Our new hot hatch of the year owes a great debt to the Golf GTi 16v and Peugeot 306 Rallye, the finest of the breed from the '80s and '90s. Story by Brett Fraser. Photography by Barry Hayden
Back near the end of the '80s, when the Golf GTi 16v was the toughest gladiator to do battle in the hot hatch arena, CAR was already questioning how much further the breed could progress. After all, the 16-valve Volkswagen could, in most everyday circumstances, cling to the tailpipes of supercars and wrestle mere mortal coupés and sports saloons to the ground.
The Golf 16v wasn't the most technically advanced combatant of its era. Nor was it the quickest against a stopwatch, or the most powerful. But the level and blend of its fighting skills across a broad range of disciplines - especially when driven hard - made it unbeatable, and icon. Improving upon the 16v in a manner resembling revolution rather than evolution was hard to contemplate.
CAR's instincts were to prove correct. As the '80s became the stuff of misty-eyed (and occasionally embarrassing, when you consider some of the clothes and music) memories, and we thrilled to the prospect of the forthcoming millennium, new hot hatches arrived to challenge the Golf. Some were better, but many others - including the Mk3 and Mk4 Golf GTis - were worse. But even those that improved upon the Golf 16v's formula weren't able to claim a crushing victory, couldn't leap rather than saunter ahead.
However, by the end of the '90s the new hot hatch icon of the decade wore not a VW roundel, but the rampant (almost heraldic) lion of Peugeot; the 306 GTi-6 had become king of the affordable performance car jungle. And just as the decade, the century and the millennium bowed out, the most extreme 306 arrived: the Rallye.
The Rallye and the 16v have plenty in common. Their size, for starters. Both are on the big side - larger than many consider acceptable for cars dedicated to driving pleasure. And both of them represent the hard-core choice from their respective model line-ups; only a foot-to-the-floor-everywhere driving style makes the 16v Golf seem significantly quicker than the cheaper 8v, while and acute perception of the finer points of handling and performance is needed to differentiate the stripped-out Rallye from the well-kitted GTi-6.
Neither the Pug nor Vee-Dub uses sex as a sales tool; both are plain to the point of being frumpy. Sure, aficionados recognise the virile significance of the small red rectangles on the grille and rump of the Golf, and the yellow, blue and red flashes on the doors, bonnet and tailgate of the Rallye, but the rest of the world tends to see merely a pair of large, tidy-looking yet classless hatchbacks. To make matters worse for the Rallye, almost every run-out model of the 306, including estates and turbodiesels, was fitted with the same alloy wheels. Still, the reluctance of Peugeot and Volkswagen to make their hot-shot versions stand out from the crowd has done wonders for the bank balances of purveyors of aftermarket accessories.
The Rallye looks little different from any other 306, and cabin is dull ,but no other hatch since the 205 GTi has been this involving or rewarding
1999 PEUGEOT 306 RALLYEPrice now: £8,300 to £9,300
Price then: £15,995
Engine: 1998cc dohc 16V four, 167bhp, 142lb ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 137mph, 6.9sec 0-60mph, 30.1mpg
Be wary, though, should you be tempted - as many people are - to glam up the looks of your Rallye or 16v. The fit and finish of non-approved body kits is wildly variable (as is the taste), and getting a paint match will be tricky if you stick one on an older car. And while a new set of alloys is a remarkably satisfying way of personalising your car, try keeping to the original size of wheel. Larger diameter, wider wheels may raise your cred in the McDonald's drive-thru queue, but they'll also blunt your car's turn-in, knock the edge off the handling, spoil the ride and cost you a fortune in new tyres.
With do-gooders and law enforcers lurking behind every bush, billboard and road sign, the comparatively anonymous looks of the standard 16v and Rallye are probably better for your licence. What's impressive about the Golf's styling is how well it's aged; it gives away more than 10 years to the Peugeot, yet has a crispness of line that's almost contemporary. The slightly later, big-bumpered GTi 16v's come even closer to passing themselves off as modern motors, the biggest giveaway to their age being an upright grille and round headlamps.
Golfs tend to defy the ageing process in another way too: they don't rust much. Sure, abused examples will have more holes and bubbles in them than an Aero factory, but in the hands of considerate owners (step forward Ray Partner, owner of our immaculate photo car) then can remain solid and unblemished, even approaching their teenage years. The 306 is too much of an infant to talk definitively about its bodywork's chances of long-term survival, but the 205 GTi points to good prospects; its mechanicals may get tired, its trim may rattle and fall off and its paint may fade, but rust tends not to ravage it (provided it hasn't been shunted).
Next time you hear someone whinge about the unremitting darkness of a Golf interior, steer them in the direction of a 306 Rallye; in comparison, the inside of a Mk2 16v is a veritable palace of light and colour. The Pug's upholstery has squiggles of red, yellow and blue to ape the bright flashes on the bodywork, but they fail to lift the ambience above that of an undertaker's outfitters. But for its better quality plastics and the presence of an airbag in the steering wheel, you could easily mistake the Rallye's interior as being as old as the 16v's, with the Volkswagen winning the ergonomics contest.
