THEY MAY BE CALLED HOT HATCHBACKS, BUT THE SPICE UNDER THE BONNET OF THE PEUGEOT 308 GTi 270 AND VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI 40 YEARS IS ALMOST SECONDARY TO EACH EUROPEAN MANUFACTURER’S BURNING DESIRE FOR CLASS LEADERSHIP.
The 308 GTi 270 came seemingly from nowhere this year to deliver a mighty 200kW from just a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine teamed with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyre grip, big brakes and a front limited-slip differential.
Its rival Golf GTI Performance has long had the latter feature that helps give the loaded front wheel greater traction when powering out of a corner for a sizzling result, but its 2.0-litre turbo only made 169kW. Is it coincidental that this 40 Years special lifts power to 195kW - 213kW on overboost - to match or exceed the Pug?
As with the Peugeot, from $49,990 plus on-road costs, the limited-run Volkswagen comes with a six-speed manual (just 100 units, though) for $46,990 plus on-roads or 400 units with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic for $48,990 (plus orc). Only the latter DSG was available to test, and it narrows the pricing gap between the two rivals to $1K.
Both GTi and GTI aim to combine the everyday livability, practicality and design quality bestowed upon the distinctly European-flavoured 308 and Golf hatchbacks on which they’re based, with increased sporting attitude and aggression.
It’s this blend that leaves the Ford Focus RS off the table for this comparison test, at just over $50K and focusing (ahem) on hardcore virtues over all-round ability. The duo gathered here roll the dice to offer different combinations of premium spice.
Peugeot 308 GTi 270 - $49,990 (plus on-road costs)
Volkswagen Golf GTI 40 Years - $48,990 (plus on-road costs)
Volkswagen’s four-decade celebration since the inception of the Golf GTI is meant to have a stripped-back, semi-racecar feel to it. Without the weighty all-wheel drive hardware from the Golf R, yet packing its big brother’s meaty engine, the 40 Years becomes the German brand’s most powerful-ever front-drive hatch.
Sending drive to half the wheels means the 40 Years cannot match the 0-100km/h claim of the Golf R, but the 1357kg five-door can sprint to that increment in 6.3 seconds and it promises to be faster in rolling response when traction is less of an issue.
Despite the aggression of its aerodynamic bodykit, including horizontal multi-slat front bumper inserts and gloss-black roof spoiler, plus darkened LED tail-lights and an Alcantara steering wheel inside, the 40 Years still packs several convenience features that aren’t typically associated with a racetrack special.
Standard for Australia are three-mode adaptive suspension, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor and low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB) - all of which are unavailable in the Peugeot.
The 308 GTi 270 hits back with the unique addition of front parking sensors and gigantic 380mm front disc brakes, while a staggeringly light kerb weight of 1205kg helps it claim 0-100km/h in 6.0sec flat.
Both cars feature 19-inch alloy wheels, remote keyless auto-entry with push-button start, sizeable touchscreens with satellite navigation and Bluetooth/USB connectivity and dual-zone climate control air-conditioning.
Both hot hatchbacks attempt to look as good inside as they do on the outside, and that isn’t always true of vehicles in this segment that can skimp on cabin furnishings in a quest to deliver greater under-bonnet bang for the buck.
Peugeot has gone for a designer-chic, minimalist feel with its dashboard design.
Everything feels solid, white and red mood lighting washes over the nicely textured soft-touch plastics used throughout, while the part-leather/Alcantara sports seats grip snugly and the tiny steering wheel - for this tester at least - falls ideally to hand(s).
It should be noted, though, that some taller testers feel the tiller needs to be lowered too far in order to view the high-set instruments, which leaves it sitting in their lap. It doesn’t take long to spot other ergonomic issues with the 308 GTi 270, either.
A lack of cupholder and storage space grates slightly, but the all-in-one touchscreen is the real sore point. Packing climate controls with the audio and nav system on one screen is problematic enough, but the navigation of each menu proves perplexing.
For example, when plugging in an iPod and listening to a track by an artist beginning with ‘S’, switching to another track requires scrolling with your index finger all the way back through the alphabet to ‘A’ to find the button directing you to another sub-menu for an album or playlist. Our test car also suffered a glitchy nav, too.
The 40 Years initially seems more generic inside, but its design throws the 308’s issues into sharp relief.
Despite cramming in greater technology such as adaptive cruise, the Volkswagen’s steering wheel-mounted controls are more intuitive - and they illuminate at night unlike its rival’s - while its touchscreen is speedier responding to requests and boasts a much smarter layout overall. Switching between menus is a cinch.
Voice control and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology are also - again unlike the 308 - standard in every Golf GTI and they work a treat.
From the lick of red on each seatbelt to the ‘honeycomb’ cloth trim and dashboard inserts, the 40 Years still revels in the finer details to match its high-quality and extremely roomy cabin.
If you need to use the back seat often, then the Volkswagen steps further ahead. Its superbly padded rear seats are perfectly set for adult comfort, and it uniquely offers passengers rear air vents.
By comparison Peugeot bench is set lower, yet is less shapely and there’s less headroom and legroom overall, creating a more claustrophobic atmosphere.
The 308 GTi 270 offers a 470-litre boot volume, which is 90L larger than the Golf GTI 40 Years, but in reality there isn’t much difference there. Both have wide and square spaces with a wide loading aperture and split-fold backrest capability, which along with five doors provides a textbook definition of hot hatchback practicality.
ON THE ROAD
Accelerating in the 40 Years provides a newfound Golf GTI experience.
The smooth linearity of its evolved 2.0-litre turbo engines, a hallmark since the reborn Mk5 lobbed in 2005, has been replaced with an addictive thrust towards the top end of the tachometer.
