Want something that's a bit more mature than the usual hot hatch brigade but which can still show you a good time on the right road? Look no further than Peugeot's improved 308 GT in that instance. Available in hatch or estate, with a 180PS diesel or a 205PS petrol engine, it's direct but discreet.
There are two variants of the 308 GT to consider. Should you prefer a car that drinks from the black pump, there's the 2.0-litre diesel model. This packs 180PS at 3,750rpm and offers maximum torque of 400Nm at 2,000rpm. It's mated to a new eight-speed automatic gearbox. Go petrol and you're looking at a four-cylinder 1.6-litre THP 205 Stop&Start petrol engine. You stir the stick yourself here, with a six-speed manual gearbox to make the most of its 285Nm of torque, available between 1,750 and 4,500rpm.
The 308 GT's suspension set-up features pseudo MacPherson at the front, and a torsion beam rear, stiffened by between 10 and 20 per cent depending on model. Passive dampers are fitted with hydraulic bump stops for reduced noise. The steering is a variable electric setup and the rubberwear comes courtesy of Michelin and its excellent Pilot Sport 3s. The brakes are big 330mm discs up front, gripped by floating callipers. At the rear, the discs are 268mm diameter on 308 GT and 290mm on the alternative 308 GT SW estate body shape. Both engine types have a switchable ESP stability control system as standard.
That Peugeot hasn't gone over the top with the sporty design cues ought to be welcomed. This isn't a gussied up special for youngsters who want the looks but can't afford the insurance. It's something a bit more mature, for those who want a discreet but fast car. There are some subtle upgrades, such as the black lacquered door mirrors, the side sill finishers, the 18-inch 'Diamant' wheels, a lacquered black rear diffuser and twin exhaust pipes.
The interior features roof lining and upper window pillars finished in anthracite. The upholstery is enlivened by some red contrast stitching, this finish extending across the dashboard, door panels, gear lever gaiter and floor mats. There's an aluminium pedal set and stainless-steel sill finishers in the door apertures. The instrument panel bears a chequered flag motif background and switching on the ignition produces a GT welcome message.
The Peugeot 308 is a better car than it really had any right to be given its prior form line. It's now a genuine alternative to the best cars in the class and the GT model only boosts its appeal. With 180PS if you choose diesel or 205PS from the petrol engine, specify one in a subtle colour and you've got a car that is a great choice for those who like to make progress but don't like to draw attention to themselves.Click here to find out more about our Peugeot 308 range
Vauxhall Astra GTC
Vauxhall's Astra GTC offers couture styling with blue-collar underpinnings. It's a great combination. Powerful engines are available, but you don't necessarily need them for the feel-good sensation that comes with GTC ownership. It's a relatively affordable compact coupe that can stand wheel-to-wheel with apparently more exalted rivals - and often come out on top. Wouldn't it smarten your driveway? Many potential buyers will think so.
You could be excused for approaching a drive in this GTC model with rather low expectations. After all, it succeeds a couple of Astra coupe models that were no more exciting to drive than the frumpy five-door hatchbacks they were based upon. And quick glance at the badgework and under the bonnet might suggest that we're again looking at something similar here. You might think that. Your friends might think that. But you'd both be wrong.
It's true that apart from the potent 2.0-litre petrol turbo used in the flagship VXR version, GTC engineware is identical to that you'll find in any ordinary Astra. But that's only because engineering effort and investment has been directed into areas far more important to driving satisfaction. Sharper steering, a wider track and, most importantly, a completely different suspension set-up all combine to make this the most engaging driver's car Vauxhall makes. Only a £30,000 Insignia VXR gets its power down and turns into corners as sharply - and that's only because it shares this car's clever HiPerStrut suspension system.
Before I drove this car, I wouldn't have thought it possible for an Astra - any Astra - to offer a more rewarding drive than a rival Megane Renault sport or a sporty Focus ST. I was wrong. Better still, you don't have to spend extra money on Vauxhall's hi-tech FlexRide adaptive damping system to really enjoy it, so well-judged is the ride and handling balance, especially tuned for our appalling British roads.
If you can't stretch to the frantic 280bhp VXR 155mph high performance version, then the only engine in the mainstream range likely to really get your heart pumping is the one I tried, a 16v 1.6-litre petrol Turbo unit developing a useful 180PS. Its torque figure of 230Nm isn't quite as impressive compared to obvious rivals, but this model's still quick enough to flash past sixty from rest in just 7.8s on the way to 138mph. And there's a lovely rorty engine note to go with it.
Most GTC customers though, will probably opt for something a little more sensible. There are a couple of 1.4-litre petrol Turbo units developing either 120 or 140PS, the faster of which is still able to make sixty in 9.0s. Or there's a choice of either 1.7 or 2.0-litre CDTi diesel power which can get a bit clattery in the upper reaches of the rev range. The 1.7 comes in either 110 or 130PS states of tune, while the 2.0-litre unit is altogether punchier with 165PS and 350Nm of torque, enough to make this variant feel probably the most potent of all the mainstream GTC models. All drive through a reasonably slick six-speed manual gearbox, with an auto gearbox option available on 1.4-litre petrol Turbo 140PS and 2.0 CDTi diesel models.
You expect a three-door coupe to be smaller than the five-door Hatch it's likely to be based upon. But that certainly isn't the case here, this GTC longer and wider than its more ordinary stablemate and featuring a larger wheelbase that explains the remarkable amount of space it can offer for both rear seat passengers and their luggage.
