Road impressions: Peugeot 309 GTi

Fabrique en Angleterre

The resurgence of the Peugeot name has been an impressive phenomenon lately, with the handsome 205 in the vanguard. The volume saloon which has consolidated sales in the small car sector, the 309, is not in the same league for visual appeal, despite their common front end, but new glamour has been introduced, and some gaps plugged, with several new arrivals.

Available in five-door form only until now, the three-box Peugeot now comes minus two doors if preferred: three of these are simply good family cars of 1.1 or 1.3 litres, but two fuel-injected variants help to push the car into more interesting areas. The XS Injection uses the 115 bhp 1580cc engine of the 309 SR, and shares the wider tyres and sporty extras of that model. But above this again is the 128 mph GTi.

It is not a new recipe; this overtly sporting package has smart alloy wheels, deeper airdam-type bumpers and side-strips, a rear spoiler, spot and fog-lamps, a special steering wheel, and sport seats — all those items which are expected in the apparently ever-expanding sports-hatch market.

But it is not just the cosmetics which count, because the standard of performance also rises steadily — not necessarily in terms of outright acceleration, but in the overall ability of these small multi-purpose cars to cruise all day at very high speeds, to start immediately in filthy weather, to run reliably without attention for thousands of miles, and all the time to prove comfortable and ever more economical to drive; features which once appeared to be directly opposed to the characteristics of a sportscar.

Thus it is actually the invisible work under the skin on which the latest pretender to the class must be judged. Wide tyres and deep spoilers are all bad for a car's drag, but Peugeot has used its wind-tunnel to minimise this by adding fairings under engine and body, extra seals around the doors, a boot-top rear spoiler, and sealing the gap between the rear bumper and the body.

Under the bonnet is the 130 bhp engine used in the 205 1.9 GTi, giving a 0-62 mph time of a mere 8.0 sec and a claimed average of 36 mpg. The sohc unit has an integral oil-cooler and packs its maximum torque of 121 lb ft at a relatively high 4750 rpm; it likes to be revved hard to keep the pressure up. 185/55 VR15 tyres are controlled by comfortably-geared power-steering, while the drum rear brakes of lesser models are supplanted by discs, and the fronts are ventilated. What Peugeot calls "sporty velour", actually quite tasteful, adorns the cabin, while electric windows and locks and a sunroof are optional extras.

Quite why a perfectly respectable saloon should have to lose two doors to be considered sporting eludes me, but of course a three-door shell is just a little lighter and in the figures war every fraction counts. Only the Fiat Strada Abarth can match the 309 GTi on acceleration, with the new 2-litre Astra GTE a little behind, and even the 16-valve Golf cannot match this flying twosome.

But while the Fiat is a raucous racer with a rock-hard ride, the 309 GTi delivers its punch smoothly and quietly, with a placid deportment which belies how hard the tyres are working. Roll is acceptable, and noise levels are low, while the quick gearchange is a welcome asset. Overall balance is good enough to enable the driver to keep his foot on the throttle through some very tight bends without overreaching the limits of front-end grip.

It is a package which is strong in performance and refinement, but perhaps lacking in style — the 205 is a truly handsome little car, but the boot and heavy rear window of its three-box brother sit a little oddly. However, those who wanted a 205 GTi but could not fit enough people or freight in and turned to the Golf, or perhaps the Ford XR3i, can now indulge both sides of the equation.

And it is built in Britain. The Ryton plant near Coventry has been producing LHD 309s since November 1985, and home-market cars since September of last year, and the new models will be added to the home-built range ready for sale in April/May. Prices are still to be announced. GC