Launch Drive: 2016 Peugeot 308 GTi

Launch Drive: 2016 Peugeot 308 GTi

I’m walking through the pit area of the Circuito Vasco Sameiro racetrack in Braga, Portugal, trying my best not to look nervous.

Even though the weather is cool, with a mist that doggedly hangs around tree height, my shirt is already starting to cling to my back with perspiration. Small groups of officials stand about drinking ridiculously strong espressos.

With their designer sunglasses in place and white shirts adorned with sponsors’ logos, they are preparing for another rotation of journalists who have flown in from around the world. I begin to wonder if the fuzziness I’m feeling is the result of jet lag or because the helmet feels too tight. Mind you, no time to worry about that now.

A glance to the right and there they are — a line of Peugeot 308 GTi’s ready to set this track alight. To the left is a church crowned with a large cross. I take this as a good omen for the morning ahead — but then the racetrack jitters overwhelm me again.

With the driver briefing complete, it’s time to get down to business —five laps of a track that has the distinction of hosting European Touring Car Cup races. The sports seats —covered in a mixture of leather and faux suede with plenty of red stitching — offer excellent lateral support. Once I’m strapped in, I push a button and the engine comes to life.

It’s a rather subdued sound, a sound that doesn’t quite justify the performance experienced in the car the day before when completing a 300km loop from the city of Porto. The words spoken by Peugeot product and events manager Gaëtan Demoulin come to mind: “This is a car built for everyday use but with the performance to enjoy on the track.”

And enjoy it I was determined to do. Obviously, the Sport button is engaged, and immediately the instruments glow red in anger; the engine sound is fed into the car via the speakers, and information relating to power, torque, turbo pressure and lateral and longitudinal acceleration is displayed.

The first lap is a recce to enable the drivers to get their lines right when entering and exiting any one of the 15 turns thrown their way. Already, though, I feel the other drivers pulling away. Hit the straight for the start of the second lap and the fun begins! It’s a whirl of emotions, because your driving skills are on display for all to see.

Brake too early before throwing the car into a corner and you risk going around it as slowly as Miss Daisy. Brake too late and chances are you will end up in the kitty litter. The 19-inch aluminium Carbone wheels swathed in Michelin rubber are running hot as I push the car to my limits at least . . . a stream of expletives filling the cabin as I regularly hit the red line.

Braking is excellent, courtesy of 380mm carbon discs up front and 268mm at the back. The car handles superbly: responsiveness at low revs is out of the top drawer. The car’s agility is notable, with the front hunkering down in the turns as you chop up and down the six-speed manual gearbox. Short, sharp punches are all it takes.

And then, just as quickly as the mist lifts, my brief stint as a racing driver comes to an end and I’m back in the pits. Last week’s launch of the Peugeot 308 GTi heralded the arrival of two models — one containing a 184kW engine, the other a slightly more powerful 200kW version, and it is the latter that will be coming to South Africa towards the end of next year.

The Reason we will only be getting the 200kW 308 GTi is because of the limited number of cars Peugeot sells in this country. Design-wise, the vehicle looks very similar to the 308 GT and GT-Line that were launched earlier this year, but there are plenty of clues that this is a step up. First, the GTi sits 11mm lower than its siblings.

And to help cool the superb 1.6 THP engine (the acronym stands for Turbo High Pressure), there are large air intakes on the front grilles, and two front spoilers below the bumper to assist with aerodynamics. The car sports LED head and tail-lights, and two exhaust pipes poke out of a gloss-black extractor.

Of course there are the obligatory GTi badges sprinkled about, but the overall appearance is thankfully quite understated — possibly because the engineers wanted to let the engine do the talking. And talk it certainly does: this is the company’s fastest production hot hatch, boasting the same turbocharged four-cylinder engine found in the potent RCZ R — which isn’t sold in this country.

Much is still made of the 308’s compact flat-bottomed steering wheel — complete with GTi logo — and that debate is unlikely to dissipate with the arrival of the GTi. Yes, the wheel is small — 351mm x 329mm — the size obviously having to do with helping to provide a race car experience. But some critics claim that the size of the steering wheel blocks the driver’s view of the instrument panel.

However, Peugeot’s technical staff are quick to point out that with a combination of seat adjustments and a steering wheel that can be adjusted in reach and rake, most drivers will achieve an ideal driving position so shouldn’t have any problem seeing the instruments. What is not in dispute is the quality and aesthetics of the GTi’s interior.

As with the other two models making up the 308 range, the dashboard is a minimalist’s dream: there is barely a switch or a dial in sight. Taking centre stage is a 9.7-inch touch screen that hosts the majority of functions —dual air-conditioning, navigation, and so on. The result is clutter-free functionality at its best, made of the highest quality materials.

In addition to being used on the seats, red stitching features on the dashboard, door panels, gear lever and floor mats, contrasting strongly with the black background. Keeping With the race-car theme, you also have the foot rest, gear knob and pedals in aluminium.

One aspect of the GTi that is bound to get people talking is the unusual option when it comes to exterior colours. On offer — besides the more predictable blue, white and grey — is “Coupe Franche”: two contrasting colours in Ultimate Red and Perla Nera Black. The result is . . . let’s just say it’s quite different.

The GTi badge has been in the Peugeot stable for years. Think back to the 205 GTi, 309 GTi and, more recently, the 208 GTi. Proud times associated with a proud manufacturer. A torch the new 308 GTi continues to carry.

-Bruce Fraser