The Peugeot 208 GTi is not the new 205 GTi. Which is good, because the old 205 might have handled well but it was also fragile and prone to explosively disintegrating when crashed, something its pre-ESP chassis was remarkably quick to facilitate with a hefty dose of lift-off oversteer. It was also only reasonably quick, woefully poor on fuel, and sparsely equipped.
The 208 GTi, on the other hand, boasts a 5* Euro NCAP rating with excellent results for driver, passenger and pedestrian safety.
It also returns far better fuel economy than its ancestor, with up to 52.3 mpg on offer for the thrifty driver, which is way better than the 30-odd you’d have got from the 205 GTi.
It’s faster too at any point on the acceleration curve you care to select. And that’s just the regular 208 GTI: My Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport featured a number of performance enhancing upgrades including 18-inch alloy wheels, 10mm lower suspension, a 6mm wider track, a Torsen limited slip differential (LSD), and stiffer springs and dampers over the regular GTi. It was also finished in an unusual and attractive matt grey paint job.
And while the interior would be recognisable to anyone whose induction to fast hatchbacks came in the eighties – bucket seats and lashings of red trim have been a go-faster staple since the late seventies – the fit and finish is way better than anything the French have built since the Eiffel Tower.
So, it’s a comprehensive win for the 208 GTi over the 205 GTi, then?
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Good on paper but not so fun
Well, er, no. The 208 GTi might be faster, corner more quickly, stop more sharply, safer, better equipped, and more comfortable than anything from the nineteen eighties, but it doesn’t come close to being as much fun.
That’s because while it is faster, corners more quickly, stops more sharply, is safer, better equipped, and more comfortable than anything from the nineteen eighties, the search for better on-paper figures and a marketing edge has taken most of the fun out of actually driving it.
Hard acceleration, either from a standstill or of the sort that turns a borderline overtaking opportunity into a dead certainty, has the 208 grabbing and snatching from side-to-side in the most perfect demonstration of torque steer you’ll ever experience.
It’s a similar story around tight bends, with the limited-slip differential tugging the car back onto line, tightening its radius in a stunning display of engineering competence over measured driver input. That it works, and that it makes you faster and safer, is beyond doubt but I’m not sure that it’s an entirely enjoyable experience. On the track I’m sure I’d value its input but on the road I’m looking for thrills and satisfaction, not faster lap times.
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Resist turning the ESP off
Peugeot Sport might have dialed the Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) down compared to that of the standard GTi in order to give a more rewarding drive, but turning it off helps even more. (It is at this juncture that I must point out that in an emergency situation ESP can make a dramatic difference to how controllable the 208 is. Turning the ESP system off is something that should neverbe done as it only exists to stop you having an accident.)
This leaves you between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: one the one hand is an overly cautious algorithm that is intent on preventing you becoming a statistic and on the other is an insurance policy that’ll baulk when it finds out you’ve turned ESP off in favour of relying on your own judgement.
In either case, the handling is almost roll-free while managing to shrug off the sort of mid-bend bumps that have you wincing in anticipation.
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A steering wheel that will make you laugh (or cry)
The problems aren’t just dynamic. The steering wheel is comedy small, so you look over it to read the dashboard dials, unless you are short and/or favour a more reclined driving position, in which case you won’t be able to see them at all.
The wheel is also too fat, flat-bottomed, and a weird oval shape. It just feels wrong most of the time and odd all of the time.
The six-speed gearchange is slick and fast, but the gear knob itself is a solid lump of metal that looks terrific but is very cold to handle for the first few miles of a winter drive.
The 208 GTi also has wide, low profile tyres that are stretched across the alloy wheels, leaving the rims exposed. This makes them very easily damaged on kerbs and potholes, something my press demonstrator proved by being delivered with all four showing considerable scuffing.
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Some welcome touches
By this stage you’re thinking that I hated it, aren’t you? Well, you’re mostly right. The seats were terrific, being supportive and comfortable, a combination that is far rarer than it should be.
The exhaust noise was perfectly judged too, crackling a little on the over-run and burbling nicely on tickover but remaining otherwise unobtrusive.
The 208’s absence of weight was very welcome too, translating into an eagerness that was hugely enjoyable and the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine is very willing too, something that translated into me hitting the rev limiter more than once.
And yet I couldn’t warm to it as a whole. The limited-slip differential might have helped pull the 208 into the bends but it also had me taking two stabs at the entrance to my drive when everything bar a four-wheel-drive, long wheelbase pickup can make it in one.
The electronic steering is fast to react but slow to inform, being numb and wholly artificial in feel, so while the 208 GTi can travel very quickly, there is no haptic feedback to clue you in to how close you are to the limit of adhesion. Easing off mid-bend helps tighten the car’s nose nicely, but lifting off induces the sort of lift-off oversteer that might be fun to catch on a track but is just plain irresponsible on the road.
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Trying too hard?
So I watched the 208 return to Peugeot with mixed feelings, mainly driven by the thought that it is a good car that has been ruined by trying too hard.
At eight-tenths it was fast but unrewarding; at nine-tenths it was fast but unruly, and at ten-tenths? Well, no one drives that hard on the road, which left me feeling that the 208 GTi is a car in search of a role. It is highly unusual to find a track-tuned, LSD-equipped car that drives well on the sort of pothole-pocked roads we suffer here in the sticks – and the Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport isn’t one of them.
But then I’m not exactly its target market, which reminds me of the time I drove back from Germany in the then-new Audi RS4. My co-driver was considerably younger than me and insisted on keeping the suspension on its hardest setting, despite the fact that this was so firm that his glasses kept sliding down his nose. He’d probably love the overly firm 208, with its scalded cat demeanour and tiny steering wheel, which probably proves that most Saga readers would be better off with the Fiesta ST if speed is their thing, and the Suzuki Swift Sport if subtlety and finesse is. Or if you really must have a Peugeot 208 GTi then you should stick with the regular version.
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Best in class – The Ford Fiesta ST remains the benchmark for £20,000-ish hot hatchbacks and is usefully cheaper than the Peugeot. The 208 GTi is being discounted in the showroom but then so is the Ford.
The best of the rest – The Suzuki Swift Sport is a lot slower than either the Peugeot or the Ford, but it is much cheaper and very nearly as much fun, offering a subtlety to the experience that demonstrates that clever engineering beats paper performance almost every time.
Left-field alternative – The regular 208GTi with the standard suspension is a sweeter drive than its more muscular sibling. I would have gladly traded some of my car’s awesome grip for a little more suppleness and feedback.
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