The early bird usually gets the worm. Unusually, this particular morning I’ve become an early bird myself though, instead of worms, I’m enjoying a nice cup of espresso and hot croissants [sic] in the balcony of a hotel in Nice, France, for the press drive of the new Peugeot 208 GTi.
Below, in the car park, is a large group of 208 GTis in various colors gleaming in the morning sun. Inevitably, since I’m not here on vacations but to get behind the wheel of Peugeot’s latest hot hatch, I find myself scribbling down some thoughts before the official presentation that will take place shortly before the driving.
Days of Future Past
The French carmaker itself is very eager to connect its new model with what is considered one of the best models ever in its class, the 205 GTi. It even has a nice example of the 1.9-liter version gracing the entrance of the hotel. While there’s nothing wrong with exploiting your past accomplishments, I dismiss it as marketing talk and don’t really expect the 208 to be anything like its 30-year old predecessor.
It would be absurd to; back then passive safety was taken care of the front seatbelts and a 875 kg (1,929 pounds) small car with wafer thin A-pillars and no airbags or crumble zones whatsoever would get exactly zero points in the Euro NCAP crash tests.
A quick look at the spec sheet reveals that weight has indeed increased to 1,160 kg (2,557 pounds). Of course, the 208 is much larger in every dimension and much more powerful, too. Instead of 130HP, it boasts 197HP (200 PS) thanks to its turbocharged 1.6-liter THP engine that also churns out 275 Nm (203 lb/ft) of peak torque.
Mind you, it’s not exactly the same unit as in the RCZ because packaging restrictions meant that the engineers had to redesign and reposition the intercooler so the engine could fit in the 208’s much shorter nose.
Speaking of which, I’m not quite convinced that it looks menacing enough for a car with a GTi badge, despite the subtly redesigned front end. Sure, it sits a bit lower to the ground compared to other versions (by 8 mm) and has a stiffer suspension and retuned chassis. Still, at a first glance it doesn’t look all that different – even the alloys, at 17 inches in diameter, are modest.
I later learn that the design team’s first choice was for two exhaust pipes either side of the rear apron instead of the twin unit on the right. This though would have increased the length of the rear bumper, so it was canned.
A Mountain to Climb
That’s both metaphorically and literally. First of all, the 208 GTi has to live up to all the hype Peugeot have been building up. And then, there’s the Col de Vence route that will take us from sea level to almost 1,200 m through a very long and demanding meander of extremely narrow and very twisty tarmac.
Some of these roads are used as special stages of the Monte Carlo rally for the WRC. I guess the Peugeot people who organized the event have a lot of faith in the car because this route will show up any drawbacks in 3D, crystal clear view. I spot the first one before I even leave the parking: the fat A-pillar is obstructing my view. It has to be so in the name of safety but, it’s an annoyance nevertheless.
The rest of the cabin bodes well. The small-diameter, flat-bottomed steering wheel covered in perforated leather and with a red “racing” strip is almost perfect, as are the heavily bolstered bucket seats that make find the perfect driving position a cinch.
I’m pleasantly surprised by the six-speed manual gearbox, which is very un-Peugeot like in that it’s quick shifting and precise – not something you’d say about its predecessors with their slack, notchy transmissions. The dashboard, too, is nicely appointed, with quality materials and lots of red stitching and accents to mark it out from lesser versions.
As we crawl through the city observing the speed limits, the navigation in the tablet-like touch screen guiding us, it’s instantly obvious that the suspension has been tuned to be compliant and not crash over potholes or “sleeping policemen”. Makes me wonder if it’s too soft for what lies ahead…
A Good Day to Drive Hard
Oh, yes indeed. I’m third in a three-car convoy and, though I fail to keep up with the white GTi driven by Antoine (who, obviously, knows these roads better than me and/or is simply a better driver) I can still drive briskly thanks to the confidence-inspiring chassis that manages to put down its power easily despite the lack of a limited-slip diff or electronics that act like one.
Earlier worries about the suspension were misplaced. The 208 GTi feels firmly planted to the road and, even when I misjudge my entry speed to a corner, a simple lift of the throttle is enough to tighten its line without any further drama. Doing the same in a 205, or even a 306 or 106 GTi, would result in sudden oversteer. It can be fun, yes, but on these roads, with hard rock on the right, deep ravines on the left and the locals in the opposite lane driving like they’re Sebastien Loeb’s cousins it’s something I can definitely do without.
I could also do without some more feel from the otherwise quick and accurate steering that seems to filter out a thin layer of info. On the other hand, even under full throttle, it doesn’t tug despite the abundance of torque.
At the first stop, a pleasant surprise awaits me: a section of the road has been closed off and is at our disposal to drive as quickly as we dare, without oncoming traffic to obstruct us. So, for a little while, we can play at being at the Monte rally, or at least push even harder than before. Between the trees and rocks lining up either side I can clearly see the patches of snow. Thankfully, the tarmac is dry, so when it’s my turn, I try to make the best of it.
Once again, the 208 GTi proves to be almost unflappable in a way that reminds me of the Golf GTI – and that’s meant as a compliment. Even though the highly placed instrument pod proves helpful, the lettering on the dials is too small. I can still figure out though that, once it gets past a short turbo lag patch, the motor is pulling on strong so I’m travelling at some quite high speeds.
The suspension soaks up imperfections and, at the same time, is helping me get the best out of it instead of having to force it to do my biding. I knew that Peugeot built their own dampers for the past generations. My suspicion that they did the same with the new GTi is confirmed by the engineers later on.
The Bottom Line
The “special stage” is over but there’s still some way to go before we return to the hotel. The coffee stop is a nice opportunity to inject some much-needed caffeine in my system and put my thoughts in order.
As expected, the 208 GTi is not the spiritual successor to its famous ancestor. It is too civilized for that. Instead, it’s a modern supermini that can be used every day and, when you feel like it, tackle whatever the road throws at it and take it in its stride.
Not having sampled its more recent direct rivals like the new Renault Clio RS 200 EDC, I cannot say how the 208 GTi stacks up against them. That said, I quite like the fact that Peugeot has kept things pretty straightforward. It has stuck with a manual gearbox (unlike Renault with the dual-clutch-only Clio RS) and, although the exhaust note is uninspiring, hasn’t created any Sound Symposers (unlike Ford in its Fiesta ST).
Of course, there is an electronic stability control, as mandated by law, but it can be switched off completely. Then it’s just you, the car and the road. That’s one thing it has in common with the 205 GTi, then…
By Andrew Tsaousis
Photo Credits: Peugeot & Andrrew Tsaousis
The A-pillar is too fat, obstructing the view. The engine noise is too subdued. Not sure about the nose treatment, either – plus, the rest of the exterior is too restrained for a GTi. Unless they reserve the looks for a T16 road version that’s (hopefully) somewhere down the road.