First drive: Peugeot refines 308 GTi

First drive: Peugeot refines 308 GTi

PEUGEOT’S 308 GTi hot hatch will continue to battle its rivals in Australia without a much-needed automatic transmission option when it sprints into showrooms later this year, but the French brand’s new importer says its sales fortunes will improve.

Now under the stewardship of distributor Inchcape Australasia, Peugeot has updated the 308 GTi with a light external and internal makeover, as well as the addition of driver aid safety gear like automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control.

Despite talk at the 2015 Frankfurt motor show of the 308 GTi scoring a second transmission choice, hopes have been dashed for this model cycle of the car for an auto option, something that would have helped the hatchback’s sales in the auto-obsessed Australian market.

Peugeot Australia has accepted the umpire’s decision, but will continue to press upon its French masters the importance of offering a clutch-free version of the car.

“We are pushing PSA to provide us with performance automatic solutions on our range, and particularly with 308 GTi,” said Peugeot Citroen Australia product manager Felix Boulin at a drive event for the new model in Spain back in July.

Mr Boulin also confirmed that the updated 308 GTi – which currently makes up some five per cent of the total sales of the 308 range, which stands at just 464 to the end of July – will be launched at the same time as the rest of the facelifted hacthback and wagon range.

“We are launching just a few months behind Europe, and that’s due to the time necessary to bring the cars over here,” he said.

PCA corporate communications and events manager Jemma White told GoAuto that the introduction of the refreshed version should ensure an uptick in GTi sales compared with the outgoing model.

“With the facelift, we are going to reinforce the attractiveness of GTi with more equipment and a better price,” she said. “This coupled with a rationalisation of the range should lead us to an increased mix of GTi, probably around 10 per cent.”

Ms White admitted that the lack of an auto option has held 308 GTi sales back, but added that many hot hatch buyers preferred a manual box.

“In terms of volumes, not having an automatic transmission on the GTi does place us in a more limited sub-segment. But when it comes to sports models, a lot of drivers would want to have a manual transmission.

“Considering Peugeot market share as a whole on the market, having a sport model like 308 GTi is a great opportunity for the brand with good volume potential.”

Ms White also confirmed that PCA would roll out a marketing campaign for the refreshed 308 range which will follow the marketing blitz for the recently launched 3008 SUV.

Aside from tweaked styling and additional safety gear, the 308 GTi is fundamentally unchanged, which means that it has kept its 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that makes 200kW and 330Nm, as well as its six-speed manual that runs through a Torsen limited slip diff.

Also retained is the 11mm lower and tightened suspension – based around a MacPherson strut front and a torsion bar rear layout – as well as the enormous 380mm front brake rotors and four-piston one-piece front callipers that nestle behind lightweight 19-inch rims and sticky Michelin tyres.

Inside, the already attractive 308 is enhanced with leather and suede sports seats, while Peugeot’s i-Cockpit driver layout take pride of place.

The i-Cockpit places the instrument binnacle above the line of the smaller diameter steering wheel, with the idea being that it improves visibility for the driver.

What it does in practice, however, is limit the fit options available to drivers of differing heights. At 185cm, your correspondent could set it up perfectly, but other testers have found that getting a clear view of the instruments is quite difficult.

It is about the only black mark for the cabin, though, which took a drastic turn for the better in 308 form back in 2015. The design is still fresh and contemporary, and the materials used throughout help to really lift the cabin into premium territory.

The only change of note for the interior is an updated multimedia system, and even then it’s merely a graphics change.

Our international first drive test was limited to four on-track sessions at the private Ascari racetrack resort in southern Spain – which proves to be a happy hunting ground for the feisty 308.

It shows a genuine turn of pace despite its lack of on-paper capacity, and its longer wheelbase and a more supple chassis tune rewards eight-tenths driving with an accurate and quick front-drive hatch.

It doesn’t like being overdriven, though, and can dissolve in ugly understeer if you’re too greedy into slower corners.

Steering feel is only okay, though, and lacks that final frisson of weight and feel that would better suit the character of the 308 GTi, but the no-nonsense brake system is excellent, easily hauling the 308 down from more than a dollar eighty over numerous hot laps on an even hotter day.

In a practical sense, the five-door GTi is a 308 hatch at heart, with sufficient rear seat room for even the tallest passengers and decent luggage room in the cargo area.

Storage up front is a bit hit and miss, though, with small, oddly shaped areas for phones and other accoutrements between the seats. There’s a USB port up front, but nothing for rear seaters in the way of either device chargers or air vents.

It’s well equipped, too, offering auto lights and wipers, keyless entry and sat-nav as part of its standard kit.

Overall, the 308 GTi is a terrific hot hatch in the classic mould, and it offers a lively, vibrant and distinctly sporting driving experience when compared to its range companions.

The lack of an auto option will, rightly or wrongly, diminish its appeal to Aussie performance car buyers, who are positively spoiled for choice when it comes to hot hatches.

The GTi’s $50,000-odd pricetag – which will be confirmed in October – places it in a contest with the more potent but less civilised Ford Focus RS, as well as in the frame with more refined, more powerful all-wheel-drive cars like the Volkswagen Golf R.

What neither of these competitors offer, however, is the true essence of the hot hatch that the French have managed to imbue its cars with since the 205 GTi of the mid-1980s.

The Pug cuts a path right between the frantic Focus and the refined Golf R that offers few compromises and more than a dash of individualism. Is it enough to overcome the lack of a self-shifter? Only time will tell, but the updated 308 GTi is a worthy addition to any hot hatch shopping list.

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