It all started back in 1984 with the legendary hot hatch that was the Peugeot 205 GTI. Here we aim to show off the cars that spawned after that, and pay a suitable tribute to the wonderful GTI cars that the French manufacturer has produced in the 30 years of the Peugeot GTI. Inevitably, they are all compared to the original 205 GTI as that was -and still is- the hot hatch benchmark. In a slight twist, we'll start in the present day and work backwards to the legend that started it all.
1984-1994: Peugeot 205 GTI
Finally, and the pick of all GTIs (not just Peugeot ones either), the 205. Released in 1984, this pretty little pocket rocket had all the style and panache that the French are known for - and it was more than £1,000 cheaper than a Golf GTI.
In the beginning, it was launched with a 1.6L 105bhp engine, which was later revised to 115bhp. It was incredibly light-weight at 850kg and the power to weight ratio was fantastic. The ratio increased still further with the introduction of a 1.9L 130bhp power plant in December 1986. Arguments in pubs and internet forums still rage today about which was the better engine, with fans of the 1.6 arguing that despite being slower than the 1.9, is was a sweeter engine which suited the characteristics of the car better - not to mention the 50kg weight saving over the 1.9.
The extremely low weight was one of the brilliant things about the 205 GTI, as it contributed to the scintillating handling the car is known for. It corners flat with very little body roll, and the front wheels respond to every single input made via the particularly small steering wheel. It has been said that the wheel wasn't the main method of steering input, as pushing or releasing the tiny accelerator pedal would make as much difference to the direction of travel. 205s were infamous for the lift-off oversteer that came standard with every model (not just the GTI) but it was one of the qualities that made it so much fun to drive.
Later models came with upgraded suspension components that significantly improved the ride quality, and even high mileage examples can fetch over £6,000 in today's market - almost as much as its 1980s purchase price.
If there were any bad points about the 205, they were to be found inside the cabin. Interior materials were not even up to already low 1980s standards. The 205 was also not the best car to find yourself in should you have an accident, the whole car was one big crumple zone. But these faults should not detract from a car that single-handedly changed the image of Peugeot, who at the time were considered to be a bit 'run-of-the-mill'.
Several media outlets still claim to this day that it is the best hot hatch of all time, and it is very difficult to argue with that.
1987-1993 Peugeot 309 GTI
The Peugeot 309 GTI was -and still is- considered to be a poor relation to the 205 that has thrilled the world ever since it was launched. The 309 wasn't even meant to be a Peugeot when it was conceived, it was designed to be the replacement for the Talbot Horizon, but Peugeot bosses made the call at the last minute to axe Talbot and so the 309 was born.
Despite sitting on a stretched 205 platform, the shell was not designed by Pininfarina like the rest of Peugeot's model line-up at the time. It was instead designed (and built) in the UK and it just didn't look anywhere near as good as the 205 did. Launched as a 3dr initially and later morphed into a 5dr, it was boxy and fussy - it simply lacked style.
However, because it borrowed so many parts from the 205 GTI (including the engine and gearbox) it still drove just as well. It was sensational, and some people even claim that it is even better to drive than a 205 because of the longer wheelbase that resulted in more even weight distribution, relieving the old 205 GTI problem of snap lift-off oversteer.
Compared with the other vehicles of the time such as the Ford Escort XR3i and Vauxhall Astra GTE, it just didn't look good enough to compete, though it was still a better drive than its nearest rivals.
It was discontinued in 1993 in preparation for a serious return to design-form (and logical numbering) with the 306 - which was later developed into the 306 GTI-6.
1996-2003 Peugeot 106 GTI
Built in conjunction with the Citroen Saxo VTS, the 106 was actually slower to 60mph than a car with the exact same engine and body (apart from the bumpers), but the Saxo simply had a very long 2nd gear - presumably just to bring down the 0-60mph time. Peugeot however stuck to their 'drive of your life' principles and used slightly shorter ratios, making the car more satisfying to drive. It simply had more class than the Saxo.
Interior quality was again poor but the ride was excellent and the handling was straight out of the 205 textbook, leading Clarkson to state that it felt like it was rear wheel drive - the highest award you could bestow upon a FWD car. It had excellent front grip and could easily embarrass bigger, costlier hot hatches on long twisty roads.
On top of all the hot-hatch performance and handling brilliance, it was small enough to drive round town and big enough to fit a family in, with a practical boot and decent interior space.
