Glorious Goodwood in one of the last remaining 309GTIs. Despite being even better to drive than a 205 GTI, the 309 has dwindled. Here’s why it needs saving. It’s lived in the shadow of its little brother since birth. Time the Peugeot 309 GTI got some love before it’s too late. Words Joe Breeze Photography. Jonathan Fleetwood.
ENDANGERED SPECIES: 309 GTI SAVE OUR SIBLINGS
By the 1990s, the ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra had evolved. Not only did racing success allow carmakers to sell cars off the back of a competition link – however tenuous – but it had evolved into an excuse to boost sales figures with celebratory special editions. Step forward the Peugeot 309 GTI Goodwood, released to celebrate the model’s triumph in the 1991 Esso Superlube Saloon Car Championship. Genuine though the link between Patrick Watts winning Pug and the showroom version may have been, the production-based championship didn’t include the then-defunct West Sussex circuit in its calendar.
Despite the Gallic badge on the GTI’s nose, the 309 celebrated its inherent Britishness* by revisiting the golden era of wood-rim wheels and rich green paintwork; questionable build quality was a coincidental carry-forward. With no searing GTI16 variant offered in the UK, the Goodwood was the ultimate version of the car that won numerous hot hatch awards on these shores. So why have so few been saved?
*Yes, Britishness. You see, while that rearing lion hails from a homeland most commonly associated with garlic saturation and dodgy automotive electronics, the 309 was more British than poisson et frites. It was designed in Coventry and assembled in Ryton, and a handle bar moustache-hair away from being sold under the London founded Talbot marque as a successor to the Horizon (see last month’s issue) before a last-second bigwig backtrack. The Goodwood GTI embraced the Peugeot 309’s second nationality even further by adding a generous smattering of garnish anglaise.
Catching your eye on approach is the Metallic Pinewood Green paintwork – a modern take on BRG – with chrome lipped anthracite Speedline alloys that appropriately set the tone of stifled aggression (how very us). Frenchness is still evident, though; you’ll clock the quad Cibié driving lights in the air dammed front bumper from the regular GTI, and open a driver’s door bereft of any form of reassuring solidity (incidentally, whether you chose your GTI in three- or five-door flavour, the doorpans were a direct carry-over from the 205 to save money, which many believe came at the expense of proportional harmony). Get in and your backside is greeted not by cheap fabric with some sort of tragically dated pattern, but by a well bolstered chair swathed in black leather upholstery – although admittedly it does feel a little downmarché.
Settle in and your paws land on the other Goodwood specific festoonery: an aluminium-bossed wood-rimmed steering wheel and a matching timber-topped gearlever, recalling those fitted to the type of machinery Stirling Moss and his ilk danced around this circuit in its pre-1966 heyday. At least that was the idea; in reality they look a bit aftermarket even if they do feel good in your palms.
Fire the 1.9-litre four-cylinder the 309 GTI shares with the brawnier version of its baby brother, and you’re greeted by a metallic rasp that reverberates around the slim-pillared cabin as you pull away. Visibility is excellent, and although the engine can be tetchy below 2000rpm and the throttle a touch too sensitive to crawl smoothly, low-speed manoeuvres are helped by the standard-equipment power steering. It was merely a cost option on the 205 GTI, and a rarely specced one at that.
The stretched 205 floorpan added a couple of centimetres to the boot via a longer wheelbase, which already benefited from the 90° tilting of the rear torsion bar suspension’s shock absorbers. Open the fifth door and you’ll find – in addition to the Goodwood edition’s newfangled six-disc CD changer –much more room to fit whatever else an aspirational professional with circa £14.5k to spare in 1992 might have desired. So, the practicality round of a sibling showdown would go to the more mature if slightly dowdier big brother, but if we’re honest that’s not really a hot hatch’s raison d’être. No, cars like this capture we enthusiasts’ imaginations with their dynamic capabilities; anything else is a bonus.
With our Anglo-French subject’s drivetrain nice and toasty it’s time to lean on the greasy bits. The 309’s barely insulated cabin is a forum of encouragement as you start to stretch the engine, which is tilted back towards the bulkhead for better balance, and sounds so close that you wonder whether you should be wearing knuckle guards and knee pads. It’s cam my in its delivery, with power coming in at 3500-4000rpmand peaking soon afterwards, but there’s a tinge of disappointment in the upper reaches. The tone becomes a tinny metallic cry, and only having a single cam it tails off without straining at the limiter. Between low-down grumbles and redline disinterest you’re encouraged to work within the midrange, where the fuel-injected engine is happiest.
As a result you’ll be rowing through the gearbox like an Oxbridge boatman (a special edition trick missed perhaps), but that’s no bad thing. While a little long of throw by today’s standards, the 309 GTI’s gearchange is one of the best not only of the era, but in the business. The closely spaced ratios are spot-on, and are helpfully calibrated so the speedo nudges 62mph at the top end of second gear rather than the lower reaches of third, allowing it to clawback precious fractions of a second when pitted against more powerful rivals in period. Peugeot claimed eight seconds dead; period tests showed that to be a tad optimistic.