An unchanged 350Nm is now provided over a wider rev band - an astonishingly broad 1700rpm to 5600rpm - while the 195kW now overlaps with the torque band, being on song from 5350rpm until 6600rpm.
But above three-quarter throttle and in second gear and beyond, the engine will provide 213kW/380Nm for 10 seconds.
Its rolling response leaves the 40 Years feeling fitter and faster than its performance claim and quicker than the R. There’s real personality to the turbo, too, with a creamy yet raunchy induction rasp overlaid with subtle burbles from the new sports exhaust. For best results, drive windows down.
Surprisingly the Pug’s nuggetty 1.6-litre is left feeling more linear. It’s meatier through the middle part of the rev range and is less frenetic at the top end. Neither engine suffers much turbo lag, and in the 308’s case its 330Nm is provided at just 1900rpm, while 200kW is delivered at 6000rpm.
Under full throttle the 270 has an even deeper, angrier and almost industrial sound to it compared with its rival. It’s equally as free revving, but the exhaust note is dull.
Leaving the suburbs, the fixed suspension underneath the Peugeot does a great job of quelling lumps and bumps, particularly given its use of low-profile rubber. It has a great mix of comfort and control that denigrates only marginally on the freeway or on rough roads at speed, where it becomes slightly too jiggly.
Volkswagen’s three-mode suspension, when set to the most aggressive Sport, basically mimics the way the 308 rides. Selecting Comfort or Normal mode backs off the stiffness, yet it never turns woozy. Sometimes the softest mode feels squidgy over successive road ruts, but this is nit-picking given that 90 per cent of the time this big-wheeled GTI rides with the soothing disposition of a low-end Golf.
Throw some fun cornering into the mix and the fabled Frenchie regains ground. Frankly, its front end poise is among the finest of any hot hatchback and sits reasonably well ahead of its German foe.
Ably supported by flawless Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, it often feels as though your face is falling off before grip gives up.
Getting stuck into a tightening-radius bend leaves you simply adding greater steering lock while the 308 GTi 270 only responds with immediacy, tenacity and without trace of tyre squeal or understeer.
The steering itself is so quick and pointy that it genuinely feels like you’re punting a go-kart. Yet even in Sport mode the Peugeot’s tiller can’t offer anything beyond that single party trick, being disappointingly feather-light and feedback-free beyond the initial bite, which is at odds with its actual response.
In fact, it’s the weighting of all the controls in the 308 GTi 270 that - as with the touchscreen ergonomics - is most disappointing.
Its manual gearshift is long-throw and a tad rubbery, yet its steering reacts immediately then segues into emptiness, and the brakes are bitey (though they certainly bite hard). The throttle is dull in normal mode, yet becomes far too sensitive in Sport for anything other than vigorous driving.
Meanwhile the 40 Years rolls on 10mm-narrower, 225mm-wide Pirelli P Zero Nero rubber, and whether they’re under greater pressure from a heavier car or simply lack grip by comparison we can’t be sure, but either way they squeal and give up earlier.
On the upside the Volkswagen has the more interactive chassis, making greater use of its rear when turning into a bend and responding to a lift of the throttle by tightening its line before it starts to understeer (which it will, earlier).
Its steering isn’t as pointy as its rival’s, just as its front end response isn’t as crushingly tight, but the response from the tiller is far more impressive thanks to creamy smooth and consistent medium weighting.
But both the Golf and 308 could ultimately be more playful again - their smaller Polo GTI and 208 GTi 30th Anniversary siblings certainly are.
Each drive out of corners with similar ferocity, thanks to their limited-slip differentials, and both can be tripped up by really tight bends that would have an all-wheel drive car feeling like a slingshot while this duo scrabble for grip. The diffs are great, but they aren’t an immaculate cure-all; they require patience.
Nor is the Volkswagen perfect in all other areas.
Its DSG works brilliantly at speed, with rapid response to the paddleshifters in manual mode, but around town the automatic’s normal mode makes the drivetrain feel loose and dull as it assumes tall gears at all times. And yet the alternative Sport mode leaves revs hanging incessantly; for example, at 60km/h normal takes sixth gear, yet Sport holds fourth, when what you ideally want is fifth.
To make matters worse, Sport mode isn’t truly aggressive enough out in driving country where it should shine. Let’s light this up on a neon sign: buy a Golf GTI manual, please.
The 2.0-litre turbo was also thirstier on test, gulping 10.2 litres of premium unleaded per 100 kilometres, versus the 1.6-litre turbo’s parsimonious 8.7L/100km.
TMR VERDICT | Who wins the ‘hot hatch match’?
On the right road and in the perfect moment, the Peugeot 308 GTi 270 is the greater driver’s car of these two hot hatchbacks. Its ability to feel light, grip tight and go hard is the stuff of which spicy legends are made.
It would win this comparison if its controls were in order - it really needs sweeter steering, a nicer gearshift action and less grabby brakes – but its ergonomic, equipment and space deficits are other issues that cement its loss. In a whole week’s driving, this particular Peugeot 205 GTI owner never gelled with it.
Today’s Volkswagen Golf GTI isn’t just an all-rounder like models of yesteryear.
The ferocious engine of the 40 Years is fantastic, and when you start to boogie with the creamy steering and sweetly balanced chassis – though we would fit better tyres - the whole package comes together as a terrific, if still-subtle driver’s car.
It’s simply one that happens to seat everyone comfortably and ride beautifully, with plenty of technology, while - past experience reliably informs us - offering one of the true great manual shift actions all for $47K. It’s an anniversary special that deserves a ‘three cheers’ and paves the way for a promising Volkswagen hot hatch future.
- Peugeot 308 GTi 270 – 3.5 stars
- Volkswagen Golf GTI 40 Years – 4.5 stars
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