twin-exit exhausts and unique grille and detailing. In short, it's a classy looking hot hatch that'll not have its driver labelled a 'boy racer'.
The interior is suitably upgraded too, helping warrant the high price to some extent. Both versions of the GTi feature dual-zone climate control, auto lights and wipers, cruise control with speed limiter, front and rear parking sensors, rear-view camera, electric folding door mirrors, Bluetooth, USB connectivity and a (slow reacting) touchscreen interface with satnav. The 270hp car gets even sportier seating, trimmed in a mix of leather and Alcantara, while the dinky little steering wheel found in all 308s is given another design tweak and though it feels too small at first, it is lovely to hold. You view the instruments above the wheel and they glow red when in Sport mode.
That Sport mode also means more driving information displayed prominently, while the engine note is augmented and the throttle map is altered to give the car more urgency. It does feel at its keenest in this setting, though not everyone likes the idea of synthetic engine sounds. I reckon most buyers will love it and if you're on a longer journey the 308 is perfectly docile and refined. Saying that, on 19-inch wheels shod in sticky low-profile Michelin tyres, the ride quality of the 308 GTi is never anything other than 'firm' - a fraction too much so for most Irish roads. Enthusiasts will gladly put up for that compromise in return for the driving experience, but those that are buying for image more than pure driving thrills may be as well off sticking with the smaller wheels.
But find an interesting and twisty back road to stretch the GTi's legs on and you'll soon forget about the compromised comfort, as it really is good fun to drive. The tiny steering wheel exaggerates how direct initial turn-in is, but the front grips hard on entering a corner and even harder on the exit as you realise just how much pace this car can carry through the bends. The mechanical differential is highly effective in that regard, making the 308 an incredibly satisfying car to drive quickly on a challenging back road. It's fast too, as you'd hope, easily a match for most front-drive hot hatches around. Some will be surprised at the ferocity of the engine given its modest 1.6-litre output, and that urgency is available from low revs as well, meaning it's tractable and usable in everyday driving without needing to trouble the redline.
It's not the perfect hot hatch though. The steering may be direct, but there's precious little feedback through the wheel. The gearbox is 'fine', but not the slickest and while the brakes bite well and the pedal feels good, they will eventually fade with prolonged 'enthusiastic' use. In essence, the 308 GTi seems to straddle the gap between the civilised, but competent Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance Pack and the madcap Honda Civic Type R and Opel Astra OPC. Indeed, it's remarkably close in concept to the SEAT Leon Cupra 290.
And the fact that it's so easy to list off a half dozen rivals for the Peugeot shows how the hot hatch landscape has changed since its adored ancestor was on the scene. Competition is fierce, making it more difficult for any one car to stand up and be counted. While it's unlikely that the 308 GTi will go down in the annals of history as another French icon, it is a very good and very likeable hot hatch.