Once upon a time, when most of the Pocket-lint was still in short trousers, Peugeot made a car called the 205 GTi. It became a legend. Along with the Golf GTi, it created a whole new breed of car – a performance-orientated, fun to drive car that didn’t require the practicality compromise of a true sports car. But after its demise in the early 1990s, the 205 GTi became a millstone around Peugeot’s neck.
It stood for startling performance and razor sharp handling, that many remembered fondly. The 206 GTi that came along to replace it was deemed dull and soggy by comparison. The 207 never even got the GTi badge in the UK – because Peugeot UK didn’t really think it worthy of the name.
After two false starts, the 208 will be different, says Peugeot – the adverts proclaiming "GTi is back". No matter that VW might argue it never went away, or RenaultSport that they replaced it, is the 208 a new Peugeot that is finally worthy of the GTi badge?
A good start
First impressions count, and looking around at the aesthetic of the modern GTi, ST, RS, Cupra, Cooper S or whatever it may be called, looks are important in a performance hatch back. But the performance 206 and 207 were damp squibs in the looks department.
The 208 rights that wrong. Building on the basis of what is already one of the most interesting-looking small hatchbacks, the 208 GTi pumps up the aggression with a set of intricate 17-inch alloys, a grille which uses a square-pixel pattern that’s not dissimilar to what Mercedes is doing and red pin-stripes and a liberal sprinkling of GTi badges. You won’t miss it, or more importantly, mistake it for a 1.4 HDi. And while some will find the "warpaint" a little too much, we think it’s nice to see where your money’s been spent. It seems high quality too - the way the GTi badge is stamped into the chrome window finisher looks particularly good.
Swing open the door and it gets better. If you read our review of the regular, cooking 208 you’ll know we’re fans of this interior already. The GTI builds on that with red-pinstrip belts, GTI-embossed part-leather chairs, a bespoke handbrake and gearknob, black-to-red gradient lacquer finish plastics and a lovely steering wheel with a red centre-point and GTI badge.
Rediscovering the GTi mojo
Sit down, and not all drivers are going to find everything as wonderful. If you’re new to the 208, the driving position might take some getting used to. The seats are great and their positioning about right – they also hold you in place nicely.
But that teeny-tiny wheel is so because Peugeot’s put the dials up right under the windscreen, the idea being you look over the wheel - and are able to keep sight of your speed without taking eyes off the road. This necessitates you have the wheel in your lap, and pulled quite a way toward you. To us, this feels great. It’s like driving a little race car and we’re quite happy with everything where it is.
But we’ve heard some people really don’t get on with it, and other press sources talk of being unhappy at the set up. Our best advice is to try it and go with the flow. Unless the column bangs against your knees, do you really need to have the wheel pushed up high (where it obscures the gauges)? Or are you just setting it like that because that’s how you’ve always driven. It sounds daft, but if you don’t like it at first, try Peugeot’s way – we think it’s clever.
And it might sound like we’ve swallowed their marketing book, but out on the road this whole wheel malarkey has quite a big impact on your perception of how the 208 GTi drives. Which is to say it’s quite a bit of fun.
An old-school GTi?
And unlike its nemesis – the RenaultSport Clio 200 Turbo, the 208 GTi is very much an old-school kind of GTi. It’s three-door (the Renault is 5), and it’s got a six-speed manual gearbox (the Renault is auto only) and rather than a load of different driving modes, it’s just set up the way Peugeot deemed best – the only intervention you can make is to switch the traction and stability control off.
Pulling everything along is the same 200 horsepower 1.6 turbo unit that’s found in the Mini Cooper S. Like most modern turbo chargers, it’s a very effective if rather dull-sounding means of getting everywhere quite quickly. Something a man who tried to bait us with his Hyundai Veloster found rather to his cost.
It’s not a totally raw experience, the 208. Not in the same "have you off the road backwards in a moment" kind of way the 205 GTi was. But fun and eager all the same. In fact, we had the 208 on test the week we also sampled the new Clio. Jumping out of one car, into another and back into the other was revealing. The Peugeot rides better. The gearbox doesn’t dominate the experience as it does in the Clio (for the worse) and the 208, in most situations, feels more fun and flowing. Get the Clio in its max-attack RenaultSport Race mode and it does feel more aggressive, a little faster. But the 208 made us smile more. On one late night run back across the Wolds, it was fast, secure and had us grinning from ear to ear.
Everything but the kitchen sink?
And where the 205 was all about the drive, when we got trapped in a motorway closure for three hours while in the 208, it was far from a bad place to spend time. Your phone pairs easily, it does Bluetooth music, has two USB ports and an array of car settings to play with, including some slightly comical disco-like LED strips around the gauges and the sunroof.
We still think the Peugeot touchscreen is a decent system at this price-point. The lack of post code satnav entry is a pain though. And the addition of DAB radio in the GTi (a very welcome addition) highlighted that trying to jump between different stations, without physical pre-set buttons, is a little more tedious than it should be. But having all this, plus cruise control, a speed limiter system and rear parking sensors all for £18,995 doesn’t seem bad.
So it's a welcome return to form for Peugeot in the world of the GTi. The 208 is a car that, while perhaps not as leading or stand out as its great grandfather the 205 – can at least look it in the eye.
If you’re in the market for a car like this, you'll have no doubt also clocked the new RenaultSport Clio and the Fiesta ST as this car's very obvious rivals. We’ll need to spend a little more time with the Clio to truly get the measure of it. But on first acquaintance, if you're more into the old-school idea of GTi – where what you put in equates to what you get out, rather than the car doing it for you, the 208 just gets our nod over the Clio.
The Fiesta, on the other hand, we’ve not yet tried. It’s cheaper – but that's in its basic form where it's less well equipped. It's also not as powerful. We do love the regular car though, so the ST promises to be a cracker.
In isolation though, there’s much to like about the 208. It's quick, affordable, stands out and is a lot of fun. Welcome back to club GTi, Peugeot.