We'll get to that in a minute. But let's begin with what will probably sell you this car in the first place: the way it looks. Stylist Mark Adams and his team have created a shape that shares nothing but the roof ariel and the door handles with the 5-door Hatch, the differences further emphasised by a wider track, front and rear, plus a lower stance and much larger wheels.
Lift the tailgate and you'll find yourself gazing at a boot that at 380-litres is actually 30-litres larger than that provided by the five-door hatch and free up 1165-litres of total volume - a space nearly 20% bigger than you'll find provided by some obvious rivals. Plus of course you can extend it by pushing forward the 60:40 split-folding rear seats. This all comes courtesy of this model's lengthened wheelbase, something that also benefits rear seat passengers. Two adults will be more comfortable back here than in anything else in the class - even on longer journeys.
Getting in behind the wheel means opening one of the huge doors that are needed thanks to the extended wheelbase and coupe body shape - and that might be an issue if you're tightly parked. Once installed behind the wheel though, it's all pretty user-friendly, even if it isn't very different from the layout you'd find in an ordinary Astra Hatch, despite Vauxhall's attempts to lift the atmosphere with faux aluminium inserts on the centre console, air vents and doors. What is different from the Astra Hatch is the rear screen - which is a pity as it's smaller in the GTC, slightly restricting rearward visibility.
It would be easy to imagine many potential compact coupe customers not even trying this car, seduced as they might be by the fun of a MINI Coupe, the quality of a Volkswagen Scirocco or the style of a Peugeot RCZ. And that would be a mistake. Unlike its direct predecessors, this is much, much more than just a three-door Astra Hatch in a dress. In fact, it's arguably the best handling car in its class, certainly the most practical choice and probably the most affordable too when you take dealer offers into account. None of which would count for very much in this market if this car didn't also look great. But it does.
It's true that the interior could be more exciting and that some of the lower-order engines are unremarkable. But then, that's also true of a number of obvious rivals. Ultimately, if you can get over the issue of buying into an Astra when maybe you'd started your search in this segment with an eye on something with an apparently more desirable badge, then this GTC is unlikely to disappoint. A performance car for the everyday. And a big step forward for Vauxhall.Click here to find out more about our Vauxhall Astra GTC range
The Suzuki Swift Sport has long been a car embraced by serious drivers who know a great handling hot hatch when they see it. Though not especially powerful, it's agile, chuckable and brilliant fun for not a lot of money. Few potential buyers know this, so the idea with this third-generation model is to widen its appeal with a smarter interior, lower running costs, a little more grunt and even sharper handling. For all that, it'll still be a well-kept secret in this segment, but one loyal buyers will enjoy hugely.
The Swift Sport has never been about pure power. Suzuki could easily shoehorn a 200bhp engine into the thing if it pleased, but that would just make it uninsurable for younger drivers. Instead, and rather sensibly, engine power has been modest, the latest car massaging peak horsepower up from the old car's 134bhp to a still distinctly manageable 138bhp. More important is the news that to achieve this, the old normally aspirated 1.6 has been replaced by a lighter and more efficient 1.4-litre Boosterjet turbo unit. Straight line performance improves marginally and there's 70Nm more torque (230Nm of it), but Suzuki has devoted much of their attention - and rightly so - to developing the Swift's chassis dynamics so it offers even more poise and control.
The suspension set-up has been completely revised in a bid to offer greater driving stability, optimized roll rigidity, and improved dynamic response. And it's all bolted to the much stiffer, lighter 'HEARTECT' platform that underpins the ordinary Swift model. There's a total kerb weight of just 970kgs. To give you some perspective on that, a rival Renault sport Clio 200 EDC weighs over 200kgs. Which is why this Suzuki can match the performance of that Renault, despite offering considerably less power. Have cake; eat it. Simple.
This Swift Sport features an exclusive frontal design. The front grille and bumper project the nose beyond that of the standard Swift, conveying what the brand hopes is a sense of tautness and imminent action. Muscular shoulders, blacked-out A-pillars and vertically arranged front and rear lamps are brought into vivid relief in this top variant, with black aerodynamic under spoilers spanning the front, sides and rear, and a roof-end spoiler at the back.
Inside, the Japanese designers have tried to create an immersive, interactive sports driving environment, starting with red interior accents and a driver-oriented instrument panel. The main gauges feature contrasting colours, while evocative boost and oil temperature gauges aim to enhance the sports driving experience. Cabin quality can't hope to match that of pricier supermini hot hatch rivals, but it's a big improvement on the previous generation model and the semi-bucket-shaped front seats look good, while the D-shaped steering wheel with dimpled leather gives a secure grip. The chrome-finished shift knob and sports alloy pedals add a final classy touch.
Like many hot hatch buyers at the affordable end of this sector, I'd forgotten about Suzuki's Swift Sport before I checked out this one. Big mistake. Here, you get old-school GTi fun without old-school crudeness. You even get relatively old-school pricing. You won't be moved to buy one after looking at the specs in the brochure but take a test drive down your favourite back road and I guarantee you'll see this car a whole lot differently.
I don't think we should under-estimate the scale of this Japanese brand's achievement here. Bringing a hot hatch up to date usually means increasing its weight, price and complexity. None of which has happened here. Leaving the Swift Sport as a car you buy if you've nothing to prove as a driver but everything to gain from driving it. Please don't change this car Suzuki. Don't make it faster or more hi-tech. It's already the way every real shopping rocket should be.Click here to find out more about our Suzuki Swift range