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.
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.
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.
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.
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)