Peugeot 208 GTI: Driven

It's fair to say that Peugeots are in my motoring bloodstream. I learned to drive in a 309. I also learned to crash in it, and discovered a passion - if not a knack - for oversteer somewhere between the two. My first 'sporty' car was a 106 Rallye which I loved like a human baby before eventually modifying it so badly that I ruined it. I mourn it still.

The 208 GTI and the elephant in the room...
The 208 GTI and the elephant in the room...
So this car matters to me. A lot. Because the world is a better place with a proper Pug GTI in it. Because Peugeot has produced some of the iconic hot hatches over the years. The 106 GTI, 306GTI-6 and Rallye and of course, the daddy of them all, the 205GTI. The colossal shadow of which towers over this launch like the Alpes Maritimes that crowd the hotel base in St Paul de Vence. One sits just outside reception looking pert and perfect and making the car park full of 208s feel just a little under pressure.

What was interesting, and a bit worrying, was sitting in the press conference prior to the test drive and being told what the GTI isn't. It isn't radical. It isn't aggressive. It isn't optimised for the track... And it isn't oversteery.

Identity crisis
So what is the 208 GTI? Sporty, fast, refined, supple, playful but secure, chic and versatile, apparently. It is designed to be multi-purpose. A car to live with every day - so not too harsh, not too noisy, but efficient and well-mannered.

We drove these same roads in the Fiesta ST
We drove these same roads in the Fiesta ST
The spec sheet does hint at excitement, too, thank goodness. A slightly wider track front and rear. The 200bhp, 203lb ft 1.6-litre turbo that endows it with a top speed of over 140mph and a 0-62 time of under seven seconds. It gets 302mm front discs behind 17-inch alloys, 205-section Michelin performance rubber, and tweaked suspension and steering settings - both of which are meatier.

The styling is designed to add muscle to the 208's shape. The new grille and headlamps are a bit fussy and don't really do it for me and although I like the rear-quarter badging - a knowing nod to the 205 - there's not enough menace or swagger to make the car stand out as something truly special.

Though for some I guess that subtlety may be a plus point. But you can't help but look at that old 205 - no wings or flares yet somehow the stance of it just oozes controlled menace in a very sexy way.

Fun? Yes. Any sense of danger? Nope.
Fun? Yes. Any sense of danger? Nope.
The first stretch of our test route is exactly the same as the last stretch of the Fiesta ST launch, interestingly enough. Up the Col de Vence and on to Coursegoules and Greolieres. Fabulous roads and absolutely perfect for a sports hatch to strut its stuff.

Where's the rush
The first thing to notice is that the GTI doesn't feel hugely quick. It seems a tad breathless on the climb and struggles out of tighter turns. True, there are only a few hundred clicks on this car but it doesn't seem to have the guts and grunt of the Fiesta. Doesn't sound as good, either, from the inside. Slightly muted with a bit of raspy induction on boost but not much in the way or burble or bassline.

It rides beautifully though: supple, taut, smothering the bumps, allowing a bit of roll but dealing with rapid direction changes well and never once feeling lurchy or wallowy. The six-speed box is light and accurate which pretty well describes the steering, too though the latter is not hugely feelsome.

Classy, competent ... yeah, just that really
Classy, competent ... yeah, just that really
Mind you, that isn't a major issue because the press conference spoke the truth. There is absolutely no hooliganism in the 208's chassis. It is very competent, puts its power down incredibly well and hangs on to its line with tenacity. But back off, chuck it in or trail brake into a turn and there is just a mild tightening of the line and perhaps a lift of the inside rear wheel.

There isn't that window of exploitable adjustability that the Fiesta ST offers, that mild dose of oversteer that allows you to trim your line and also that makes you feel like the key factor in the driving experience.

Life on the edge
I like cars that encourage you to push your own abilities and reward with an extra layer of involvement. A bit of an edge. It's what hot Peugeots always had in spades. But perhaps educating young hot shoes by hurling them backwards into hedges isn't the done thing any more. So although there is a lot to commend dynamically, it doesn't blow my frock up or set my pulse racing like the Fiesta did, and that reference point is there at the back of my mind all the time, nagging away.

