We're in a golden age for hot hatches at the moment, with a surplus of front-drivers able to shred the Nurburgring on Sunday and pick the kids up from soccer practice on Monday. It's a crowded class full of talented cars like Ford's Fiesta ST, and standing out is difficult. So, how does the Peugeot 208 GTi stack up?
As if battling quick, capable competitors from the outside wasn't enough, any fast Peugeot needs to overcome the weight of history. Like an overachieving older sibling, the 205 GTi is one of those cars everyone has heard of. Every time a GTi Peugeot is launched, the media starts asking: does it live up to the legend? Is it worthy of that hallowed three-letter badge?
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Well, the short answer is yes. The 208 GTi is a very different car to its legendary grandfather, but it's also a very good little hatch for 2016.
The modern hot hatch recipe starts with turbocharging. In this case, drive comes from a 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbo with 153 kW (205 hp) of power, and a chubby 300 Nm (221 lb.ft) of torque from 3,000 RPM. Torque is the most prominent player here, making it easy to surf around in a high gear without fear of being bogged down.
As automatic gearboxes become more prevalent, the decision to sell a car without an automatic option is brave, stupid, or an out-and-out commitment to drivers. In the little Pug, it's the last option on the list. Unlike Renault, which has banked on paddles as the future of performance driving, Peugeot has sided with stick-happy Ford and slotted a six-speeder between the seats.
Shift quality is slightly off the pace, with a longish throw and notchy feeling you just don't get from the Fiesta, a car you can shift so fast it's almost telepathic. With that said, I'd still take the 208's shifter over a set of click-clack paddles any day of the week, even though the tight pedals had me wishing my size 14 boots were a bit slimmer.
You access that gearshift through a chunky metal gearknob which contributes to the feeling of quality ingrained in the cabin. It's a feeling that starts with the leather and tartan-cloth seats, and continues as you reach out and grab the soft leather wheel. Everything you touch or grasp feels nice, and that's more than can be said for the Fiesta ST's low-rent cabin.
If the quality feel of the controls is unquestionable, the relationship between them is a little bit off. In isolation, there's nothing wrong with the tiny, low-set wheel, but I found that getting it in a comfortable position meant obstructing the high-set instrument pod on the dash. Peugeot wants you to set the wheel low enough to feel like you're steering a darty little kart, but when you've got gangly six-foot-six legs like me, that's simply not an option.
In Australia, where speed limits are aggressively enforced, not being able to see the digital speed readout can be the difference between keeping or losing your license.
This is, however, the first iteration of Peugeot's new design philosophy. It's a philosophy that has been revised and improved in the 308 GTi that we'll be reviewing shortly, and will continue to be revised and improved when iCockpit 2.0 rolls out later this year. There's always going to be teething issues and we can see the potential benefits of the setup, so won't write it off just yet.
That said, the wheel didn't necessarily need reinventing, and the GTi's unique ergonomics could be the difference between buying this and wandering to a Ford dealership across the road.
Wandering around to the car's pert rear reveals a deep, wide 311 liter (11 cu.ft) trunk. What's more, that trunk has a full-size spare wheel underneath it, something rarer than a leprechaun riding a unicorn nowadays. Folding the rear seats opens up 1,152 liters (41 cu.ft) for mountain bikes or flat pack furniture, and I even managed to fit my 184 cm DPS skis with room for a big bag of ski gear with a little space left over.
It might sound boring, but the hot-hatch has always been a dual-purpose car, and the little Pug plays the practical minivan well. With Dr. Jekyll practicality covered, let's have a look at Mr. Hyde – does the 208 GTi transform into a rabid monster when you pin the throttle?
Well, not quite. Loaded to the gills with gear, I pointed the Peugeot's stubby orange nose toward the Great Ocean Road hoping to uncover an uncouth character at odds with the car's polished look and feel.
What I got was a bit different. On the highway run out of Melbourne the ride was comfortable and quiet, thanks to damping perfectly straddling the border between sporty and comfortable. On undulating, pockmarked highways it absorbs bumps in one movement, settling back into its stride quickly after a big hit. Yes, that also applies to mid-corner bumps, where the GTi doesn't get bounced off line by most impacts.
Off the highway and on the Great Ocean Road, it quickly becomes clear this isn't a hot-hatch tearaway in the traditional sense, with a tied down character contrasting with the frenetic Ford Fiesta ST.
The engine is torquey and pulls nicely from almost any revs, especially once you've taken up the hint of slack lurking below 1,750 RPM, but it's not a motor with an insatiable appetite for revs. Zero to 100 km/h (62 mph) swings by in 6.8 seconds, but it never feels overwhelmingly fast. Instead, the low-down shove gives way to a slightly breathless top end accompanied by a flat, gravelly blare.
Short of fitting an aftermarket exhaust, the trick to improve that top-end growl is simple: fold down the rear seats and the noise improves markedly, both in quality and quantity. Even without the skis in there, I drove around with the back seats down to enjoy the extra bark it brought out.
Although the steering wheel has been hit with a shrink ray, the car never feels overly darty or nervous. It's a quick steer and there's decent grip from the Michelin Pilot Exaltos, but the back end never feels particularly lively, staying resolutely neutral in the face of provocation. Trust us, we tried to get this thing slipping around like a 205, but it prefers carving neat arcs and, occasionally, cocking an inside rear wheel.
Some people will be disappointed with its neutrality, but those people need to remember what year it is. Deadly snap oversteer was considered fun in 1984, but it's a surefire recipe for a date with 60 Minutes in 2016, so we can't really begrudge Peugeot's decision to chase safe understeer too much.
I'd hoped for a livelier package, and compared to the Fiesta ST it falls short in the driving enjoyment stakes. As a car to commute in, though, the 208 GTi excels. Having averaged 7.4 l/100 km (32 US mpg) over three weeks of traffic-choked commuting – with one long highway run in between – it's a cheap car to run everyday, too.
It's a capable hatch with a sense of fun and a nice cabin, and you're not going to be disappointed with its performance on the occasional backroad blast. But my money would still go to the blue oval's Fiesta ST.
Pricing for the 208 GTi starts at AU$29,990 (about US$22,700) in Australia.
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