Track Test -- Peugeot 309 GTI 16V

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Unsold Peugeot Pleasure

In Britain, the Peugeot 309 GTI is the overlooked big brother of the chic 205 equivalent. Whereas approximately 10,000 205 GTIs are sold a year (of which the 130 bhp 1.9-litre version accounts for over 60%) the 309 GTI struggles to sell 1000 units per annum. Thus when Peugeot France decided to sell a comparatively specialist 16-valve derivative of the 309 in the summer of 1989, Peugeot UK could honestly advise the parent company of the projected poor return for the extensive outlay needed for a RHD derivative. So the 309 avec 16 soupapes remained for French gourmet consumption only.

In 1990/91 the alteration to the Esso Saloon Car Championship to bring it into line with international Group N rules (plus a few UK turbo restrictor quirks) brought a wider spread of competitors. Whilst Nissan (Skyline GTR) score outright victories in shorter events and BMW (M3) and Honda (Civic V-TEC) secure their respective classes ad infinitum, a third division is set against the backdrop of excellent inter-marque battles. These are between Vauxhall Astra GTEs, Golf GTIs and, during this season, a brace of Peugeot 309s equipped with the ex-Peugeot 405 Mi16 power plants.

It was one of the latter machines, property of George Hartwell in Bournemouth, rather than the works machine of Patrick Watts, that we tried. The venue was Donington, access to the track granted by courtesy of the 96 Club, entry to the car granted by Andrew Hartwell. The original ploy was that the author would test the car with a view to revisiting the annual Snetterton 24-hour race within its LHD cockpit, but Hartwell decided there are better things they can do with the necessary £8000 over a sunny summer weekend.

The opportunity to drive this rarely seen Peugeot, however, was grasped as we have always had the utmost respect for the stable speed hidden in the 309’s rather dowdy “Eurobox” lines. The Hartwell racing version builds upon the basic 158 bhp front-drive package, using the in-house expertise of former multiple Hillman Hartwell Imp competitor Ray Payne and the insight of Nigel Allen.

It was beautifully presented and proved the easiest racing saloon to conduct that I have encountered, standard power steering and light controls taking the strain in a deft manner that does credit to the mass production original.

In production form the 309-16 valve is credited with a 137 mph maximum from the 158 bhp provided at 6500 rpm from the 10.4:1cr 1905cc. Acceleration to 60 mph takes up to 7.5 seconds and 23.9 mpg was returned in ECE tests. Standard features also included 6 x 15 inch alloy wheels and a quartet of disc brakes, the fronts ventilated.

Production weight is recorded at 975kg/21451b, but the racing version tipped the scales at 1035kg at an early Silverstone meeting, significantly less than the factory 309. This was because the Hartwell car was built from a bare shell at Yortech (the Yorkshiremen under David Cook also fabricating the rugged rollcage), whilst the works entry appears to have been converted from a road car and includes undersealing.

Hartwell faced bills of £21,850 to construct the car and budgeted £96,000 to run the car for the 15-race season, excluding the initial car purchase price (unspecified) and a conversion charge for transporter and trailer, rather than a new purchase. Hefty individual hardware bills were centred on the suspension and transmission, rather than the traditional bonus horsepower expenditure. The suspension, including four gas damped Bilsteins and replacement of both torsion (rear) and coil front springs, swallowed £2500 in assembled form.

The factory limited slip differential of ZF origin and French supply only, was an outrageous £2000. So it was just as well that the peaky engine (6800 rpm marks a peak of 148 horsepower at the front slick tyres) and delightful five-speed gearbox utilised over 90 per cent standard components. Maximum torque is spread well through the range, but is not abundant at 1341b ft on 5000 rpm in standard trim.

Externally, a set of OZ wheels in standard sizes were to test both Avon and Dunlop rubber during the session, my six laps or so confined to Dunlops and standard Mintex linings that had already been badly faded by previous occupants. Internally the cabin was cleanly functional, the driver clasped by Recaro seat and a Willans harness whilst twiddling a fashionable suede-rim Momo wheel. Extra dials were confined to a supplementary oil pressure gauge; standard instrumentation advised us that just 112 mph was being reached on the main straight. This using a power band between 4500 and 7000 rpm, the latter figure imposed rather than 8000 in view of the car’s imminent racing prospects.

Donington is not a simple track, even in its shorter guise, but the white 309 made it appear so. Acceleration from the pits was delivered with zest and moderated wheelspin in the lower gears. Once in third it was obvious that the chassis would happily accommodate another 20 bhp, for you only have to acclimatise to the power-steered numbness and occasional front-drive weave during hard cornering before using full throttle for 95 per cent of cornering situations. The only defect seemed to be the way in which the rear brakes would grab, making fast entries to slower corners untidy.

Otherwise the Peugeot was as straightforwardly enjoyable to drive as you would expect from its road cousins. I am only surprised that the British factory does not seem to encourage privateers to run hard alongside the works team, a stark contrast to British rallying, in which Peugeot GTI Club Peugeots often save organisers the embarrassments of spindly entry lists. — JW