The interior is nice, the seats huggy and kit levels good. I like the little steering wheel and dials set above it allowing your focus on the road ahead. The splashes of chrome, the alloy pedals and the leather trim all lift the ambience nicely and add to the premium feel. It's a bit more grown up than the Fiesta. A bit classier. A bit pricier, too, at £18,895 (compared to the entry-level ST at £16,995). Peugeot hopes to sell 10,000 per year.

Sadly it's still in the shadow of that 205
Sadly it's still in the shadow of that 205
I have yet to drive the new Clio, but the general consensus among those that had was that the Pug is the better all-round machine. Nicer to drive, more engaging. And as the day progresses and the miles rack up I find I like the GTI more and more. It's quick, stable and incredibly exploitable. On roads that threw ice, snow, water and broken surfaces at us, the 208 never once showed a spiteful side or felt like it was inclined to punish driver error. Even with the ESP off it was reluctant to spin away power and its light weight (just 1,160kg or so) translated to good agility on the switchbacks.

Is the 208 worthy of its GTI badge? I want to say yes. It's a good car. Really good. But not, for me at least, a great car. And so, although I'm impressed, I'm also disappointed. Disappointed that this Pug GTI isn't quite what I hoped it to be. Disappointed, perhaps, that this new age of hot hatches might not be the golden age we all wanted it to be. Expectations can do funny things to you, I guess, and I'm as keen as anybody to see the Pug in a UK group test and find out how it measures up toe-to-toe with its rivals. But right now, if it was my choice, and the driving experience was what mattered most, I'd be opting for the Fiesta.

1.6-litre 4-cyl, turbo, direct-injection
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 200@5,800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 203@1,700rpm
0-62mph: 6.8 sec
Top speed: 143mph
Weight: 1,160kg
MPG: 47.9mpg
CO2: 139g/km
Price: £18,895

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (84) Join the discussion on the forum

  • avm1987 28 Mar 2013

    It's getting a bit old this comparison to the old 205. Times have changed, regulations, consumer demand, environmental concerns...
    Chris Harris did a good video last night on the new hot Clio, explaining why things have changed and looking for the positive in these changes.
    These car companies are not there to satisfy a few enthusiasts, let's just be grateful that there is demand for anything "hot" or "warm" as the case may be and of course there are always the classifieds!

  • Deranged Granny 28 Mar 2013

    As already said, it's hardly surprising. So many hot hatches have been a disappointment in the last few years. There's not enough demand, and they're never going to be able to emulate an era when the regulations were far less stringent. It's 285 kg heavier than a 205 Gti, for a start.

    Personally, the new wave of hot hatches all look very similar to me - overstyled, overtyred, ugly chintzy box-like cars that are too high and too heavy - certainly compared to the hot hatches of the 80s and 90s.

  • veevee 28 Mar 2013

    I think after the last few efforts, noone is expecting them to bring back the 205; all we want to know is whether it's a total waste of time, like the 207, or not.

  • astra la vista 28 Mar 2013

    "the 205GTI. The colossal shadow of which towers over this launch like the Alpes Maritimes that crowd the hotel base in St Paul de Vence. One sits just outside reception looking pert and perfect and making the car park full of 208s feel just a little under pressure."

    as soon as i saw that picture of the two cars together i thought "why do they do it?". as in, why do car manufacturers always try and show the lineage from the amazing original to the latest "imagining"? they're on a hiding to nothing straight away. to then say the new car isn't radical or aggressive puts a tin hat on it.

    new cars have to stand on their own through design and engineering. it's okay for me and other ph'ers to lament the loss of hot hatches from the 80's but the car makers shouldn't be comparing and contrasting. i can only imagine that if a young hack turned up at that shindig he'd want to drive that old 205 first to see what all the fuss was about.

  • Antj 28 Mar 2013

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