At first glance, the Peugeot 308 GTi 270 might not look like a direct rival for Honda’s Civic Type R that snatched the Nurburgring lap record for front-wheel-drive cars in 2015. But rivals they are – and ones that only serve to represent the huge breadth of talent that currently occupies the hot hatch class.
That the two have travelled from different ends of the sporty-hatch spectrum is abundantly clear when you park them side by side. Only careful examination reveals the GTi’s 19-inch alloy wheels, generously sized twin exhaust pipes and subtly revised bumpers, but an untrained eye could easily mistake it for a cheaper and less potent model.
By contrast, the Honda comes sporting an aerodynamics package that might have been prised from a touring car in transit. A twin element rear spoiler, ground-scraping front bumper, huge vented wheel arches and no less than four exhaust pipes make it clear the Type R means business. Its styling isn’t for everyone. Girlfriends call it puerile, older family members recoil and entry-level-Audi owners make it their mission to pass you.
Fortunately, they quickly learn this is not possible. While Honda fans will lament the loss of a VTEC-initiated step in performance at high revs (it still exists – but ironically to save fuel) they’ll be hard pushed to argue with the benefits of turbocharging that sees the Honda’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine thump out 310hp and 295Ib ft of torque.
Not too long ago the 270hp and 243Ib ft of pulling power served up by the Peugeot would have seemed crazy in a front-wheel-drive hatchback – even now the figures are very impressive for a 1.6-litre engine – but they put the Peugeot at a distinct disadvantage here.
Pray for dry weather (we did, but to no avail), drop the clutch and the Honda will launch itself from 0-62mph in just 5.7 seconds, and if you have access to an airfield or a flagrant disregard for your licence (and liberty) it will keep on going until it hits a top speed of 167mph. It’s the mid-range punch that really puts the Civic into class of its own here, allowing it to devour huge lines of traffic in one safe overtake. Sadly, though, there’s no great aural pleasure in working the engine hard, although there’s no denying it sounds purposeful.
Down on power and torque, the Peugeot’s performance is noticeably less urgent, as its 0-62mph time of six seconds and 155-mph top speed attests. But it is easier to manage, with the throttle requiring less careful modulation to nail a smooth getaway and, though its engine sounds a little wheezy next to the Honda’s, pops from the exhaust as you work through the gearbox prove the GTi is still in touch with its playful side.
Much of the same can be said when it comes to corners, where the Honda’s quicker – no contest – but demands more attention to get the best out of it. Both cars feature a grip-finding limited-slip differential that helps them catapult out of corners with impressive ferocity but, while in the Peugeot you’d be hard pushed to notice it working, in the Honda it snatches over cambers and can suffer from tram lining under hard acceleration.
Both cars’ setups offer a degree of adjustability. In the Peugeot that comes via a prolonged push of the centre-console-located Sport button that adds weight to the steering and sharpens up the engine’s response.
But it has nothing like the effect you get from a single prod of the Honda’s R button, which tellingly is located prominently in your line of sight just to the right of the instrument binnacle. It too sharpens the throttle and adds significant weight to the steering, but also stiffens the Type R’s already hard suspension by 30 per cent. Engaged, it transforms the Civic into something of a road-legal race car – all but eliminating body lean and making it exceptionally eager in corners. The payoff is a ride that makes the Peugeot feel luxurious, and one that’s not ideally suited to the UK’s bumpy B roads – in fact, even motorway lumps can knock the Civic off course with alarming regularity.
That’s all well and good when you’re in the mood, but not so great when you simply want to get from A to B with as little fuss as possible. That’s where the 308 excels. Its subtle styling means that it blends into the automotive undergrowth without provoking the reactions that the Type R seemingly revels in.
While its interior might lack the drama of the Honda’s, it’s easier to live with everyday thanks to a driver’s seat that’s far easier to get in and out of – although it would be unfair not to mention the Honda’s superior rear passenger space and huge boot. And, while the Peugeot’s steering may not be a patch on the Honda’s when it comes to entertaining, it can at least handle mini roundabouts without resorting to three-point turns with comic regularity. Finally, there’s the 308’s fuel economy, which is officially 10mpg better than what the Honda offers – although we still struggled to get the Peugeot to deliver more than 29mpg even on long motorway runs.
For enthusiasts, though, the Honda’s many compromises will be worth it for owning a car that, in lapping the Nurburgring in just 7 min 50.6 seconds, humbled a near-endless list of more exotic vehicles. From Corvettes and Ferraris, to the old Porsche 911 Turbo and the current BMW M5 – all have been scalped by this relatively affordable Japanese hatchback.
If you believe (and we do) that hot hatches are all about bringing supercar looks and performance to the masses – the Civic Type R can be the only winner here. Whether it can conquer the new Ford Focus RS is a question for another day, but one we hope to answer very soon.