(Pocket-lint) - Talking to Peugeot’s design chief, Gilles Vidal, makes you acutely aware of the importance of the 208, and it’s need to "re-generate" both Peugeot and, so it’s makers say, the small, B-segment class of car in general. But does it work, and should it be on your shortlist. We spent a week getting to grips with the new 208 to find out.
Peugeot’s theme of "re-generate" is most apparent in the cabin, where we see a very different kind of interior design. There are three core elements. Sit in the driver’s seat, and you’ll notice that the steering wheel is incredibly small and seems to have been squashed. It sits low, in your lap.
Ahead of it, but tucked up on top of the dash - right at the base of the windscreen - are the dials for speed, revs, petrol, etc. Instead of placing the gauges directly behind the steering wheel and making you look through the gap between boss and rim to see the gauges, you look over the top of the rim. The idea is that you don’t need to re-focus between the road (distance gaze) and dials (near-field gaze), meaning your eyes are on the road more often, but you’re also constantly aware of your speed.
Augmenting this, and forming the third corner of what Vidal describes as a driver triangle, is the centre touchscreen. This seven-inch unit projects out into the cabin from the centre of the dash in plan, and up off the surface, vertically. It looks, for all the world as though someone has slotted a small tablet device into the dashtop.
But does it work?
However, we’re of the opinion that different can only be considered truly good and worthwhile if the experience it brings is better. We spent a week with the 208 and, for the most part, were genuinely impressed. First, the steering wheel dominates your experience. It looks and feels high quality, covered in leather and chrome, but its small sizes tricks your perception of how the car drives. Because it’s so much smaller than a regular wheel, the same arm input turns the wheel further.
The result is that the 208 feels very darty and sharp handling, which adds a - perhaps artificial - sense of fun to the driving experience, which is reminiscent of Peugeots of old.
We like the gauges too. They’re exceptionally clear and high quality, beautifully lit at night and you can pull up a big digital speed read-out on the centre TFT between rev counter and speedo, which makes it very easy to keep an eye on your speed at all times.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this is like a digitally projected head-up display. You still need to refocus your eyes on the gauges, and off the road, unlike a true head-up display such as BMW’s where the speed appears to be projected off the end of the bonnet. It’s just you’re refocusing over a shorter distance, so your eyes can do it faster and it should be less tiring.
A triumph of touchscreens
Given that we aren’t always impressed by in-car touchscreens, this system is one of the best we’ve used. It’s big for a start. Having projected it into the cabin, off the dash, it’s easier to reach, just a short sweep of your left hand as it rests on the wheel. However, the three physical buttons (for volume, home menu and shuttle through the nav-media-radio menus) are set up for left-hand-drive markets. It’s a real shame for us that Peugeot didn’t flip them over.
The touchscreen reacts quickly and because it’s big, you’re not trying to hit a pin-prick of a tiny button to change stuff, so we made fewer input errors than on other systems we’ve used. And the shortcuts for the phone and the radio presets on the wheel are logical too.
It’s only graphics that things fall down on. A blue and grey colour theme (we’re not sure why they didn’t key each menu to a different tone) and the depth of quality – things like the richness of the blacks - isn’t really up to snuff. All in all, it’s a shame because it doesn’t match the simple, clear quality of the analogue dials and slightly spoils the experience of a really good system
Peugeot’s clearly taking this modern technology theme seriously, because this is the first car we’ve tested without a CD player. Instead you get two USB ports. They connected phones and devices up fine, but wouldn’t play from Spotify. Handily, the system will stream music from apps like this over Bluetooth, but you lose the gracenote album art doing it this way.
Because it’s obviously spent the money on the touchscreen and high-quality wheel, plastics elsewhere in the cabin are a little cheap and scratchy. We particularly weren’t fans of the blanking panel in the window quarterlight that tries (and fails) to manage the step in height between the side window and windscreen. Look past some of the materials though, and this is a spare, elegant cabin.
Peugeot gets it mojo back
On the outside, we think this is a quite appealing piece of design. A kinking shape theme is evident - where the lamps push into the hood, across the top of the windscreen, in the rear lamp - and it pulls the design together nicely. The LED running lights on the headlights have quite a feline quality, and we’re also pleased that Peugeot’s reduced the stupid rictus grinning of the 207/308 to a grille that’s altogether more pouting.
Letting your body drive
Out on the road, you soon become aware that the small steering wheel does dominate much of the experience. You don’t need to twirl your arms as much. You feel like a racing driver on B-roads, never needing more than a jab of arm input, yet it also makes three-point turns a doddle - parking was helped by our car’s audio-visual parking sensor system.
The problem, is that all drivers won’t like the position in which it forces you to drive. Mrs Pocket-Lint, for instance, doesn’t like driving with the wheel in her lap and pulled towards her like we do. And when she had the wheel where she wanted it, couldn’t see the gauges.
The steering itself is a bit light and lifeless and the Peugeot doesn’t want to be hooned around like the 205 did, which is a bit of a shame.
But probably more important these days is the brilliant e-HDi diesel engine and micro hybrid system fitted to our test car. Quiet, linear and punchy it brilliantly blends power and economy. And even though our weekly schedule meant this car never made it much beyond the city, it returned over 50mpg. You’ll probably see 70 if you’re doing long, gentle A-road and motorway runs.
It’s also got the best, most seemless stop-start system we’ve ever used. It seems to know, sixth-sense style when you’re slowing down to stop for traffic lights, and cuts the engine at about 15mph. But then on start up, there’s no starter motor chug or vibration – the engine just springs instantly back into life. Other manufacturers, please take note.
The ride is compliant and fairly soft, like Peugeots of old, which means speed bumps aren’t something to wince about. It’s just a shame that overall it’s not more fun to fling about.
This is a world away from the bloated, bland 207 that went before. Peugeot deserves praise for making a car that’s smaller and lighter but with more space inside than before. We’re quite big fans of the innovative interior architecture, but try before you buy - it won’t be for everyone. That, together with the tech set up, mean this is a car with a good deal of appeal for people like us.
It’s not perfect – it’s on the pricey side in this trim level and still doesn’t drive with the panache of Peugeots of old, but that clever interior, smart tech set-up, good looks and a brilliant diesel engine mean it ought at least to be on your shortlist.