1997-2003 Peugeot 306 Phase 2 GTI-6
Although the Phase 1 model was a good looking car, the phase 2 model was even prettier and its looks have stood the test of time wonderfully.
Released in 1997, the GTI-6 was called so as it had an excellent 6-speed gearbox mated to its 2.0L engine - a first for the class- that was engineered by Peugeot's motorsport division. You could definitely tell, cog changes were quick, precise and smooth; leading some journalists to proclaim that it is the best gearbox ever fitted to a road-going Peugeot.
That gearbox, mated with the free-revving 2.0L 4cyl 167bhp engine, was a fantastic combination that made for yet another hot Peugeot hatch that was great to drive. There was nothing fancy about the suspension set up, but because it stuck to the lightweight principles of the 205 and 309, it had all the responsiveness and agility of its predecessors. It weighed just over 1200kg, and this made for an extremely involving driving experience, and at the time it won virtually all the hot-hatch group tests conducted by the car magazines in the 90s.
Peugeot 206 GTI 180 2003-2007
The 180 also received more aggressive styling, including a bigger rear spoiler, body coloured bumpers and bigger alloy wheels - nobody could say that it didn't look like a GTI anymore.
Those 180 horses definitely improved things, as it was now a quick car. Peak power came high up in the rev range and there was joy to be found from thrashing the engine enough to find it. However the 5-speed 'box wasn't up to the standards of the 6-speed in the 306 GTI-6, and this let the driving experience down.
The handling was good if not great, and it lacked to sparkle of previous GTIs. Unfortunately for Peugeot, it was possible to find this sparkle in the RenaultSport Clio 172/182, and that car was now the new benchmark for hot-hatch handling.
The 206 was not without its merits, though, it was very well equipped and it had quite a supple ride despite the beefed-up suspension and larger alloys on the 180. It was more refined but regrettably this came at the expense of driving fun.
Peugeot 207 GTI THP 175 2007-2009
That engine however was a 1.6L THP (turbo high pressure) unit and developed a not insignificant 173bhp. Even more significant however was the 177lb ft. of torque that it possessed, and that that it was available from low-down in the rev-range, giving it a totally different character to the engine in the 206 GTI. The engine is the highlight of the whole car, and it is no coincidence that it was co-developed with BMW, who used it in the MINI Cooper-S. It offered good power, strong torque and good fuel efficiency - something never previously associated with Peugeot GTI models.
When it was launched, Peugeot claimed the 207 GTI was their hottest ever hatch and that it was 'just as exhilarating' as the 205. Unfortunately this was not the case. While the front end provided good grip, the steering was electrically powered and though accurate it provided very little in terms of feel. Further gripes included a suspension setup that managed to be harsh but still allow body roll in the corners meant it was not as fun as a 205, but then again, nothing built ever since has been.
It was however a great improvement over the 206 GTI 180 and if Peugeot can carry on the upward trajectory, perhaps one day we will see a true homage to the legendary 205 GTI.
Peugeot 208 GTI 2013-Current
The Peugeot 208 is certainly a return to form for Peugeot and their GTI range. It's 165kg lighter than the previous 207 GTI 175 and you can really feel the difference, particularly in the bends.
With stiffer anti-roll bars, sports springs and upgraded dampers, the car grips brilliantly around corners. One thing that modern cars have over the 80s and 90s stuff is the use of clever electronics. The 208 does without a mechanical limited-slip differential, instead using electronic stability control to redistribute torque to the wheel that has the most grip. The 205 can't do that can it? It corners flat and true and has managed to regain some of the suppleness of previous cars, too.
Both the exterior and the cabin are rife with GTI cues. Outside, there's a large rear spoiler, 17" alloys, racey red calipers and a new front grill that apparently resembles a chequered flag (?). Inside, there is red trim on the dash and dials, a metallic effect gear knob, alloy pedals and a prominent GTI badge on the steering wheel. Red stitching on the seats and dashboard completes the effect.
EVO magazine declared it as the best Peugeot hot hatch in years (presumably since the 306 GTI-6). It is the choice of the hot-hatch enthusiast that also has a more grown-up streak, with the 208 GTI offering more refinement than its rivals, particularly at cruising speeds. The engine is a gem and it's fairly economical considering the sheer pace that it provides.
The 208 is probably the best all-round GTI offering that Peugeot has ever made. It's faster, safer, more economical and more refined that any other Peugeot to bear the GTI badge before it.