As long as there are cars on this Earth, the debate around the best cheap(ish) fast car will rage. By offering so much to so many enthusiasts they mean an awful lot to those people, and as such the discussion is typically very passionate. Oh sure, it's nice to weigh up Ferrari against McLaren but, at a tenth of a price, these might well be cars you could afford soon - so it's much more important.
Right now, our two favourite front- and rear-drivers at around £25,000 are the Peugeot Sport 208 GTI and the Toyota GT86. For drivers there's still nothing from the MX-5/124 clan (or anywhere, in fact) to better the Toyota for attainable RWD thrills, while the Peugeot tops the junior hot hatch ranks thanks to its combination of punchy performance, pert good looks and fine dynamics. We'd expect it to still be there or thereabouts even once the new Fiesta ST, Yaris GRMN and Polo GTI have arrived in the UK too, which is why it's here. Many will have their allegiances and preferences already, but the fact is that buyers have rarely has it so good, the level of aptitude and resolve in both these cars is pretty damn impressive.
Let's clear up a couple of things from the start: the colour thing is a coincidence, honest. We have the orange Peugeot on long-term loan, asked Toyota for a GT86 and an Orange Edition car arrived; hopefully you can understand why we only took a couple of pictures of them together... The second source of contention will be the respective prices. This Orange Edition (with optional, er, orange paint) nudges the price over £30k, which is a lot. Even with all the options 'our' Peugeot is only £24k. For the sake of argument we'll use cars from the classifieds to illustrate the affordable side of this debate, but still the price is in favour of the Peugeot:
with a few more miles is £21k.
Given the Toyota is already at a significant fiscal disadvantage in this comparison, it seems the best place to begin. Fortunately for the little GT86, it doesn't take long behind its new, smaller diameter wheel to have you questioning why you'd ever have to spend more money than this on a sports car. It just feels so innately right as a package for people who like driving; it sounds like the usual trite (or should that be tripe?) comment from a car journalist, but so much of what so many cars do wrong in their relationship with the driver is right in the GT86. You sit low in a supportive, adjustable seat, clasping a steering wheel that can be brought exactly the right distance from your chest. Your hand falls where the gearknob is sited, the pedals are perfect and the visibility superb. Between that central tacho and new display panel with fluid temps, everything you need to know about the car is right in front of your eyes. You're in the mood for driving before moving an inch.
Fortunately, as you'll probably know from the past half a dozen years of evangelising, the reality more than lives up to the promise. The GT86 is alive, eager and immensely engaging, giving the driver everything they would require to have a tremendously good time on any road. It's small and light and agile, the excellent visibility afforded by the boxer engine meaning you can place it perfectly. That engine needs revs, but the way it responds and the slickness of the gearbox means everything is in your hands to get the most from it. The brakes are so confidence inspiring that you'll shed only the amount of speed you need and not a jot more. The GT86 boasts the kind of attributes that make it enjoyable at whatever commitment level.
For the sake of this comparison, it's worth noting that the Toyota never lets you forget that it's rear-wheel drive, either. You're not going to be lighting up the rears in fourth gear on a straight bit of road, but you can feel the push from behind you under power and momentum brings the rear into play rather than just forcing the car into understeer. All the sensations you would want from your junior rear-drive sports car are most certainly present and correct here - the Toyota is a riot.
It says a lot about the Peugeot's quality that it still feels fantastic fun even after driving the GT86. It's a faster, firmer, more focused car initially than the Toyota, a greater sense of aggression running through it and greater attention paid to outright performance. Straight from the '86 the GTI feels more urgent thanks to its super sharp steering, more potent due to the additional torque, and a tad naughtier by simple fact of its more interesting noise.
Dynamically the two could hardly be more different, yet still end up being excellent fun. Despite what you might think, the Toyota is about balance, front and rear working in harmony to deliver its cohesive and rewarding drive. The Peugeot is all about its tenacious, unrelenting front end: not only is turn in grip high but traction is immense too, meaning you can get back on the throttle early and drag yourself away from the apex really quickly. If you're feeling more adventurous then use the brakes to keep the front end locked onto line; that in turn will take weight away from the back, the car's transition to oversteer quick but manageable. And hilarious. It gives you options, basically, and is about as far from prescriptive front-wheel drive as it's possible to be. The damping is assured, the brakes are strong, the gearshift is a bit baggy but quick enough: it's a pukka little pocket rocket, the Peugeot Sport 208, one that deserves greater recognition that it currently receives.
There are key areas where the Toyota begins to edge ahead, however. It happens all the time in these tests, where the very top of one model range is brought together with the bottom of another: think of when M3s are compared with 911s and AMG drop tops are pitched against junior supercars, that sort of thing. Eventually the shortcomings of the base product begin to make themselves known, as the (extremely good) slower car made fast is exposed by the purpose built sporty thing.
The Toyota's body feels stiffer and the car more stable as a result; while the Peugeot's skipping and jumping around at the limit can be exciting, it's the Toyota that's more composed and more confidence inspiring as a result. The brake feel is better, the control weights are more in sync and there's a feeling of great mechanical toughness that's absent in the Peugeot; it feels like something with a lot of untapped potential, whereas the 208 doesn't feel far off its performance peak. Both very entertaining ways of making a fun car, yet also quite different.
From a purely dynamic perspective, then, the Toyota has to win it. It's the more rewarding, more satisfying and more engaging car at all commitment levels, and remains perhaps more valid to enthusiasts than it ever has. Of course it has its problems, but if you're fed up of numb and aloof sports cars that don't come alive until you're at dangerous speeds, you must try a GT86. That's not the end of the story, though. As well as being cheaper to buy, the 208 emits 50g/km less CO2 than the GT86 and officially returns another 15mpg as well. From a buying perspective it has a lot going for it in this comparison, and if it's the one you go for you won't be disappointed.
If you can stretch to an '86, however, and can absorb the additional running costs, then it's a fantastic little car. It feels like the more expensive proposition, if that can help you justify the additional outlay, and is a sports car of greater joy than many that cost a great deal more. So it could be seen as something of a bargain. They're two great cars, but in this battle of front-wheel drive against rear, the victory must go to the latter.
SPECIFICATION - TOYOTA GT86
Engine: 1,998cc, 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@7,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 151@6,400rpm
Top speed: 140mph
Price: £27,219 (As tested £30,200 comprised of £650 for pearlescent paint and £750 for Touch2 with Go)
SPECIFICATION - PEUGEOT SPORT 208 GTI
Engine: 1,593cc, turbocharged 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 208@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 221@3,000rpm
Top speed: 143mph
Price: £23,550 (As tested £24,250 comprising £250 for Peugeot Connect SOS & Assistance, £250 for Active City Brake and £200 for Reversing Camera)
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