Remember the 80s? It was a decade that brought us some truly great cars. The original BMW M3 and M5, Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari F40, Porsche 959, DeLorean DMC-12 and Audi Quattro are some of the names I remember most fondly.
It was also the heyday of the hot hatch when humble shopping trolleys were turned into the stuff of teenage boys’ dreams. When badges like GTI, GTE, XR, RS and Turbo could be seen tearing around city ring roads at night. This was a time when Peugeot could do no wrong.
Then we moved into the 90s and the rules changed. Suddenly safety mattered and technology was advancing rapidly. Buyers wanted faster cars but with more frills and creature comforts. Peugeot slowly lost their way and, with it, their confidence.
Where they once laid claim to being the masters of the GTI badge, now any car they attached it to was subjected to hoots of derision. 206, 207, 307, 308, all were compared unfavourably with their predecessors from the 80s. Some of that criticism may have come from very rose-tinted glasses but that didn’t change the fact that Peugeot were struggling.
So the new Peugeot 208 GTI has a huge weight of expectation on its shoulders and you could forgive it for shying away from the enormous task in front of it. Trying to recapture the glory of the past is all very well but have Peugeot been concentrating too much on the good old days or have they made a hot hatch that today’s teenagers will lust after?
First impressions count and in this respect the GTI is off to a reasonable start. The standard 208 is a pretty little thing and the GTI doesn’t stray from that formula. The compact shape, curvy lines and chrome highlights are all to be found on lesser 208s. In fact, apart from the 17-inch wheels, slim arch extensions, subtle GTI badging and rear spoiler there’s very little to make the GTI stand out from other high ranking 208s. There’s a sense of purpose about the GTI but it doesn’t want to shout about it.
Fortunately the interior is more flamboyant. Settle into the red-and-black leather-trimmed sports seats and the interior immediately impresses. The black-to-red plastic on the dash and door handles looks a bit odd but everything else is lovely. The red-stitched leather covering the upper dash, the 7-inch touchscreen, the LED lighting around the instrument cluster and the large glass roof give the GTI’s cabin an upmarket feel. Surprisingly they’re all standard kit.
The generous equipment levels continue with satellite navigation, Bluetooth for phone and media, climate control, cruise control, speed limiter, auto lights and wipers, and heated front seats. It’s all very civilised in here, a far cry from the 80s when a tilting sunroof was considered luxurious. That’s progress for you.
At this point I should mention the driving position. Peugeot have come in for some flack for the 208’s setup where the dials are supposed to be viewed over the top of the small wheel, rather than through it. Some say the wheel gets in the way. Well, for this 5’10” driver it is perfect. The wheel sits low in my lap and doesn’t pose any threat to the speedo and rev counter. I suspect that many of the complaints are from people who haven’t tried adjusting the wheel properly.
Start Your Engines
Fire up the turbocharged 1.6-litre THP and you’re greeted by an uninspiring hum. Pull away and the noise still fails to tingle the spine. Where’s the drama, the boomy exhaust that you’d expect from a hot hatch?
Head out onto the road and the first thing you notice is the smooth ride, compliant and well controlled. Very surprising for a modern hot hatch but in some ways quite refreshing. You don’t wince when the wheels hit a pothole and don’t feel every expansion joint through the base of the seat.
In fact the 208 GTI feels very refined for a small hatchback and in some ways that clouds your first impressions. You get the feeling it’s a little dull, lacking the excitement you’d expect in a hot hatch. And then you get to use full throttle for the first time.
Make no mistake, the 208 GTI is definitely hot. It might not shout about it with a loud exhaust but when you pin the throttle the swell of torque gives it a real punch. The quoted time of 6.7 seconds to 62mph sounds to be spot on – I clocked 7.0 seconds with a bad start on loose gravel and knocking a few tenths off would be easy. Just don’t expect me to verify the ???mph top speed – that’s one for the autobahn.
The gearbox helps, which is a surprise after the vague five-speed ‘box fitted to the 208 Allure I drove last year. This six-speed unit, topped by an aluminium lump that feels cool to the touch, is actually quite good and delivers more precise shifts and a lighter throw. The ratios are closely stacked too so you can keep the engine working hard when you want to.
Another pleasant surprise is that the compliant ride doesn’t translate into sloppy cornering either. It’s tight and controlled and there’s massive amounts of grip available. In fact, there might be a bit too much grip, as you’d have to be driving like Hades had set every Hell Hound loose on your tail before you ran out of grip.
What you don’t get is that lively, up on tip-toes feeling that you’d expect from a hot hatch. The 208 feels like it’s been nailed to the road, which is great if you want to corner at ridiculous speeds, less so if you revel in the feeling of the car moving around beneath you.
How Does It Compare?
A tough question. Peugeot have released the 208 GTI at a very interesting time for the small hot hatch market. There’s been a shake-up at the top that gives the 208 a real chance to make an impression.
Things start well as it easily beats the Volkswagen group clones with their twin-clutch automatics and twin-charged engines. The 208 is more powerful, better equipped, and a better drive than all of them.
So it makes it into the top three in its class, alongside the all-new Fiesta ST and Clio 200. If you’re not a fan of automatics then you can dismiss the Clio 200 straightaway, although if you’re likely to spend much time on track then the Clio still wins. If it was my money I’d take the 208.
That leaves the Fiesta ST and on paper it’s a very close match. Both use turbocharged 1.6s, both have six-speed manuals, both are much better than the car they replace. Performance is almost identical, tipped slightly in the 208’s favour, but that’s where the similarities end.
The Fiesta ST feels more alive, enthusiastic and exciting. The weighting of all the controls is spot-on, the driving experience perfectly judged. Sparkle, verve, vigour, enthusiasm – the Fiesta ST has it in spades while the 208 feels more aloof. Peugeot may have set their sights high with the 208 but Ford aimed even higher with the Fiesta ST and truly hit the mark.
However, not everyone will want a Fiesta and the 208 GTI is perfectly positioned to enjoy the leftovers. Just because it’s not as good as the Fiesta doesn’t make it a bad car. The Peugeot GTI badge may have been languishing in the doldrums for a few years but don’t let that put you off. It’s back and it’s a force to be reckoned with.
A Final Twist?
Could there be a twist in the story of the fast 208? Could this comfort-oriented GTI be part of Peugeot’s marketing tactics? An increased interest in the performance sector sees their new R badge emerging as a force to be reckoned with. The 270bhp RCZ R will be here soon and a 308 R concept has been revealed. Could we see a more focused and faster 208 R appear in the not-too-distant future? Perhaps that could be the car to kick sand in the Fiesta’s face and recapture those glory days of the 80s.
Peugeot 208 GTI Scores
|PERFORMANCE||Fast, more so than it might at first seem||9|
|HANDLING||Bags of grip but a bit aloof||8|
|AFFORDABILITY||Pricey next to competition but well equipped||8|
|DESIRABILITY||Can buyers forgive previous GTIs?||7|
|DRIVING SPIRIT||Easy to live with but missing some joie de vivre||8|
Peugeot 208 GTI Specifications
|Engine:||1,598cc 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol|
|Transmission:||Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive|
|0-62 mph:||6.7 seconds|
|Top Speed:||143 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||139 g/km (Band E)|
|Official Economy:||47 mpg|
*Prices taken from Peugeot website, August 2013