Gareth Butterfield takes a trip down Memory Lane in the Peugeot 308 GTi
I CAN remember an occasion, back in my secondary school days, I was bowled over with excitement, to the point of almost soiling myself, when a sports teacher arrived one day in his new Peugeot 205 GTi.
It was in gleaming red, with the beefier 1.9 engine and the prettier wheels, with a Peco Big Bore exhaust burbling away. In the eyes of an adolescent 13-year-old, Mr Bevan had just reached hero status.
I can also remember the surprise, far more recently, of learning a friend of mine kept a pristine MkI volkswagen Golf GTi tucked away in his garage.
He’s a lovely chap, but relatively dull. He likes brown beer and making things in his shed. He drives a base-spec Skoda Octavia diesel on a daily basis, often proudly telling me how many miles per gallon he has achieved that week. And that car, at least I thought, suits him to a tee.
So to find out he had one of the finest of all hot hatches stashed away in case the sun comes out completely changed my estimation of him, to the point where I once caught myself nearly calling him sir.
And that’s the thing with the GTi. It says something about a person. It tells you its owner is sensible enough to require the odd practicality, but he or she has a frivolous streak and a fun side.
In this day and age, the GTi brief hasn’t strayed far from its origins. You basically take a practical hatchback, shove in a large engine, stick on a few choice shiny bits, enlarge the wheels and set it loose. The GTi story has seen its ups and downs but the current crop is as good as it’s ever been.
And this leads me neatly on to this week’s test car, the Peugeot 308 GTi. The latest one packs a 268bhp punch and looks fabulous. Of course, it’s based on the standard 308 and that’s a good platform from which to start, so it promises to be a lot of fun. And, I’m happy to say, it is.
You might think squeezing nearly 270bhp out of a front wheel drive car with a 1.6-litre engine is a recipe for acres of torque steer and monumental turbo lag but it’s simply not. Peugeot has done a neat trick of reigning in all those horses while still producing a car capable of demolishing the 0-60 sprint in six seconds. So it feels properly quick.
It sounds pretty good too, even if the rorty note from its tasteful twin exhausts is synthetically spoiled a bit by an electronic “engine note” piped into the cabin from the stereo speakers.
I like its interior, too. It’s minimalist and there’s none of the flamboyance you get from some French cars, but it’s simple and functional. Even the signature tiny steering wheel is starting to grow on me.
Legroom in the GTi could be better, it’s not helped by the big bucket seats in the front, but the boot is a good size and visibility is fine.
If I was to criticise anything, it would be the relatively docile ride and handling. Fair enough, it’s sure-footed, but many cars in this segment have a button to let you turn everything up a notch or two. And the Peugeot doesn’t.
Of course, it does have a sport button. That makes the dials glow red, switches on the annoying synthetic exhaust note and sharpens its responses, but it doesn’t do enough. If you want a true fighting spirit from your hot hatch, go and see the nice people at Honda or Ford. The Civic Type R or Focus RS will certainly awaken your senses.
That said, the Peugeot is a few grand cheaper than the Ford and Honda at less than £30,000. And it’s arguably nicer to live with as a result of its relatively prudish demeanour. And, it has to be said, not everyone wants to be shaken to bits while they pop out to buy a bottle of milk or to drop the kids off at school.
Kids, incidentally, seem to love the 308 GTi. I was waiting at some traffic lights one day and noticed it was being well and truly admired by a group of lads who were on their way to school.
And that got me thinking back to my old teacher and his 205. The kids who stopped to ogle the 308 didn’t care that it was built around a car which feels more at home in supermarket car parks than on the Nurburgring. They knew my car had 270bhp and they liked its big wheels and its chunky seats. The iPad generation will probably also love the fake exhaust note. And I bet they’ll still like it when they’re older and their wives demand they settle into a Skoda
The thing is, GTi drivers might grow old, but they don’t grow up. They still have a mean streak that seems to follow them through life and only seems to manifest itself in their choice of car.
The GTi is a car that excites 13-year-olds as much as it excites fully-grown adults. And there’s no reason that I can see why the 308 shouldn’t be on their wish-list.