Sixth gear makes new Peugeot even better

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Peugeot’s 306 GTi 6 may not be the greatest hot hatch in the world but it’s the best on sale today. Andrew Frankel reports

Since the launch of the 205GTI in 1984, Peugeot has defined the state of the hot hatchback art. Many have challenged, notably VW whose Golf, having been forced to give way to the Peugeot, refused to give up even after it was beaten; Renault and Fiat too have built a string of quick shopping cars. But none has even come close to the consistency or depth of Peugeot’s performance.

This is a tedious state of affairs. Peugeot’s once bright new talent has become the establishment. And, if this new 306 GTi 6, complete with its 167bhp, 2-litre motor and six speed ‘box, is any guide, it’s a situation that seems likely to continue.

The 306 S16, which it replaces, was a fine and well-rounded competitor, to which the GTi 6 adds an edge of raw excitement it had lacked. The twin-cam, 16-valve motor has received fresh cams, manifolds and a revised cylinder head design complete with lighter, reduced-friction timing gear pushing power up by 12bhp and the rev-limit to 7300rpm.

The real news, however, is in the gearbox. Far from simply tacking an overdrive onto the existing ratios, Peugeot has taken the opportunity to do the job properly and has squeezed all six gears into almost exactly the same ratio span as the previous five. And while top is now a little taller, spinning the front wheels 21.5mph faster for every 1000rpm added compared to the 20.2mph of old, first is longer too. This means that, at its claimed maximum of 137mph, the powerplant is spinning to within 100rpm of its power peak.

These changes to engine and gearbox have improved the driving enjoyment offered by the top of the range 306 far more than these bald facts might suggest. What they cannot even hint at is the 306’s newfound smoothness and character. Where this engine was criticised for being coarse and unwilling to rev, now it flips past 7000rpm at the slightest opportunity, sounding and feeling never less than smooth and fit for the challenge.

To be honest, it doesn’t really need the extra gear, but perhaps that’s not quite the way to look at it. Technically superfluous it may be, but great fun it also is. With a gearchange quality matched to the weight of the flywheel, it effectively removes all inter-ratio pauses and creates the illusion of surging relentless performance.

And it is an illusion, as Peugeot’s 0-62mph claim of 8.5sec makes clear. That’s slower, for instance, than 205GTi 1.9 of a decade ago. This doesn’t matter as the quality of the performance more than makes up for a lack of outright pace.

Gratifyingly, the new drivetrain makes better use of the chassis which always felt underemployed. Mixing agility with an on-limit security that anyone coming from a 205 would scarce believe, it handles delightfully with a pleasant but not overwhelming level of grip and degree of balance and adjustability that flies in the face of the physics of its nose-heavy configuration.

The downsides to the 306 GTi 6 are equally clear. The £16,675 list price plunges the little Peugeot into BMW territory where, in particular, the cheaper and better built if slower and less fun 318Ti Compact resides. The interior, while suitably frill-free in cheaper models, looks rather shabby in such company.

Nevertheless, as the GTI breed clambers once more from the rubble of its fallen empire as the transport choice for those with a budget, sense of humour and a deadline, the car that advances the game further than this is not yet on the horizon.

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