But traffic light grands prix and the gridded street layouts that spawn them are for Americans; this is Britain, and we specialise in B-roads. On a twistier stretch, the 309’s dynamic repertoire becomes a concert. Its 950kg gives a respectable starting point of 137bhp per tonne, but the magic is in the honed chassis balance and suspension wizardry. Grip is prodigious, and if you can find a 205 GTI owner who can stop banging on about the value of their car for a few minutes, they might let you into the little secret that many of them have been upgraded with 309 lower front wishbones. The wider track coupled with the longer wheelbase and better weight distribution means the 309 is equally agile but more malleable on the limit; in the right hands, big brother could take a 205 back to school. There was a reason why the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad put 100,000miles on a 309 GTI in the 1990s, and we doubt it was British solidity.
Yes, it’s more than willing to tuck its nose in and splay its truncated tail if you’re a bit too abrupt with amid-corner throttle lift, but not to the alarming extent that gave little brother the widow making reputation to rival a Porsche 911 930. The 309’s more direct steering, and the layer of feeling stripped out by hydraulically assisting it, gives the handling a darty edge compared to its direct rivals, the eagerness giving way to a nervous disposition when you’re really pressing on. All control inputs must be measured in order to keep cornering arcs clean, and any rashness or indecision is punished more harshly than it would be in, say, a Golf GTI or Astra GTE.
The upshot is that the 309 rewards confidence and concentration in a way its contemporaries don’t. Stringing together a few well-executed corners to form a single systematic sequence is up there with life’s most satisfying experiences – file it next to ‘sweetly caught volley’, ‘argument-ending comeback’ and ‘post-vindaloo toilet trip’. And you’ll feel like you’ve had a cardiovascular workout afterwards, too. Thrills at (mostly) legal speeds and a healthy heart, what’s not to love?
Well, don’t expect to alight feeling relaxed just because you’ve not been in B-road attack mode. While the 309 boasts ride quality that cossets way above a hot hatch’s station, and one of the new-fangled fifth ratios that had only just become ‘a thing’ in the early 1990s, this is no cruiser. The engine hum that penetrates the cabin is inoffensive enough, but the exhaust note can soon become a wearing drone and keeping the car on course can be too demanding of your concentration. You’re also perched too high in the cabin to ever feel truly ‘at one’ with the car – a hair-gel-on-the-headlining problem for six-footers – and the low-angled steering column has zero adjustability.
But these are minor flaws, and shouldn’t be enough to put you off considering a 309 GTI. It’s a thrilling drive in a practical package, with genuine competition pedigree and a burgeoning ability to turn heads. And in Goodwood form As more than a third of survivors are – it has an extra touch of class and collectability about it. Only 398 were made; not even 10% remain.
While 205 GTI survivors are still comfortably in four figures, big brother is fast becoming an endangered species with fewer than 100 left in the UK. Yet the vanishingly rare 309 GTI will still set you back roughly half of what an equivalent 1.9-litre 205 will. If you’ve been frustrated by the seeming lack of modern-classic performance bargains, it’s time to act now before another one passes you by.
The Modern Classics View
The 309GTI may not have the Pininfarina-perfect proportions or fire-spitting Group B connotations that its little brother trades on so heavily today, but it has no lack of the qualities that have traditionally turned a forgotten relic into a rarefied classic. As well as being more accomplished than the 205 – in terms of both everyday practicality and on-limit predictability – it has pedigree, the respect of those in the know, and modern rarity. Values are future roofed b attrition rates alone; Salvageable 309 GTIs can still regularly be found being broken for spares. While supply dwindles, demand can only grow as nostalgic enthusiasts look for antidotes to modern mundanity and find a 205 too expensive, a Golf too sterile and an Escort too Essex.
The 309 GTI may not be as iconic as its shouty little sibling, but it offers a convincing dynamic riposte. The fact it’s never been hobby-horsed has endangered the species, but also makes it a refreshing modern classic proposition today. Every last survivor deserves to be saved.
PEUGEOT 309 GTI GOODWOOD
Engine 1905cc, 4-cyl, SOHC
Transmission FWD, 5-speed manual
Max Power 128bhp @ 6000rpm
Max Torque 122lb-ft @ 4750rpm
Top speed 128mph
WHAT TO PAY
A little tacky in retrospect, perhaps – but more interesting than a Golf’s funereal cabin. This badge extends a 309’s life expectancy. Nomore horsepower than a 309 GTI, but plenty more cow. Not only dual -heritage, but multilingual too. This thing can set B-roads ablaze. The fuel-injected four-pot is shared with the 1.9 205 GTI. You’ll be a bit busy to worry about the time. Hot hatch, saloon or notchback? Let’s just call it a snatchback. 205/309 GTI Speelines got a makeover. Ripe for a bit of Sinéad O’Connor. Badging incorporates the Goodwood circuit layout. Claimed top Speed was 128mph.
‘CONTROL INPUTS MUST BE MEASURED TO KEEP CORNERING ARCS CLEAN’
‘YOU’RE GREETED BY A METALLIC RASP THAT REVERBERATES AROUND THE SLIM-PILLARED CABIN’
ONLY 82 LEFT
I BOUGHT ONE AARON YARWOOD
‘I bought my Goodwood 309 GTI in March 2016, and it’s now on about 160,000 miles. I use it as a daily, and often stick the roofrack on so it can ferry my longboard around Cornwall. It’s what I call a five-yard car, but if it had no imperfections I’d be too scared to use it on school runs and shopping trips. I had the top end refurbished last year, and the rear beam two years ago, both by DIY enthusiast members of the 309 Owners’ Club.’