Durability honours look like they probably swing the Golf's way too. Our 12-year-old, 112,000-mile photo car (admittedly lovingly maintained) was, apart from a shiny steering wheel rim, almost as-new inside. The driver's seat upholstery on the 19,000 mile Rallye, however, was already starting to bobble. No complaints about support or comfort in the seats of either car, although further downward adjustment for the Pug's front seats wouldn't go amiss.
But what are you doing just sitting there? Go out and drive these cars. Drive them with all the energy and aggression and enthusiasm and skill you can muster. That's the treatment both were designed for, both revel in, and the only way to enjoy these two extremists to the full.
The Golf has aged remarkably well; it has the 306 beaten on durability and quality. With a lusty engine and fine handling, it was born to be thrashed
1989 VW GOLF GTi 16VPrice now: £1,500 to £5,000
Price then: £12,998
Engine: 1781cc dohc 16V four, 139bhp, 124lb ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 127mph, 7.6sec 0-60mph, 33.8mpg
Take the 16v first. It's the most surprising of the pair. Well, you know how it is with older cars: in your head you write them off as elderly and infirm, prepare yourself to make allowances for the age of their design, for the feebleness of yesterday's engineering. But the Golf still has it, is still on the pace, eminently capable of flame-grilling the asphalt of any demanding back road.
You have to work hard for your pleasures, though, but only in the same way as fashion photographers have to "toil" while shooting supermodels. The 16v's 139bhp 1.8-litre twin-cam feels strong at low to middling revs, but doesn't start to get all the ponies tugging at the same time until about 4700-4800, shortly after the torque peaks. The harder you rev it, the harder is charges, and while the power curve diagram suggests that the show is more or less over by 6100rpm, revving the motor right through to the 7200rpm red line always seems to be productive as well as good fun.
The 16v sparkles at high revs, responding vigorously to prods of the throttle, steaming forward with manic enthusiasm and considerable speed when the road ahead is clear. The need to cane it adds to the entertainment, because it means that going fast is your choice. You're integral to the process; the 16v doesn't suddenly jump up into the big numbers without you being fully aware of it. The engine makes a great noise too - strident and metallic, yet, for all its volume and busy nature, never harsh.
Even a high-mileage 16v should still deliver the thrills reliably, provided all the right stamps are there in the service book. Golf enthusiasts are fond of the expression "bomb-proof" when talking about the engine, but in addition to regular oil checks, make sure the cambelts have been changed every 60,000 miles. The 2.0 litre 16-valve motor in the Rallye comes with similar commendations - you can safely hide inside it during aerial bombardments - and the recommendation to change the timing belt every 54,000 miles, or preferably 10,000 miles sooner if you can afford the £150 cost.
Like the engine, the Golf's chassis gets high on speed. Disappointingly stiff and uncommunicative at ambling pace, as the speedo needle rises its talents are lured out, up through the seat and steering wheel. At the point where they're fully revealed, you're granted a wonderful feeling of control, a partnership with the car that encourages you to become more and more adventurous. The 16v feels so stable through corners of all speeds and severity, keeps you so clearly informed about how close to the limit you are, that you develop a trapeze artist's faith that the Golf won't drop you unless you tuck both hands behind your back.
The Rallye doesn't give you such confidence at the limit. It betrays a slight nervousness that affects your willingness to push it to the breakaway point. It can - will - let go in a hurry and do it from the rear, but despite scaremongering from some quarters, such occasions are extremely rare unless you're on a track or stretching things in the rain.
Despite this, the Rallye outclasses the 16v, and outruns it, too. It bubbles and fizzes with life and energy, always the sports car, forever the entertainer. Yet it's not all show and easy gratification; it has real depth. Thunder down a bumpy road and the suspension will filter out the sting and bang of each lump and pothole, yet at the same time keep you current on conditions below. The steering locks you into the information loop, too, providing such high-quality feedback that the raggedy edge of the tyres' adhesion is a place at which you should arrive only through choice. 'Choice' also applies to the steering's accuracy; choose a point and that's precisely where the Rallye will take you.
Check out the figures - Rallye, 0-60mph in 6.9sec, 0-100mph in 19.2sec; Golf, 0-60mph in 7.6sec, 0-100mph in 22.4sec - and the Pug doesn't appear to have a decade's worth of performance advantage, but out on the road its 167bhp 2.0-litre motor has clear superiority. It punches viciously from as low as 3000rpm an wails around to its seven-two red line with even greater determination that the 16v. And as the Rallye's six-speed gearbox (a tough unit, let down only by the tendency of the clutch cable to stretch and distort on right-hand-drive cars) stacks four ratios into the space where the VW has three, the engine never drops out of the zoom zone.
The Rallye doesn't represent a quantum jump ahead of the 16v; it distils all the Golf's good points and turns them into an intoxicating concentrate, a brew so potent you won't want to stop supping from its cup. It's a tribute to the enduring brilliance of the 16v that it runs the Rallye so close.